New Clause 8 - Money laundering: electronic money institutions

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 3 December 2020.

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‘(1) The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 303Z1(1) after “bank” insert “, authorised electronic money institution”.

(3) In section 303Z1(6) after “Building Societies Act 1986;” insert—

““authorised electronic money institution” has the same meaning as in the Electronic Money Regulations 2011.”

(4) In section 340(14)(b) after “Bank” insert “, or

(c) a business which engages in the activity of issuing electronic money”.’—

This new clause would update definitions in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to reflect the growth of financial technology companies in the UK by equalising the treatment of fin tech companies with banks on money laundering and Account Freezing Orders.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to have you chairing this sitting, Dr Huq. I rise to speak in favour of new clause 8, which would be good for consumers. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is agreeing with me—or, at least, he is smiling with me—so I think we are almost getting there.

This new clause would be good for Britain’s world-leading FinTech sector. At the same time, it will improve the ability of our crime prevention agencies to do the job that we all want them to do—that is, to crack down on criminal activity and, in this case, money laundering. It would achieve those objectives by updating definitions in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to ensure that customers of FinTech are treated in the same way as customers of traditional banks with regard to anti-money laundering provisions and account freezing orders. These outcomes would help. We have tabled this new clause because this is an opportunity in the Bill to address the technical deficiencies in the anti-money laundering regime; it is not political in nature. We hope that the new clause will therefore receive cross-party support, as we believe that we are all united in our desire to clamp down on money laundering.

The need for this new clause has arisen because outdated definitions in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 are disadvantaging customers, placing unnecessary pressure on law enforcement, and could allow suspected criminals to avoid complying with law enforcement requirements to forfeit illicit funds. Simply put, this legislation was written before FinTechs existed, and we really need to look at updating the law now because so many people use them. I understand that there is considerable support from the sector and law enforcement for updating the relevant definitions in the Proceeds of Crime Act to reflect the growth of FinTechs, and the passage of the Bill provides the ideal opportunity to do so. We need to act now by amending the Bill, rather than waiting for dedicated legislation, because the problems for consumers, the sector and our crime agencies are getting worse due to the rapid growth of the FinTech sector. I hope that the Minister will therefore accept this simple, highly targeted and rather uncontroversial new clause.

Let me turn to the details. The new clause fixes two specific problems. First, it updates the legislation relating to the defence against money-laundering processes. The second problem relates to account-freezing orders. Under the existing legislation, when financial services firms suspect that someone is engaged in money laundering, it is normal practice for their account to be frozen and for an appropriate decision to be made as to what should be done with the funds, which might include, for example, returning them to source. However, in order legally to be able to return the funds to source, the regulated firm is required to request a legal defence from the National Crime Agency—the so-called defence against money laundering, or DAML—to carry out this activity. DAMLs take two weeks to process. During this period, firms cannot even communicate with customers or allow them to withdraw funds. As we know, the covid pandemic is a particularly difficult period for a lot of consumers.

For reasons of practicality, an exemption was introduced in 2005 such that banks do not request a DAML if the transaction they are to carry out is below £250, but the FinTech sector did not exist at that time so the exemption does not apply to it. Electronic money institutions—that is what most FinTechs are regulated as—are still required to request DAMLs for all transactions, even those of a low value. Low-value DAMLs do not provide useful intelligence to the NCA. I understand that when the UK Financial Intelligence Unit reviewed a sample of 2019-20 DAMLs, it found no refusals for requests under £250.

The rapid growth in the FinTech sector and its inability to use the £250 exemption means that the number of DAMLs has grown from 15,000 in 2015-16 to 34,000 in 2018-19 and 62,000 in 2019-20. According to the NCA’s recently published annual report, the most significant growth was seen from financial technology companies. The report says that such firms submitted 32,454 DAMLs and suspicious activity reports, which is up 247.36% from the previous year, when there were 9,343. The number of DAMLs will continue to grow rapidly until the threshold is extended to EMIs.

That rapid growth is placing significant pressures on FinTechs, customers and law enforcement. For example, a recent article in The Times showed that many customers have their accounts locked out for extended periods. More worryingly, the head of the UK Financial Intelligence Unit, Ian Mynot, told the Financial Times last week that unnecessary DAML reports are affecting the NCA’s ability to investigate criminals. I am sure the Committee will agree that that is really worrying. The article says:

“The…National Crime Agency has called for deeper reform of the system for flagging potential money laundering”

There are concerns out there; it is not just Opposition Members who are concerned.

I am concerned that FinTechs have to spend significant amounts of time and money sending requests to the NCA, which provides the agency with extra admin and work that it does not want to do. That time and money could be used to build new products and services that would benefit customers and businesses and therefore be more cost-effective.

Subsection (4) of the new clause would extend the DAML threshold eligibility to electronic money institutions. When the Minister replies, will he give his assessment of how many DAMLs have been submitted this year and, of those, how many have been for sums under £250? Are the numbers now in the tens of thousands? How many DAMLs for sums under £250 have been refused in the past year? Is it zero? If so, what was the associated cost to the economy of all that unnecessary paperwork, not to mention the diversion of law enforcement resources from proactive investigation to dealing with administration and the intangible costs and frustrations to customers who have had their accounts frozen with no reason given? What is the Minister’s estimate of the amount of time and money FinTechs have expended on submitting DAMLs that the NCA does not want? Does that put the UK FinTech sector at a competitive disadvantage? I realise I am asking a lot of questions, but I have just a few more. How many DAMLS does the Minister expect to be submitted in each of the next three years if the definition in POCA is not updated through the Bill?

Before moving on, Dr Huq, it is worth pointing out that the new clause does not affect the parallel requirement for regulated firms to submit suspicious activity reports to the NCA every time a firm knows or suspects that someone is engaged in money laundering, regardless of the sums involved. I reassure hon. Members that the new clause would not change the SAR process. Does the Minister think that DAMLs of under £250 provide any useful intelligence to the NCA, given that it already receives SARs and given the comments of Mr Mynot? Can the Minister address that in his response?

The second issue that the new clause addresses relates to account-freezing orders, or AFOs. The Proceeds of Crime Act includes provisions that enable law enforcement agencies to freeze and forfeit funds held in UK bank or building society accounts, where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that those funds are the proceeds of crime. In order to freeze funds in an account, a senior law enforcement officer has to apply to the courts for an account freezing order. Under POCA, AFOs can only be used to freeze funds held in bank or building society accounts.

The Minister may be able to correct me on this, but I understand that AFOs cannot be used to freeze funds held in accounts of FinTechs, which are regulated as electronic money institutions. It seems to me that there is clearly a significant risk that criminals will exploit that loophole and run illicit activities through FinTech accounts to avoid having their funds frozen.

Subsections (2) and (3) of the new clause would update the necessary definitions in POCA, meaning that law enforcement could use AFOs to freeze funds held in FinTech accounts in the same way that they can in standard current accounts. In his response, can the Minister let the Committee know if his Department is aware of any suspected money launderers exploiting this AFO loophole? That is important if we are to move forward. What are the sums involved? Have any police forces or law enforcement agencies made representations to the Minister urging him to adopt the measure? If so, does he agree with us that the loophole needs to be closed as a matter of urgency, and that the change in definitions cannot wait any longer?

Dr Huq, we all want to make progress on this issue. I will therefore be listening very carefully to the Minister’s response to my questions. As I said at the outset, I hope that we can use the opportunity today to obtain a cross-party consensus to fix these issues during the passage of the Bill. That would be good for consumers, it would support our crime prevention agencies and send a strong message of support to our fast-growing FinTechs. If the Minister is unable to commit to looking at this issue during the passage of the Bill, we would welcome his bringing it up at a later stage. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 2:15, 3 December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. Before I respond to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, I would like to recognise her award last night as newcomer of the year by the Patchwork Foundation; I congratulate her on that success.

The hon. Lady asked a number of specific questions about suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and I have those answers for her. Before I come on to them, it is important that we contextualise this new clause in the great success that is the UK’s FinTech sector, with 600 propositions, 76,500 people working in the industry and £4.1 billion of venture capital money put into it just last year. The Government remain committed to supporting the sector, trying to maintain the UK’s leadership position in this market and making it the best place to start and grow a FinTech firm.

I am pleased to say that assessments have cited the UK’s strong Government support, access to skills, robust domestic demand and flexible regulator as particular strengths. It is a priority for the Government to maintain the UK’s strength as a FinTech destination and continue fostering innovation. That is why the Chancellor asked Ron Kalifa OBE to carry out an independent review of the sector. The review will make practical recommendations for Government, industry and regulators on how to support future growth and adoption of FinTech services.

The Government are conscious of the challenges that face the FinTech sector under the current suspicious activity reporting regime, in particular with respect to defence against money laundering SARs, sometimes known as DAML SARs. The volume of DAML SARs received by the NCA has grown substantially, with more than 60,000 received in 2020. Electronic money institutions—EMIs—are the largest contributor to that increase, with such companies accounting for four fifths of the increase in these requests. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, that has resulted in increased pressure on limited law enforcement resources. This year, £172 million was denied to suspected criminals as a result of DAML requests, up 31% on the previous year’s £132 million and more than three times the £52 million from 2017-18. It would be useful for the Committee to know that the Government are working closely with law enforcement to further resolve the current anomaly with regard to account freezing orders.

The Government are supportive of the objective to equalise treatment of banks and FinTech firms in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Of course, that legislation could not take account of FinTechs. Under the economic crime plan, the Treasury and Home Office, along with law enforcement, have been working with the FinTech sector to identify and implement solutions to the challenges that the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act create. Progressing those solutions remains a priority, and we are committed to reforming the suspicious activity reporting regime as part of the wider programme of economic crime reform. It is a significant area in which banks and financial institutions urgently need to see reform, and it requires a collaborative effort between the Treasury, the Home Office and private sector actors.

While the Government agree with the intent behind new clause 8, it is drafted in such a way as to create inconsistencies with definitions set out within the wider statute book. Specifically, the insertion of references to electronic money institutions into the definition of “deposit taking body” in the Proceeds of Crime Act introduces scope for confusion as to the status of electronic money institutions in wider financial services legislation, such as the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. Electronic money institutions are not classified as “authorised deposit takers” for the purposes of that Act.

The Government agree with the principle that the treatment of e-money institutions should be equalised with banks in those two specific areas. However, as the Committee will be aware, financial services legislation is complex, and it is important to work through these things carefully, to ensure that the legislation operates as intended and avoids any unintended outcomes. This new clause does not adequately consider interactions with other pieces of legislation. I recognise that that is a technical matter. The Government are aligned with the intent, so I have asked my officials to work—and, indeed, I have been working myself—with colleagues across Whitehall, particularly in the Home Office, to identify a way of addressing this issue that is consistent with the broader regulatory framework for these firms. I intend to provide the House with an update on Report. Given that commitment, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.