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Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [HL] - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:35 pm on 6th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 8:35 pm, 6th December 2017

I do apologise, but the noble Lord will know then that that issue was addressed at that point in time. The Government gave us an update on the progress they are making towards what we hope will be such a public register. Indeed, I believe the Minister said it was not a question of whether but how there would be a public register. In a sense, that is one of the criticisms of London that hopefully will be closed within a reasonable period of time. We are still waiting on the timetable, but that is indeed what we hope.

However, the noble Lord is absolutely right that whenever issues are raised, particularly when the UK talks of issues around tax havens in other countries, or we on these various Benches talk about trying to get public registers in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, the answer nearly always comes back, “Clean up your own house first”. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why I and so many in this House support that public register of beneficial ownership of property.

These amendments that I now address follow on that same theme. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, in particular in the debates on the Criminal Finances Bill, being highly critical, comparing London very badly with Jersey. Although we have a public register for companies, it is not one that has any verification system, and he saw that as a very fundamental flaw in the UK system. That accusation comes again and again, whenever we look at trying to do anything with the overseas territories. Whenever we look at any kind of more global activity, the answer that always comes back is: “You say that you’re well in advance of other countries, but look at your own house—you’ve plenty there to get in order”. I would agree that we have plenty to get in order, so let us do it.

The three amendments that I have tabled with the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, deal with various aspects of this. Amendment 69H deals with an issue that has generally been overlooked. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for identifying it—as noble Lords can probably tell, she is the expert hand in these amendments and has drafted all three. Amendment 69H proposes that trust or company service providers that do not carry on business in the UK and ensures that they may not incorporate UK companies without oversight from an anti-money laundering supervisor. I will not go through the details of each of its provisions, but essentially it makes sure that anti-money laundering authorities can get a grip on a series of organisations—trust or company service providers—that may have escaped notice up to this point in time. It is one loophole closed.

Amendment 69J takes another tack to close loopholes. It recognises that a company can be tracked if it has a UK bank account, but if the company does not, it is much harder to identify that particular company and make sure that the money laundering authorities can give it due and appropriate attention. In the proposed new clause, if an entity falling under the Companies Act 2006 does not have a UK bank account, it will have to provide a fee. The reason it should provide a fee is that it means that the cost of doing due diligence falls not on the UK taxpayer but on the company. That provides every incentive and every opportunity for the various authorities to pay due attention to that company. That is another loophole closed.

That fits brilliantly with the new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. I will let him explain that because he will understand it far better than I, but again it highlights the importance of due diligence which flows through the first two amendments that I have described. Due diligence is vital to make sure that those entities that are active in the UK have very limited opportunity—or, preferably, no opportunity—to engage in nefarious activity.

Finally, Amendment 69L directly addresses that issue that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and others. As noble Lords know, we have a public register of companies here in the UK, but the Government have never used a verification procedure. I understand why they have not. When a register is public, it is transparent. Journalists, NGOs, and members of the public have the opportunity to trawl that database, and that provides for many additional eyes to look through the material. That is exceedingly important, but perhaps it is not sufficient. At this point in time, issues of tax avoidance, tax evasion and money laundering have become far more significant—and on a far more significant scale. This is the time to turn to the supervisory authorities and give them the power and the wherewithal —the wherewithal probably being the critical element—to do verification and proper due diligence on that register.

That is the purpose of the three new clauses proposed in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. They are to close the kinds of loopholes which leave the UK open to regular criticism that we talk about cleaning other people’s houses but we have not done what is necessary to clean our own. Read those together with Amendment 69 and you have a package that makes a very fundamental difference—one I am sure ought to be acceptable to the Government. I beg to move.