Failure to prevent financial crime

Criminal Finances Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 22nd November 2016.

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‘(1) A relevant body (B) is guilty of an offence if a person commits a criminal financial offence when acting in the capacity of a person associated with (B).

(2) It is a defence for B to prove that, when the criminal financial offence was committed—

(a) B had in place such prevention procedures as it was reasonable in all the circumstances to expect B to have in place, or

(b) it was not reasonable in all the circumstances to expect B to have any prevention procedures in place.

(3) In subsection (2) “prevention procedures” means procedures designed to prevent persons acting in the capacity of a person associated with B from committing criminal financial offences.

(4) For the purposes of this clause—

“criminal financial offence” means one of the following offences—

(a) an offence under section 1, 6 or 7 of the Fraud Act 2006;

(b) an offence under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968;

(c) an offence under section 327, 328 and 329 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002;

(d) a common law offence of conspiracy to defraud;

“relevant body” has the same meaning as in section 36.

(5) A relevant body guilty of an offence under this section is liable—

(a) on conviction on indictment, to a fine,

(b) on summary conviction in England and Wales, to a fine,

(c) on summary conviction in Scotland or Northern Ireland, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum.

(6) It is immaterial for the purposes of this section whether—

(a) any relevant conduct of a relevant body, or

(b) any conduct which constitutes part of a relevant criminal financial offence

takes place in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.”—

This new clause would create a corporate offence of failing to prevent financial crime.

Brought up, read the First time, and motion made (this day), That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 2:00 pm, 22nd November 2016

This morning I was indicating that the Government also need to tackle the facilitators of corruption—by that, I mean those institutions that fail to conduct due diligence on their clients. The UK anti-corruption summit committed countries to pursuing and punishing those who facilitate corruption, and the new clause reaffirms Britain’s commitment to do so.

The failure to include such measures in the Bill will lead to many of our partners accusing us of hypocrisy and double standards; it will severely damage our prestige abroad, or will have the potential to damage our prestige abroad; and it will undermine our reputation. I find it perplexing, as do many others, that not a single bank has yet been criminally prosecuted for handling the proceeds of corruption, despite the fact that they may have been fined for doing so. This is not just about banks, but about some of the people in the banks—that is the important thing to take away. My constituency is similar to those of other Members, in that as well as having lots of local branches, Santander has 2,000 people based there. I am certainly not in the business of pointing the finger at everybody in the banking sector—it is important to make that point.

In March 2012, Coutts was fined £8.75 million by the Financial Conduct Authority for serious systemic failings that resulted in “an unacceptable risk” that Coutts had handled the proceeds of crime, yet despite that fine, in April 2016 Swiss authorities investigated whether money from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal had ended up in Coutts’ bank accounts, which suggests that regulatory action alone is an insufficient deterrent against laundering corrupt proceeds. From that instance, it is clear that an extension of a failure to prevent money laundering offence would significantly enhance the scope for criminal sanctions.

We should not forget that the cost of fraud and money laundering greatly exceeds the cost of tax evasion. In 2016, HMRC estimated the tax gap to be £36 billion, of which tax evasion accounted for £5.2 billion. Some witnesses last week believed it to be higher. In May 2016 the annual fraud indicator put the cost of fraud to the UK economy at £193 billion. The cost to the public sector is £37.5 billion, with procurement fraud costing as much as £10.5 billion a year. We are talking about significant figures, which is why we need significant action. I am pleased that the Government are taking significant action but we want to push them further. The National Crime Agency estimates that billions of pounds of suspected proceeds of crime are laundered through the UK every year. That money, if accounted for, would be more than enough to help fund a whole range of services in the country.

The Crime and Courts Act 2013 specifies that certain economic crimes, which include fraud, money laundering and false accounting, as well as bribery and tax evasion, can be dealt with by way of a deferred prosecution agreement. The absence of an extension to a failure-to-prevent offence to the other economic crime offences listed in the Act results in a disparity in how different economic crimes, which all cause significant damage to the taxpayer, can be dealt with by prosecutors.

New clause 6 would also improve corporate governance. Companies are already subject to criminal law for all the additional offences listed in the amendment, although currently on the basis of the “directing mind” test. In addition, companies are required under FCA regulations to have effective systems and controls in place to prevent themselves being used to further financial crime, including money laundering.

At the end of the day, we are trying to get the message across to the Government. Mostly, in broad terms and in specific situations, the Government have got that message, but it is the duty of the Opposition to push the boundary a bit more where we feel that the Government have not acted as forcefully as they could, in the light of what I have just said about scale, and in the light of the comments we heard from our witnesses last week.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

We broadly support new clause 6, tabled by the Opposition, which seeks to extend corporate financial crime beyond the provisions in the Bill as drafted—beyond tax evasion and bribery. We are generally supportive. It is worth mentioning the point made by the hon. Gentleman that the provisions in new clause 6(4) defining a criminal financial offence are at the moment corporate offences that require the directing mind to be present. To my mind, the new clause would merely remove the directing mind provision from those offences.

We broadly support the new clause, but I question subsection (2)(b), which states that a defence could be that

“it was not reasonable in all the circumstances to expect B to have any prevention procedures in place.”

Although the provision seeks to catch other offences, it strikes me that the bank or organisation would merely need to demonstrate that it was not reasonable to have prevention procedures in place. To my mind, that defeats the purpose of extending the offence so widely. Nevertheless, we broadly support the new clause, and I would like to hear from the Minister about the Government’s inclination, if not to accept new clause 6, then to recognise that, at some future point, corporate financial crime could be extended beyond the provisions agreed in the Bill.

Another way of framing new clause 6 would be to codify specifically the exact offences within the three Acts. That might have negated the need for subsection (2)(b), which strikes me as a direct negative that might defeat the purpose. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the thought process, but generally speaking we support extending corporate financial crime, and are provisionally minded to agree to and support the new clause.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle made an excellent speech. New clause 6 is supported by Amnesty International, CAFOD, Corruption Watch, Global Witness, ONE, Rights and Accountability in Development, Tax Justice Network, The Corner House, Traidcraft and Transparency International UK. Those are some heavyweight organisations. Before we adjourned, my hon. Friend asked what happened to the consultation promised at the anti-corruption summit. I would be interested to hear the answer.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

New clause 6 highlights an issue raised on a number of occasions when we heard from interested parties about the Bill last week. I am pleased that the Opposition have tabled it, because it allows me to restate that the Government appreciate those concerns and agree that the damage caused by economic crime facilitated by those working for major companies is serious and affects individuals, businesses and the wider economy, and indeed the reputation of the United Kingdom as a place to do business.

As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton is aware, the Labour Government took action in the Bribery Act 2010 in respect of bribery committed in pursuit of corporate business objectives. The Act is widely respected as both a sound enforcement tool and a measure incentivising bribery prevention as part of good corporate governance. We have already debated the new corporate offence of failure to prevent tax evasion created in the Bill. The provisions followed a process of extensive consultation, as did the Bribery Act 2010. I trust that hon. Members will agree that such an approach is necessary when considering the adequacy of the existing legal framework in matters involving complex legal and policy issues.

In respect of the current law governing corporate criminal liability for economic crime, the Government announced that a consultation would take place in May this year. I confirm that we will publish a call for evidence on the subject. In keeping with the considered and methodical approach adopted for the reforms on bribery and tax evasion, the call for evidence will form part of a two-part consultation process. It will openly request and examine evidence for and against the case for reform and seek views on a number of possible options. Should the responses that we receive justify changes to the law, the Government will then consult on firm proposals. The Government believe that it would be wrong to rush into legislation in this area for the reasons I have given. In the light of my assurances and the forthcoming publication of the call for evidence, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

As I have said, the job of the Opposition is to push the issue as much as we can. As to what the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway said about subsection (2), the reality is that we are building into the new clause the capacity for someone to defend themselves, but not stating categorically, “Someone commits an offence if this happens.” There is room for manoeuvre, which is only right. However, in the light of what the Minister has said and the assurance he has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 11