Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill - Commons Reasons – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 18 October 2023.

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Lord Garnier:

Moved by Lord Garnier

Leave out from “House” to end and insert “do insist on its disagreement with the Commons in their Amendment 151A, do not insist on its Amendments 151B and 151C, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 151D, and do propose Amendments 151E and 151F in lieu—

151E: As an amendment to Lords Amendment 151, in subsection (1), after first “body” insert “which is not a small organisation or which is a large organisation (see sections (Section (Failure to prevent fraud): small organisations), (Section (Failure to prevent fraud): large organisations) and (Large organisations: parent undertakings))”

151F: After Clause 180, insert the following new Clause—“Section (Failure to prevent fraud): small organisations(1) For the purposes of section (Failure to prevent fraud)(1) a relevant body is a “small organisation” only if the body satisfied two or more of the following conditions in the financial year of the body (“year P”) that precedes the year of the fraud offence—TurnoverNot more than £10.2 millionBalance sheet totalNot more than £5.1 millionNumber of employeesNot more than 50. (2) For a period that is a relevant body’s financial year but not in fact a year, the figure for turnover must be proportionately adjusted.(3) In subsection (1) the “number of employees” means the average number of persons employed by the relevant body in year P, determined as follows—(a) find for each month in year P the number of persons employed under contracts of service by the relevant body in that month (whether throughout the month or not),(b) add together the monthly totals, and(c) divide by the number of months in year P.(4) In this section—“balance sheet total”, in relation to a relevant body and a financial year—(a) means the aggregate of the amounts shown as assets in its balance sheet at the end of the financial year, or(b) where the body has no balance sheet for the financial year, has a corresponding meaning;“turnover”—(a) in relation to a UK company, has the same meaning as in Part 15 of the Companies Act 2006 (see section 474 of that Act);(b) in relation to any other relevant body, has a corresponding meaning;“year of the fraud offence” is to be interpreted in accordance with section (Failure to prevent fraud)(1).(5) The Secretary of State may by regulations modify this section (other than this subsection and subsections (6) and (8)) for the purpose of altering the meaning of “small organisation” in section (Failure to prevent fraud)(1).(6) The Secretary of State may (whether or not the power in subsection (5) has been exercised) by regulations—(a) omit the words “which is not a small organisation or” in section (Failure to prevent fraud)(1), and(b) make any modifications of this section (other than this subsection) that the Secretary of State thinks appropriate in consequence of provision made under paragraph (a).(7) Before making regulations under subsection (5) or (6) the Secretary of State must consult—(a) the Scottish Ministers, and(b) the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland.(8) Regulations under subsection (5) or (6) may make consequential amendments of section (Failure to prevent fraud: minor definitions).””

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

My Lords, the cracked record is up and at it yet again, but I make no apology because, although I fully understand the timetabling difficulties that the Government face—namely, that they would like to see this Bill receive Royal Assent before the close of the Session—I think we all ought to agree that it is better that, if we are to give this Bill a route through to Royal Assent, it should be a good Bill.

Most of the Bill is good, but this particular provision in relation to failure to prevent fraud offences falls down. I will not make the same speech that I made on 11 September, nor the same speech that I made in July, nor the same speech that I made in the spring, nor the same speech that I have made probably half a dozen times since I came into this House and probably a dozen times when I was a Member of the other place. Suffice to say that nothing I have heard from the Government, and nothing I have heard from those representing the Government in the other place, has come anywhere near meeting the case that has to be met.

First, it seems to me as a matter of straightforward principle that the criminal law should be uniform. It should apply to all in exactly the same way, and any defence that is available to a criminal offence should also be the same and applied to all uniformly. Of course, it will be up to the prosecuting authorities to consider the evidence and whether it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution on the evidence available, but we should not leave this Bill in a position where there is a different failure to prevent fraud offence for most companies than there is for 0.5% of the corporate and partnership economy.

I add this. There should be a form of consistency between each of the Government’s Bills dealing with failure to prevent. The Bribery Act 2010 has a failure to prevent bribery offence. The Criminal Finances Act 2017 has a failure to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion offences. Neither of those two failure to prevent offences is limited in its scope, in so far as neither of those Acts of Parliament provide an exemption for anybody, still less for 99.5% of the corporate economy. For some extraordinary reason which is yet to be explained this Bill provides that only 0.5% of the corporate and partnership economy should remain liable for any failure to prevent fraud offences. I have yet to find an answer.

I read in Hansard the House of Commons debate of 11 September which overturned my successful amendment. My right honourable friend Mr Kit Malthouse said that, clearly, I do not understand anything since I have never run a business. Well, he is wrong about that, quite apart from being offensive, because I have run my own business as a self-employed barrister for nearly 50 years. Furthermore, I have been a head of a set of chambers, which is, if I may say so, quite a respectable business to run.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative 4:00, 18 October 2023

If one wants to learn anything from the speeches made in the House of Commons, I suggest that my noble friends on the Front Bench— and other noble Lords if they have a moment—read those of Sir Robert Buckland and Sir Jeremy Wright, two former law officers. They agree with my remarks of 11 September and find it puzzling that their own Government, a Government who are in favour of producing cogent and cohesive criminal law, have come up with this dog’s dinner.

I have done my best to be accommodating. It is not an accusation that is often levelled at me, but on this occasion, I think that it can be, justly. I have done my best to meet some of the Government’s less organised thinking. As I said at the outset, as a matter of principle. I cannot understand why there should be an exemption for anyone from the proposed criminal law, just as there is not under the Bribery Act and the Criminal Finances Act. However, to make life easier for the Government, on the last occasion I suggested that microbusinesses should be exempted from the failure to prevent fraud offences provision. I abandoned my provisions relating to the failure to prevent money laundering. The Government did not find that attractive, even though I tried to explain my abandoning of the principle on the basis that just as we have an age limit for criminal responsibility—10—we could perhaps also, by a rather clumsy analogy, exempt microbusinesses from criminal responsibility under the failure to prevent provision. That did not seem to go down very well with the Government—certainly not with Mr Kit Malthouse.

I have now moved a little further towards the Government. You may say, “Well, that’s a bit wet. If you’ve got any principles, why not stick to them?” Well, okay, accuse me of being wet, but I am doing my best to help the Government get out of an unnecessarily sticky hole. I have amended my proposal so that rather than microbusinesses being exempted, “small” businesses should be exempted—I define a small business on page 5 of the amendment paper, which states that, for the purposes of this provision,

“a relevant body is a ‘small organisation’ only if the body satisfied two or more of the following conditions in the financial year of the body … that precedes the year of the fraud offence”.

Those conditions are that the turnover of the business should be

“Not more than £10.2 million”, the balance sheet should be

“Not more than £5.1 million” and the number of employees should be “Not more than 50”.

In speaking against my own case, I rather wish that I had not put that down, but I have because I am trying to assist my noble friend on the Front Bench in getting his Bill enacted before the end of this Session.

I repeat that the criminal law should be uniform. Defences to the criminal law should be uniform. We should not have exemptions based on the size of the business. The Theft Act applies to all suspects—I am seeing whether my noble friend still enjoys my old joke about the six feet six burglar—regardless of whether they are six feet six or five feet six. We do not exempt people on the basis that they are small people or do not fit a particular height, so why are we doing it here? I have yet to find out. I am afraid that unless the Government move a little closer to me, I will invite your Lordships to join me in the Division Lobby.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

My Lords, I shall speak to my Motion B1, as an amendment to Motion B, which is being debated within this group. It would

“leave out from ‘House’ to end and insert ‘do insist on its disagreement with the Commons in their Amendment 161A, do not insist on its Amendment 161B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 161C, and do propose Amendment 161D in lieu’”.

That is very clear.

We return to what has been described as a cost-capping amendment. Since this is not the first time that we have had the debate, I will try to be brief. This Bill has been a welcome, if late, addition to the government agencies in their fight to combat fraud. The scrutiny of the Bill through your Lordships’ House has been thorough and constructive. It has also been non-party political. I do not think that either the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, or I would consider ourselves to be natural rebels.

All noble Lords have participated in this debate—and I very much include the Ministers in this—with a common purpose: to make this legislation as effective as it can be. Two themes emerged during the many debates. The first was the scale of the problem. The Government estimate, for example, that £100 billion was laundered through the United Kingdom last year, and yet under the Proceeds of Crime Act assets of only £345 million were recovered: that is 0.3%. The second theme was the frequent imbalance that exists between the resources available to enforcement agencies and those of the fraudsters, who may well employ expensive lawyers and have significant resources to enable them to do so. This modest amendment tries to do a little to restore that balance. I would have liked the enforcement agencies to have had complete protection against costs orders in the event that they lost a recovery claim, but in the course of ping-pong I have had to compromise somewhat, hence the form of the current amendment before your Lordships’ House.

The amendment does not prevent a judge from doing what is fair on costs in any particular case, but it is a nudge towards him or her to take into account the reasonableness of the agency bringing proceedings at all and the potential impact on its ability to carry out its functions if left with a substantial costs order. I struggle to understand the Government’s objection to this amendment and its predecessors; they seem, with respect, to be adopting a somewhat tender approach to fraudsters.

There is a clear precedent for this sort of amendment: when your Lordships’ House introduced a provision concerning the much-underused unexplained wealth orders. If it loses a case, the enforcement authority will have to pay costs only if it has acted unreasonably. As to the objection that it offends the “loser pays” principle, that is a misconceived argument. Judges regularly, in ordinary cases, make orders that each side bear their own costs, or make issue-based costs orders, or other orders which reflect the justice of the individual case. Parliament has legislated in ways that depart from this so-called principle: for example, QOCS—that is Qualified One-Way Costs Shifting—in personal injury litigation; or by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act; or in relation to unexplained wealth orders. This amendment is intended to reduce the possibility of an agency saying to itself, “We cannot afford the risk to the budget if we lose a case, even when we’ve got good evidence to bring it”.

Spotlight on Corruption suggests that a number of cases are in the pipeline which bear costs risks. These are said to include over 60 cases being reviewed by one agency, and close to £1 billion in assets frozen by an enforcement body.

Another advantage to this amendment is that those defendants or respondents to an application who defend these cases will know that, even if their legal strategy prevails, they may not recover their costs. This may mean that they are keener to reach a compromise.

The amendment has the support of all those bodies that are concerned with anti-corruption. Incidentally, it also has the support of Bill Browder, who regards it as one of the most significant potential improvements to the Bill. Let us please not kick this into touch and have yet another report, which is the Government’s suggestion. If necessary, I will move Motion B1 and test the opinion of the House.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton Conservative

My Lords, I support both Motion A1 and Motion B1. I turn first to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier’s Motion and offer three reasons why I believe the Minister is completely wrong.

First, the smallest SMEs include some of the most unscrupulous enablers. Take estate agents, for example: they are a conduit of bad money into this country from all over the world. The gaps that the Minister is proposing to leave in the Bill will ensure that this continues. I have seen one case, for which I had to sign an NDA, of an individual who spent £150 million buying property but is apparently allowed to take only $12,000 a year out of the country. How did he manage that? That is a perfectly good example and no doubt we will hear more like it.

Secondly, on this set of rules, I offer the Minister an example. We do not say to the manufacturers of small cars that they do not need seat belts and that for some reason they are exempted. That would be an absolute nonsense and the same applies here. He mentioned costs—£300 million and £40 million—but they are entirely specious. We have seen no proper analysis of these figures; they are just waved around as a convenient excuse not to do something.

My last reason is that these smaller businesses need to be most alert to fraud. A failure to prevent helps them to make sure that their own systems are able to face these risks. We know that 40% of crime in this country is economic crime, but we deploy less than 1% of our resources on dealing with it. Surely smaller businesses should be equipped to know when they are dealing with crooks. I will have to support my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier if the matter is put to a vote.

In relation to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, we again pursued this relentlessly for six months. Bill Browder said to me on several occasions that, if this Bill is to go through, we must make sure that we have some cost capping in it. It is a war of very unequal proportions. We know that the agencies have small budgets and that they have to go cap in hand to the Treasury if they need more money, which is never given. They even have to return the costs they recover to the Treasury. All this is doing is sending a message to these bad actors that, if they take on this kind of behaviour, they will have significant risks. We have amended this on several occasions to give more discretion to the courts to ensure that, if an agency overreacts and behaves rapaciously or capriciously against individuals, those individuals are not penalised.

If we are serious about dealing with the tidal wave of economic crime that is coming to this country, the Minister will give us the assurance that this is being dealt with. If not, I will have to support the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, in his Division.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Conservative

My Lords, we have heard two different reasons for the proposed Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. He said that it was to give the courts a gentle nudge, but my noble friend Lord Agnew said that it would give fraudsters a significant warning that they might not get their costs. The same words cannot do both. The problem lies in the amendment being entirely unnecessary.

The previous version of the amendment said:

“The court should normally make an order that any costs of proceedings … are payable by an enforcement authority … unless it would not be in the interests of justice”.

We now have a list of factors—proposed new paragraphs (a) to (d)—but a court would always take those factors into account in its general discretion to make an appropriate costs order in a particular case.

My concern with this list is that it appears to be exhaustive and therefore does not include, for example, the result of the case or the effect on the successful party of not getting the legal costs which he has expended. I declare an interest as a lawyer, although not an expensive one in the category identified by the noble Lord. I therefore respectfully suggest that this amendment is entirely unnecessary. It reduces the discretion that we generally give the courts on matters of costs and omits factors that the courts should take into account in particular cases when considering costs. Therefore, I suggest that the House leaves this well alone and does not accept the amendment.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:15, 18 October 2023

My Lords, I will talk a little about the role of the House as a revising Chamber and the legislative process. I am not an expert on the legalities of combating fraud, although I am well aware of the international dimensions of economic crime as someone who worked in the international sphere.

We have had a thorough committee process which was largely non-partisan; indeed, the way this House has treated the Bill has been almost entirely so. I have learned a great deal from a number of former Conservative Ministers and Cross-Benchers on the Bill, and I am interested to hear that two other former Conservative Ministers in the House of Commons supported the approach of these two Motions.

We are a revising Chamber, and the parliamentary process should be one in which reasoned amendments are taken into account by the Government and, where the Government are not entirely sure of their ground, compromises are made. The role of a Lords Minister is partly to act as a mediator between the reasoned arguments in this Chamber and the insistence of Cabinet Ministers that whatever they had thought of in the first place should absolutely go through unchanged. I have a strong memory of talking to Cabinet Ministers when I was a Lords Minister about why perhaps they might not wish to insist on their full original, because the reasoned arguments made in the Lords were sufficiently persuasive. That is the process that should be taken on. This is not an attempt to delay the Bill further: we are all committed to it going through. We are also committed to future-proofing it, so that it does not have to be amended, and to producing a Bill that commands as wide a consensus of support as possible.

I remind the Minister that we have not followed that for some Bills we have seen in recent Sessions. I am sure that he is well aware of the issue of party finance, which came up in the Elections Act and the National Security Act. He was sufficiently firm in resisting some of our arguments as to accuse me at one point of spreading rumours about a non-problem. I have now learned that the Leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, has just written to the Security Minister to ask for the assistance of the intelligence agencies in investigating the origins of donations to political parties from foreign sources, so clearly there is now recognition within government that there is a real problem. There are other aspects of that Elections Act, particularly the insistence on a strategy statement from the Secretary of State, which the Government also appear to have had second thoughts on. Sadly, whoever become the next Government will have to introduce another elections Bill to put right some of the things that this House wished to amend but that the Government resisted.

Here we are with a Bill that has been improved and carefully scrutinised, and on which I, certainly, am persuaded by having listened at length and in succession to the arguments made by former Conservative Ministers wanting simply to improve the Bill to improve the fight against international fraud and economic crime.

Having been persuaded by that, I and the team on these Benches will recommend that Members of the Liberal Democrat group in the House support both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord in pressing their amendments, if they wish to do so, because we believe in a legislative process in which this House has a role to play, in carefully scrutinising and improving Bills, and making sure that when a Bill becomes an Act, it lasts for some time, because it commands a widespread consensus.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, I listened carefully to the case that the Minister advanced against these amendments. The core of that case seemed to be that the cost of a company actually responding to this legislation would make the company less efficient, and that it should be concentrating, as he said, on increasing its production and activities, and not be bothered with issues such as fraud, perhaps. What was peculiar about the Minister’s argument was that it was an argument which could be placed against any regulation whatever. It could be placed against the need, as has been commented already, to have seatbelts in cars. That increased the costs of production of the vehicle and, indeed, the cost of the vehicle. It could be argued that most financial regulation, which seeks to increase the stability and respectability of the financial system in this country, increases costs. Yes, it does, but the benefit far exceeds the cost.

If the Minister feels that the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, increases costs and damages production, why is he accepting it at all, even for larger companies? It seems to me that this is an empty argument. The Minister has not produced any data or argument for the cost-benefit trade-off on which he has rested his entire case. In fact, I think he has no case at all.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I start by echoing something that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said: overall, we all believe that this is a good Bill. It is a step forward, and we welcome the changes that the Government have made over a number of months to improve it, and that they have listened to the various points that have been made. It would be churlish not to say that to the Minister at the outset, but that does not alter the fact that the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, seek to address two omissions where, even at this late stage, the Government could act to further improve the Bill. I say to both that should they choose to test the opinion of the House, we certainly will support them in the Lobbies to do that.

I will not repeat the arguments. It was interesting; sometimes, when you are constrained by time, the argument distils down to its essence. I think that what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said, supported by the noble Lords, Lord Agnew, Lord Eatwell and Lord Wallace, really summed it up with respect to his amendment. As he said, the failure to prevent bribery offence applies to everyone; there is no opt-out or exemption. The Government do not think that that is too burdensome for anyone. As he also said, no company is too small to be exempted from the failure to prevent tax evasion offence. But on this particular emphasis, the failure to prevent fraud, the Government come forward and say: “We need to protect a certain number of businesses”.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, has moved amendment after amendment to try to come closer to the Government’s position. As the noble Lords, Lord Agnew and Lord Eatwell, have just said, if you took that to its extreme, you would impose no costs on business at all, and they used the seatbelt argument. So we are very happy to support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, should he choose to test the opinion of the House.

I shall pick out one aspect of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. It was a feature of all our debates and discussions that we wanted law enforcement to take tougher action against those who committed fraud. We believed that the state could and should take more action, that the amount of money lost with respect to fraud was enormous and that we need to do something about it. What I picked out from what the noble Lord said was about reducing the possibility of action not being taken by law enforcement agencies because they were frightened of the possibility of costs —not on the merits of the case that they might seek to pursue but simply because they were frightened that they may incur costs. As such, both amendments are simple but important ones that would do what this House, and I believe the public, expect Parliament to do, which is to give as much power as possible within the Bill to tackle the problem of fraud, which is what we all want.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this relatively short debate. Like my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, I am in danger of sounding like a cracked record on this subject, so I will keep my remarks brief. I reassure my noble and learned friend that I still find his joke funny and I am glad he keeps making it. I thank him for being incredibly gracious although we continue to disagree on these matters. I have to say I do not believe the Bill is a dog’s dinner or that these arguments are dog’s-dinnery. We are not in a sticky hole on this; it is a difference of opinion, and I will make a couple of the arguments that I have rehearsed before in support of that.

I shall deal with my noble and learned friend’s amendment by first reminding him and the House that this may be a relatively small number of companies but, as I have said many times before from this Dispatch Box, they account for 50% of economic output in this country. The heart of the argument comes down to why there is a threshold for this offence but not for the offences of failing to prevent bribery or the criminal facilitation of tax evasion. As I have reminded the House on numerous occasions, the Law Commission has identified the disparity here: it is easier to prosecute smaller organisations under the current law, which this failure to prevent offence will address. The new offence is less necessary for smaller firms, where it is easier to prosecute individuals and businesses for the substantive fraud offence. The Government therefore believe it would be disproportionate to impose the same burden on them. The fact is that this is not an exemption from the law; the law applies in a different way to these smaller companies, as we have tried to explain on a number of occasions. I think I will leave that there.

On Motion B1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, I do not think that this represents a tender approach to fraudsters. As we have said and made the case on a number of occasions, fundamental changes are being proposed here, and the review that we have proposed seems like a fair way of assessing precisely the implications of making those changes.

I thank my noble friend Lord Wolfson for highlighting some of the complexities in this area in his particularly acute legal way, which I am not equipped to follow. However, I can perhaps answer the question about the difference in introducing the cost protection amendment for civil recovery compared with unexplained wealth orders. This issue has come up in previous debates as well. The fact is that the difference between the changes made to the unexplained wealth order regime by the first Economic Crime Act last year and what is proposed in this amendment is that unexplained wealth orders are an investigatory tool that do not directly result in the permanent deprivation of assets, whereas the civil recovery cases covered by the amendment could do so. There could therefore be a host of serious unintended consequences of such a change to the wider civil recovery regime, so the Government cannot support the amendment. A review is the appropriate way to look at this issue. As I tried to make clear in my opening remarks, that may well be a very good idea, but we would like to be convinced of that and to do the work before we actually accept it.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for generously accepting that we have made significant improvements to the Bill through its passage. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that we have engaged extensively with all noble Lords in this House on the Bill. I thank him for his explanation of how he believes a revising Chamber should operate. The fact is that we are not sufficiently persuaded of the arguments against this, so there is a genuine difference of opinion. I do not think the noble Lord would mean to imply that this House should necessarily have a veto where there is such a difference of opinion. I think that is a fairly straightforward argument and a perfectly respectable one.

Throughout the passage of this Bill, the Government have worked hard to ensure the right balance between tackling economic crime and ensuring that the UK remains a place where law-abiding businesses can flourish without unnecessary burdens. The Motions tabled by the Government today achieve that balanced and proportionate approach. I therefore urge all noble Lords to support them.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

My Lords, I will make one point in total agreement with my noble friend the Minister—we are not having a row, we are having an argument. He and I have a different view about the merits of our respective arguments. If the House listens to no other speeches, and if it wishes to forget mine, I urge noble Lords to remember what the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and my noble friend Lord Agnew said. From both sides of this House, they perfectly summed up the lacuna in the Government’s case.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. Despite the fact that this is not an argument about party politics—it has nothing whatever to do with the Salisbury convention—I regret that I am insufficiently persuaded by my noble friend the Minister that he has quite got the point. I must therefore ask the House if it will join me in agreeing with my Motion by testing the opinion of the House.

Ayes 245, Noes 204.

Division number 1 Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill - Commons Reasons — Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Aye: 243 Members of the House of Lords

No: 202 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Motion A1 agreed.