Yes, happily. My name is Duncan Hames and for more than the past four years I have served as the director of policy at Transparency International UK. Transparency International is part of a worldwide anti-corruption coalition, and because those engaged in corrupt activity need to launder the proceeds of their crimes, we have become quite knowledgeable about the practice and policies around the prevention of money laundering and the need to have effective supervision and enforcement.
Q Thank you, Dr Huq, and thank you, Duncan, for coming. Let me first ask a broad question. On transparency, when you look at the regulators’ duties as changed by the Bill, do you want to see any additional duties placed on the regulators on the transparency front, or do you think they are properly armed and equipped as they are?
There is much in the Bill that I am not qualified to comment on, but certainly in relation to regulatory duties around money laundering it is our contention that the challenge is as much about means of implementation and the expectations placed on the private sector in relation to supervision, which needs addressing. There is an analysis—in fact, it was probably our conclusion on seeing the Financial Action Task Force evaluation—that there are many good policy measures in place, but that they are yet to be fully implemented, and therein lies the nub of this problem.
Q Do you want to see more duties on companies or do you think that, at least on paper, the duties on companies in terms of corporate declarations and so on are currently fit for purpose?
We have found with the UK Bribery Act 2010, which has been in force for 10 years now, that a “failure to prevent” offence within that legislation has served to enhance corporate governance. That is not just our view; it was the conclusion of the parliamentary post-legislative review into that legislation a year or two ago. Government Ministers have expressed their interest in seeing that model—which they have described when introducing it in other areas, such as failure to prevent tax evasion, as effective—applied more widely in areas of economic crime. That is certainly something we would consider there was an opportunity for in the Bill.
Yes, we would. That is separate to the discussions about the identification doctrine, on which, as I am sure you will be aware, the director of the Serious Fraud Office has frequently shared views and on which now the Law Commission has been invited to bring forward its own options for reform. These are complementary measures.
We now have a “failure to prevent” offence in relation to two areas of offending: one, the Bribery Act and, two, failure to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion. Applying a “failure to prevent” offence more widely, while still considering reform of the identification doctrine in regard to the substantive offence, would be entirely complementary, rather than the House having to consider doing one or the other.
Q I suspect if we got into this in Committee, on Report or wherever, the counter-argument would be, “Look, the Law Commission has just launched this great consultation, and we should not be pre-empting that by jumping to a conclusion. We might do this, but we have to wait for the Law Commission.” What is your response to that argument, in case we hear it at some point?
If I were in the business of money laundering, I would be laughing at the glacial pace at which reform happens. So I would counsel against waiting. As I say, we have two “failure to prevent” offences, and it would be entirely possible to apply that more widely in economic crime. Sadly, it has taken the Government over three years to reach their conclusions in response to the call for evidence on failing to prevent economic crime, and Law Commissions are not generally considered to move more quickly than ministerial responses to consultations. I would not want to estimate quite how long we will have to wait before the conclusions of the Law Commission are enacted in law. I think that is plenty of time to put in other measures, which will help the corporate sector improve their corporate governance, as we have seen in the case of Bribery Act.
Q In terms of potential amendments to the Bill, that would be top of your list. Are there any other areas that you think could usefully be amended or added to?
I certainly think we need to look at the area of supervision. This is a regulatory function. We have private sector supervisory bodies tasked with helping the business sector to put in place the necessary preventive measures to prevent money laundering.
While we welcome the introduction of the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision a couple of years ago, its reports—these are not activist or campaigner reports; these are Government regulatory reports—have been very damning of the effectiveness of the supervisory bodies. It is very fragmented—I think there are 14 supervisory bodies for the accountancy sector alone.
OPBAS has identified conflicts of interest between the advocacy and supervisory functions of those bodies. The effectiveness of their enforcement activity is really inadequate. If we take Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as one of the supervisory bodies, the fines imposed are barely a couple of thousand pounds and will quite possibly be less than the value of the commission or fee on any individual transaction. That is clearly an inadequate incentive for private sector actors to say no to handling illicit funds.
The quality of the money laundering defences in the private sector has also been found to be poor. The Solicitors Regulation Authority recently conducted reviews into about 60 companies. In nearly half of those cases, they are pursuing the findings they had for potential disciplinary action. A similar proportion of cases were found to be areas of weakness in money laundering defences in other sectors.
So we have a problem with supervision. The first line of defence against money laundering is tasked to the private sector, and yet the supervisory bodies that are meant to ensure that that is being done well, both in terms of guidance and in subsequent enforcement of regulations, are not effectively ensuring that those defences are good.
At the end of the day, the police estimate that the impact of money laundering on the UK economy is of the order of £100 billion a year. We can have lots of good measures and lots of good policies, which at times the Government will have been congratulated for, but the upshot is that we still have a big problem, which is not going away. That is why we think taking action where we can to improve the defences is urgent.
Q The last thing I wanted to ask you is about the most recent FinCEN files. This all comes out through the United States authorities. We find out about the actions of British financial institutions through the actions of a regulator in another country. How would you fix that so that the actions of UK companies are uncovered and publicised here, rather than coming out through another body in another country?
We have to recognise that the FinCEN files were a leak; I would want us to be hearing about suspicious transactions as a result of enforcement having been taken by law enforcement agencies. It has been a concern of the now Secretary of State for Justice that too often we see enforcement, effectively, outsourced to the United States authorities. I do not think that is good for the corporate reputation of UK plc, and I do not think it is how we would want things to proceed as Britain defines a newly independent role in international commerce.
Q Good to see you, Duncan. You have offered a wide-ranging critique on general aspects of anti-money laundering and anti-corruption matters. You rightly draw attention to the FATF report, which was generally, in the international context, seen as a very favourable assessment of the UK. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy activities include the Companies House review, the registration of overseas entities work and the limited partnerships reform.
This Bill ensures that HMRC retains its ability to access information on the ownership and beneficiaries of UK-linked overseas trusts, building incrementally on things that have been done previously. Can you explain why this information is important? This is a key measure and, I would have thought, the most relevant.
It is certainly a welcome measure. We have found that some of the complexities of the structures and design of different corporate entities have proved difficult, in terms of the implementation of existing legislation. That was a feature of the recent Baker et al case in relation to appeal against an unexplained wealth order; there was a South American foundation, which was perhaps not the corporate structure that Members of this House had in mind when that legislation was being decided.
Addressing trustees and overseas entities, to strengthen and ensure there are no loopholes in existing legislation, is definitely to be welcomed. In the past, when the House has been considering legislation to address money-laundering risks—do not forget that another piece of legislation related to leaving the European Union is the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018—it has focused on what can be done about the transparency of ownership, and not just of UK limited companies but of overseas entities, too.
Q In your comments to the shadow Minister you referred to the glacial speed of activity in the UK, but we have, as you have acknowledged, now transposed the fifth anti-money laundering directive into law, in line with our international obligations. I recognise that this morning we heard evidence about what Germany and Holland will be doing in the future, which we reserve the right to look at. Last year we also published the economic crime plan, which was about bringing public and private sector enforcement closer together. Do you have any observations on which elements of that are most integral to improving the situation and where emphasis should lie?
Certainly. Although some of the things we have already discussed this afternoon are not in the economic crime plan, there is much in that plan that we welcomed at the time. It was about 15 months ago that that plan was adopted by the Government. Some of the measures in that plan require legislation, and I am sure the Minister is itching for legislative opportunities to enact his policy.
Indeed. I think we have recently completed a consultation on it, and I hope, therefore, that it will be in the Queen’s Speech.
The register of beneficial owners of overseas entities enables us to know who really owns the foreign companies that own property real estate in this country. It was a Government commitment announced around the time of the London anti-corruption summit, which was four and a half years ago. Although that legislation has already been through pre-legislative scrutiny in both Houses, the conclusions of which were, “Get on with this; we must advance quickly,” it still has not been brought forward. These are both measures in the economic crime plan. It is great that they are in the economic crime plan, but it would be much better if they were implemented. I hope that that will be addressed very soon, but, equally, given how long one waits for legislative opportunities to keep up with the pace of nefarious actors in economic crime, if you have an opportunity to make progress in this Bill, in any additional manner, we would obviously be keen to see you take it.
Q May I just ask one further question? You referred to OPBAS and the different bodies that regulate different entities, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I have had a lot of interaction, as the Minister, with representative of those bodies, on a regular basis, during my tenure, and obviously HMRC works with them to try to identify best practice and improve what they do. Are you saying that that fundamental organisational entity is not appropriate? I am just not clear exactly what you think should be the alternative. I think the argument would be that those membership bodies contain the expertise within the different sectors, which have very specific entry points and risks, and therefore they need to be dealt with collectively as an entity. What is your view? Is just an anti-private sector view, or a measure to deal with that? What would you see as a meaningful alternative?
I think we would see the creation of OPBAS as a very helpful staging post in addressing this problem of inadequate supervision, albeit that it can address and challenge only the professional body supervisors. HMRC has been found wanting, and I have already criticised the level of its fines. OPBAS cannot do anything about HMRC, and I think we have been party to discussions about that in other proceedings of the House.
What OPBAS has found is pretty devastating. In its 2018 report, 62% of accountancy supervisors had some overlap between their advocacy and regulatory functions. Those represent a conflict of interest. There are some really choice quotes from OPBAS in that report, about what supervisors said about the impact on their membership income, were they to take more assertive enforcement action. That really is a conflict of interest in these supervisory bodies.
I think what we need, Minister, is for you or your colleagues to have the ability to respond to these reports—I think we have now had two annual reports from OPBAS—and, where necessary, to strip the supervisory duties from bodies that are failing in this regard. Obviously, all bodies should address their own conflicts of interest, but performance is a really important issue.
The report I was referring to earlier was HMRC finding that about half of the businesses it had reviewed were non-compliant with its anti-money laundering regulations. So, the changes that have been made recently to the regulatory landscape, in and of themselves, are not enough to address the holes in our money laundering defences that are overseen by this very fragmented regulatory arrangement. I said there were more than 14 accountancy sector supervisors; I think we are at 25 anti-money laundering supervisors, altogether.
Q Thank you, Dr Huq. I agree with a lot of what you have said, Duncan. Having served on the Joint Committee on the draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, I am also hugely frustrated that nothing really has happened with that, since all the evidence was given and the recommendations to Government were quite clear. Are there any other aspects you have not touched on so far where you feel this Bill is a missed opportunity, and where amendments could easily be tabled to improve it?
We might want to talk about beneficial ownership transparency. As I say, Ministers had a duty placed on them in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act in relation to Britain’s overseas territories and what would need to happen if they did not adopt public registers of their own volition, and I think they have found that duty helpful. Certainly at a diplomatic level, Ministers in the Foreign Office would celebrate the statements that have been made by those overseas territories as that deadline has approached. That is illustrative of how effective using legislation like this to convey a duty on a Minister can be, in order to rachet up the pressure for change.
The problem we have, of course, is that in some cases, those overseas territories are quite grudgingly coming around to this position. The last statement to complete the set was from the British Virgin Islands, and in his statement the Chief Minister—having agreed to the things the Government were hoping he would agree to—started to list a whole list of reservations and conditions, and concluded by saying that of course, this would only happen at a pace at which they consider deliverable. That does not fill me with hope that, without further incentive or, ultimately, the threat of action through Orders in Council, this will actually happen, which brings me back to my original point about implementation. It is one thing to have the policy—another, even, to have the laws—but if we have not had the implementation, we have not really changed anything. I would encourage you to look at what levers you might be able to grant Ministers through additional measures in a Bill such as this.
Q Indeed. I remember from previous conversations about the overseas territories and Crown dependencies that they were essentially turning things back on to us and saying, “Get your own house in order as well”, in terms of Companies House and other accuracy issues and registers here. Is there anything further on that that you think ought to be in this Bill?
That is a creative tension, isn’t it? I think we should welcome international scrutiny of the effectiveness of our own measures. As the Minister said, there has been a consultation about new powers and duties for Companies House, in relation to the quality of the data we have. We are already beginning to see signs of a cultural change in Companies House as a result of the directions it is being given and the anticipation of future legislation. We need it to be a partner in preventing crime, not just a registrar—not just providing a service to companies that wish to be registered.
As I say, we recognise the pattern of change there, but ultimately it has to work within the law, and if the laws do not empower it to take the actions necessary, we need to change that. We are anticipating that the Government will bring forward legislation, so that when we are trying to persuade other financial jurisdictions to address their own contribution to money laundering, including in Britain’s family of offshore financial centres, we are able to hold our head up high and know that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the quality of our own defences is adequate.
Q I absolutely agree. You talked about the outsourcing of regulation. Do you think Parliament needs to have more of a role in terms of scrutiny, rather than handing things over to regulators? My concern is that once we hand everything over to the FCA and the Prudential Regulation Authority, we will not really know that there is a problem until something gets too big.
I suspect that it is Parliament’s role to hold Government to account for acting on what those regulators are finding. They are often quite forthcoming in their criticisms of where things are going wrong, but they need the frameworks in which they can act on that. As I have said, I think the powers rest with Government to strip supervisory bodies of their duties where they are failing, but I cannot think of a time when it has happened. I believe OPBAS has provided plenty of evidence—indeed, unattributed in some reports—but I am sure it could point the finger for Ministers where necessary, in order to be able to take action.
I think trusts are intended to be in the scope of the registration of overseas entities Bill. That is definitely something required by the fifth anti-money laundering directive as well, so we should consider them within scope. Whether we have yet got that working, I am not so confident. For example, if we take something that I am sure is of interest to you—Scottish limited partnerships—the Financial Action Task Force report, which the Government are very pleased with, noted that there remains a weakness in terms of scope for abuse of that corporate structure. I should acknowledge that those are regulated by UK law, not by decisions made in Scotland. Those partnerships can be partnerships with two corporate entities—so, no human personality. If those two corporate entities are registered in jurisdictions where beneficial ownership is not clear—it is not public—we essentially have a UK entity that has got around all of the strictures that the Government are very proud of, in terms of the transparency that the UK’s own registry demands.
There are other issues with having corporate partners of a legal partnership. Obviously, it all comes down to accountability. It is very important if we want to be able to hold corporate entities accountable for their role in economic crime. I am afraid that many such complexities remain to be addressed. We cannot just take the bits we like when a report like that is presented.
The Minister is correct: the UK outcome was very favourable compared with other FATF evaluations. I hope, by the way, it will give the Treasury the confidence next time around to invite civil society representatives to give evidence to the FATF assessors. None the less, FATF came up with a number of things that it identified needed to be addressed, and the Government have a plan, but we seem to lack a timetable for implementing a number of these things. If the Minister is able to give us a timetable for when the legislation to introduce measures such as robo, which is in the economic crime plan, will be introduced, I think we would all be very glad of it.
The point is, as Duncan well knows, that a whole range of interventions have been provoked by that FATF report. I am glad he acknowledges its world-leading nature for the UK. It is good that we should be pleased about that, but there were significant elements that need to be worked on. They are obviously taken in different ways across Whitehall, and there will be more to be said about that in due course. I am responsible for what I am responsible for in this Bill, and the purpose of this conversation is about that.
Q An issue that I have around SLPs and enforcement is the fines. Is there work to be done within the scope of the Bill to increase fines in any of the parts mentioned? You mentioned earlier that the level of the fines is minuscule compared with the profits made.
I doubt you need primary legislation to fix that. I expect that secondary legislation giving direction to Ministers and regulatory bodies to ensure that fines are commensurate with the level of offending would be helpful. I suggested that the level of fines by these professional bodies supervisors and by HMRC is just not commensurate with the financial advantage of taking part in these transactions.
Indeed, if you are a solicitor, and someone complains to the Solicitors Regulation Authority about you because you have been holding up a transaction, that will still be investigated. You will still incur quite a discomfort in responding to that investigation. That is quite a powerful incentive just to go along with the transaction, whereas the fine you might receive for having gone along with a transaction that you should not have could well be less consequential for you. That needs to be addressed.
Fines wielded against trust and company service providers by HMRC, for example, are pitifully low. We were told by the trade body that its experience of fines imposed by HMRC on trust and company service providers was typically no more than £1,000.
Q Even when fines ought to be due, they are not enforced. I ask periodically about Scottish limited partnerships and how many people have been fined for failing to register a person with significant control. Every time I ask, it is not in, which is ridiculous. My last question is about the issues to do with Gibraltar. Do you have any concerns about that, or anything that the Committee ought to know?
I do not think that the measures with regard to Gibraltar particularly focus on money laundering. Obviously, Gibraltar is covered by the fifth anti-money laundering directive. I think they would consider themselves to be among the earlier adopters of the measures required under that directive. What we see in the Government’s language is an emerging global standard. That has been recognised in the past year or so by the Crown dependencies and, increasingly, by British overseas territories.
Although the US starts from a very far-back position on public beneficial ownership transparency, on the basis of bipartisan—as I think they call it, or on both sides of the aisle—working on this issue, even with a Republican Senate it seems set to advance new regulatory requirements around a central register of beneficial ownership. The tide is definitely moving in the direction of greater transparency. I think it would help British overseas territories to be encouraged to keep up with that direction of change.
Thank you for your evidence; it is really interesting and this is an important area. We have heard reference to—you used the phrase—the UK outsourcing the prosecution of financial crime to the US. I am sure you will correct me if I am wrong—I do not have it in front of me—but on Transparency International UK’s own list of corruption, the UK comes out 12th out of 198, whereas the US comes out at 23rd, so by comparison with the US, the UK does very well.Q
I am interested to hear your reaction to the criticisms of the report that that phrase came from. It was felt that the scope of the report did not include, for example: the bribery and corruption statistics, including on the “failure to prevent” provisions; the period after the financial crisis, which meant that much implementation was not included in the report; or the way prosecuting in the US often involves plea bargains, which are used to extract fines, so the measurement of the extraction of fines is not necessarily a justified comparison between the UK and the US. What is your reaction to that?
The corruption perceptions index measures views of the prevalence of corruption in public sectors, whereas for the most part here we are talking about enforcement of corporate wrongdoing. None the less, you are right to record where those countries are in the index.
“Exporting corruption”, our recent report produced for the OECD anti-bribery working group—part of a series of reports published every other year—is the one in which the UK is recognised to be an active enforcer of anti-bribery laws and laws to prevent foreign corporate bribery. None the less, the US is top of the table and, while it is good that Britain remains an active enforcer, the calculation that grants that assignation is such that the UK hung on by a hair’s breadth this year and there is no room for complacency.
The statement that I reference from the Secretary of State for Justice was made when he was Solicitor General, at the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime. His words were that these differences in how the law operates
“result in other jurisdictions holding British companies to account where ours has not.”
He said he was making that observation in an argument in favour of moving towards the “failure to prevent” approach to economic crime.
For all of America’s challenges, I do not think anyone would criticise it for being less assertive in enforcement of the law that it has. Even at a time when one might have feared political interference or the undermining of the Department of Justice, its level of enforcement has remained high, without signs that it is falling back. I think we have to reflect on why that is. It is partly to do with resourcing, but it is principally to do with the challenges of our arrangements for prosecutors.
“We are hamstrung right now by the identification principle”.
“cannot go after Wall Street, and that is unfair”.
When we think about the businesses that each of you represent, you would want there to be a level playing field, where traditional businesses with perhaps traditional ownership models are not facing a greater requirement to uphold the law than much larger, perhaps more anonymous, conglomerates in complex corporate structures spread over many jurisdictions.
Q You mention Lisa Osofsky. I was looking at various practitioners who work on fraud and corporate fraud, and they have welcomed the fact that the Law Commission is going to conduct a review. It is easy to scoff, I suppose, about, “Let’s wait to the end of the review,” but this actually has huge cost implications for business. It is a very complex area. Those practitioners have actually said that it can only be a good thing that the Government are not amending the current law without full consideration and that the Government are taking a very measured approach.
I think Ministers observed that responses to the consultation were mixed. It is regrettable that responses to the consultation are not public and people can form their own views about them. If you conduct a consultation about enforcing criminal law and those who might be subject to that enforcement, in a way that they are not currently, are able to make submissions in response to that proposition, then one would hope that in evaluating those responses they would not carry the same weight as more objective respondents. If we were asking how much chicken wire we should put around the hen coop, I would hope that we would largely disregard the foxes’ views.
Q I was thinking more of asking turkeys whether Christmas was a good idea. I want to follow up on this, because I have been waiting for the Law Commission on another piece of work that I worked on, which is already a year and a half overdue. It is not connected to financial services, but it indicates some of the challenges of waiting for the Law Commission to follow up on the FATF report, which makes some specific requirements about Gibraltar. This legislation is about the ability to trade between Gibraltar and the UK.
I want to ask your opinion on whether we might be able to learn from the specific proposals in that report. In particular, it recognises that although this does tend to happen, there is no legal requirement to reject applicants with a criminal background in Gibraltar. If we will allow Gibraltar and the UK to operate in the way that this Bill does, do you think we could make it a requirement in the Bill to look at the criminal background of people applying for financial services?
I should acknowledge that Gibraltar is not within the scope of the work that I do. I will not profess expertise on the rules as they apply in Gibraltar. I think Bloomberg reported today on a bank in Luxembourg and some of its practices. You ask a good question about the personal credentials that enable one to take on responsible roles in our financial system, whether in banks or other institutions.
I note, for example, that the proposals in relation to Companies House are not that it should be more discerning in the acceptance of the directors of companies registering, but rather that it should simply verify the accuracy of the identity and the information provided. Current initiatives do not go as far as you are suggesting would be reasonable. It seems hard enough just to get us responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the data, which is provided as a piece of our economic infrastructure, without getting to a position of demanding some kind of individual assessment.
Q I am just following up on what the Minister said. He was looking at what he could do to address some of the things that came out of that report. I appreciate that you are not particularly sighted on Gibraltar, but the FATF report also says that there is no dedicated supervision of accountants and tax advisers in Gibraltar, which means that they are perhaps not as cognisant of where people might be trying to launder money. Given that the Bill gives us powers of lines of sight into Gibraltarian firms, do you think that is something we should consider in this legislation, so that when we allow Gibraltarian firms to operate in the UK environment in the way that this Bill does, we could build in some of those safeguards now, with a view to then extending things when the Law Commission eventually reports?
Dedicated supervision of the accountancy sector is part of what has got us into this mess of having 25 supervisory bodies. I think one must weigh the benefits of particular sectoral knowledge and some of the issues I raised earlier around potential conflicts of interest and incentives to supervise assertively. As we explained in our report “At your Service”, which was published about this time last year, it is definitely the case that the non-financial sector is very much touched by the money laundering problem. It is not enough to rely on the requirements of banks without raising our defences in other sectors—whether that is accountants, solicitors, estate agents, trust and company formation agents and so forth. In some areas, such as private education or charitable giving, an educational training supportive approach might be appropriate to try to raise standards, but in other areas, as I have outlined, clear financial incentives need to be addressed. A firmer approach to supervision is proving necessary given the findings of, for example, the studies that I cited from HMRC, the SRA and OPBAS.