Clause 141 - Cryptoassets: confiscation orders

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 22nd November 2022.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

With this it will be convenient to discuss that schedule 6 be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

It is a great privilege, as always, to be with you this morning, Mr Paisley, and to enjoy the possibility of conversing about the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

The clause introduces schedule 6 to the Bill, which amends the criminal confiscation powers contained in parts 2, 3 and 4 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002—known as POCA, not to me, but to some presumably—to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to seize, detain and recover cryptoassets in more circumstances than at present. Schedule 6 will amend the provisions in each of the three existing confiscation regimes that extend to England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland so that the measures apply in all parts of the United Kingdom. That is reflected in the three parts of schedule 6.

Key definitions in schedule 6, such as those of “cryptoasset” and “cryptoasset exchange provider”, are consistent with those used elsewhere in the Proceeds of Crime Act. The schedule includes powers to update those defined terms to ensure that the measures in the Bill can keep pace with the constantly evolving criminal use of cryptoassets, the rapidly changing nature of crypto technology as well as stay aligned with other legislation dealing with similar threats.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Paisley. I take the opportunity to welcome the Minister to his place; I do not think that I have done so formally, although I might well have done informally. It is good to see him in his place.

I want to make some general comments about cryptocurrencies and about the clause and schedule 6. Broadly speaking, they have some positive aspects, but we also have some questions for the Minister, and I am sure that he will explain the position with his customary lucidity once I have sat down.

Cryptocurrencies and other digital assets are not new, but how they should be regulated is still very much an open question in the UK and internationally. The Government’s decision to expand the legal framework for asset recovery under the Proceeds of Crime Act is a positive development. For that to work, however, we need to be clear about what the legislation intends to achieve.

It is fair to say that the Government have sent mixed messages about their approach to regulating cryptoassets. On the one hand, they have acknowledged the need to tackle the use of cryptoassets for criminal purposes, hence the decision to extend the money laundering regulations to cryptoasset businesses, which has been under the supervision of the Financial Conduct Authority since January 2020. In the factsheet published alongside the Bill, the Government set out their view:

“Cryptoassets are now increasingly being used by criminals to move and launder the profits of various crimes including drugs, fraud, and money laundering. There is also an increased risk that cryptoassets are being exploited to raise and move funds for terrorist activities.”

On the other hand, earlier this year, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is now the Prime Minister, said that it was his

“ambition to make the UK a global hub for cryptoasset technology”.

The then Economic Secretary to the Treasury echoed that, saying in a speech at the Innovate Finance global summit in April:

“If there is one message I want you to leave here today with, it is that the UK is open for business—open for crypto-businesses”; and

“Because we want this country to be a global hub—the very best place in the world to start and scale crypto-companies.”

It concerns me that the Government do not seem to have made up their mind whether as a country we should value crypto firms and want to entice them to the UK, or whether we should recognise the ease with, and scale at which, criminal activity within crypto markets is allowed to happen and therefore should prioritise tightening regulation and enforcement by cracking down on the widespread use of such assets to defraud individuals and undermine our national security. Perhaps the Minister will shed some light on that strategic dilemma or ambiguity and on how the Government plan to reconcile those two apparently competing aims.

I do not want to pre-empt what the Minister will say, but I imagine that he will claim that it is possible to do both.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

But is it not simply the case that we are not putting enough resources into the enforcement of laws and the policing of such markets? That is fundamental to achieving the regulatory aim of that side of the equation.

Crypto-expert Aidan Larkin recently told me how the US Government’s money laundering and asset recovery section brings in around $800 million a year in crypto-recovery alone, while the UK brings in close to nothing, because the UK Government fail to employ the handful of experts required simply to study the blockchains via things such as bitcoin analytics and to follow the illicit finance—“to follow the money”, as the saying goes. I cannot pretend to be an expert on the technical aspects of that, but it feels like a missed opportunity to go after illegal activity. We have surely reached a point in time when that could be self-funding, if we did it properly.

I am simply not convinced that the system for regulating cryptoassets is working as well as intended. Indeed, it is pretty telling that in response to written questions 86505 and 86504, which I tabled last week, the Minister admitted that none of the 200-plus crypto businesses operating without commission had been subject to any criminal or civil penalties.

As I mentioned, since January 2020 there has been a requirement for new businesses carrying on cryptoasset activity in the UK to register with the FCA. The requirement was extended to existing businesses the following year. The implementation of the register, however, has been beset by problems, not least of which is the fact that a very large number of the firms required to register have not done so. The FCA seems to have been unable to do much about that.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that only 16% of applications for registration have been approved by the FCA. The FCA has said that a large number of firms that failed to meet the conditions for registration have withdrawn their applications and that many of those appear to have carried on doing business without the requisite permission. Indeed, the FCA maintains a list of unauthorised cryptoasset businesses operating in the UK. As of last week, 245 firms were on that list. Will the Minister explain what is being done to prevent those 245 firms that operate outside the money laundering rules from scamming members of the public, facilitating money laundering or assisting the evasion of economic sanctions?

The Government have been aware for some time of problems involving the use of cryptoassets to defraud members of the public. In October 2018, the Government’s own Cryptoassets Taskforce published a report that identified advertising that misleads people deliberately, by overstating the potential gains from investing in such assets and downplaying the risks involved, as a significant problem for the Government to address. Only now, after four years, are new rules being introduced to expand the FCA’s remit to include consumer protection in relation to misleading financial promotions.

Despite that, however, a clear gap remains between the scale of criminal activity in the sector and the ability of the FCA and police forces to respond. In recent evidence provided to the Treasury Committee, Ian Taylor of the crypto trade body, CryptoUK, said that the recent collapse of high-profile crypto exchanges such as FTX could have been prevented had a stronger regulatory system been in place. Multiple witnesses testified to the Committee that, without additional staff with the right expertise, the FCA was unlikely to be able to regulate the crypto sector effectively.

Let me turn to the substance of the clause and schedule 6. It is clearly necessary for the law to be brought up to date to reflect the use of digital assets for criminal purposes. The clause and schedule amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, to extend to intangible assets the same confiscation powers that are already used to recover physical assets like cash. That is an important first step, but in many ways the Bill leaves open more questions than it answers.

For instance, the Bill provides new powers to seize cryptoasset-related items, but the definition of those items is incredibly vague, encompassing any item of property that may provide access to some kind of information that could be relevant to an effort to seize a cryptoasset. Given the broad scope of the powers, alongside the related provisions on the destruction of confiscated property, we need more information from the Minister about how the powers are likely to be used in practice.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I agree very much with what has been said from the Labour Front Bench. I ask the Minister about the interaction between this Bill and all the other Bills that are considering crypto at the moment, including the Online Safety Bill, which addresses some aspects of people being exposed online to financial crime. The Treasury Committee report on economic crime pushed quite strongly on having an aspect on economic crime in the Online Safety Bill, because it is important that people are not scammed online. To me and to many others, crypto seems very much a place where people do get scammed and lose all their money.

I draw the Committee’s attention to an interview by Henry Mance in the Financial Times yesterday with Stephen Diehl, who is very cynical about the crypto industry and its ability to rip people off. We have to be incredibly careful about the areas we are getting into; we are legislating for something that is moving very quickly. Given the number of Government amendment that will be made to the schedules in this part of the Bill, we need to think carefully about what we are putting in and whether it is suitable for seizing assets and for protecting people against crypto-related fraud more widely.

My other point is about expertise. I have talked an awful lot about the Government having expertise in various areas on the enforcement side, because if there is no expertise in enforcement, the laws that we are considering will just not be enforced. In our evidence session, Andy Gould said:

“We have been investigating cryptocurrency since 2015 or 2016. One of my sergeants has just been offered 200 grand to go to the private sector. We cannot compete with that. That is probably the biggest risk that we face within this area at the moment.”––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 25 October 2022; c. 24, Q37.]

If the money is not there in policing to retain the expertise to prosecute crypto crimes and to make sure that the legislation works in practice, rather than just on paper, the Government will be very much behind the curve.

I add my hesitation on the messages the Government are giving out on regulating and encouraging and on cracking down on a sector that has the potential, as we have seen with the collapse last week, of losing an awful lot of people their money and of making some people an awful lot of money out of those who have lost it.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

If I may, I will just give a quick explanation of what crypto is because there seems to be some misunderstanding. Crypto is both a technology and a financial instrument. The financial instrument element is only part of it. Allowing for crypto technology is basically allowing for mathematics. Passing laws against crypto is like passing laws against mathematics—we can try, but it is not going to work.

What the now Prime Minister was talking about was encouraging the mathematics, the algorithms and the technology to develop in this country to create the kind of industry and the kind of infrastructure that would allow the technological use of algorithms for the transfer, sometimes of wealth, sometimes of knowledge, sometimes of contractual obligations. That is what blockchain fundamentally is.

On top of the blockchain, there are various forms of currency. There are bitcoins, which are proof of work, and then there is ethereum, which is proof of stake. These are different kinds of technologies and different ways in which cryptoassets use the blockchains and the technology that has underwritten them.

Having regulation for the currency is not the same as having regulation for the underlying mathematics. We would not say that we have regulation for the economist in the same way that we have regulation for the bank—they are different things. The Government are doing the right thing. We recognise that there is technology, and supporting it; we recognise that there are financial instruments, and are looking to work with others to make sure that those financial instruments are regulated in a sensible way. Now, that is difficult: I will be honest. It is difficult because the technology and its use are changing remarkably. The hon. Member for Aberavon spoke about FTX. As he may know, other companies such as Celsius and Gemini have stopped trading in various different ways, as well. It is not just about one instrument. It is certainly arguable that FTX got into difficulties for reasons other than lack of regulation.

The hon. Member’s point about advertising is extremely valid. There is a real challenge. That is different—it does not quite relate to this element of the Bill. We are seeing increasing amounts of financial advertising online in different ways. I do not know how many members of the Committee have Instagram accounts, but the number of Instagram messages I get advertising foreign exchange trading is frankly bizarre.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I do not want to know what they advertise to the right hon. Gentleman. They don’t do it by pigeon.

The reality is that there are different ways in which people are trying to hack and attack, to steal from individuals in our country and around the world. That is why the work we are doing on the Joint Fraud Taskforce, which met yesterday, and on many other aspects of regulation, such as the Online Safety Bill, which the hon. Member for Glasgow Central quite rightly spoke about, is so important. The FCA has moved forward on many of those areas, in a sensible way, to balance the need of the technology to advance with the protection of society. It is certainly true that many people have lost a lot in recent weeks and months. I do not think anybody was under any great illusion, though, that cryptocurrencies were not a high-risk item, to put it politely. Anything worth about $1 10 years ago and $60,000 a few years later is probably not a stable currency. It may be many things, but it is probably not stable. It is now worth about $10,000 or so—

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

So, $13,000. That certainly speaks to the level of volatility. It has been up and down like a yo-yo in between times, so it is not exactly as though anybody would have been recommended it as an investment vehicle. I understand the hon. Lady’s points about online safety and fraud, and she is completely correct, but that is being addressed in different aspects of Government policy. What the Bill does is make sure that those assets that are held in cryptocurrency can be seized, as other assets can. It is certainly true that they are held in different ways, as the gentleman who is going through the waste dump in Wales is discovering. That means that seizing the assets needs a certain ambiguity in the legislation in order to keep it updated for the future. The Government have made a sensible series of suggestions to balance that need for advancing the technology and protecting consumers.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

The Minister is being very generous. On that point about seizing the assets, will the Minister comment on the feedback that Aidan Larkin, an expert in this area, gave me, which is that in the United States money laundering and asset recovery measures bring in about $800 million per year? He says that we do not employ enough people doing block chain analytics. We are missing a big opportunity to generate revenue for the Exchequer.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman will now be supporting this element of the Bill, because that is exactly what it is for.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

I thank the Minister for sitting down even before I had intervened.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

It seems that this is an issue around resourcing and having the people in place—the handful of experts that we need to study the blockchains. Will the Minister assure the Committee that that resourcing will be provided?

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the National Crime Agency, working alongside partners in places such as GCHQ, has enormous amounts of technology to look at cryptoassets in various different ways. The Bill—which I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman supports so enthusiastically—will indeed give the powers that he looks for.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 141 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6 agreed to.