Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 24th November 2022.
“(1) It is a defence to an action based on the disclosure or publication of information for the defendant to show that—
(a) the disclosure or publication complained of was likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime, and
(b) the defendant reasonably believed that the disclosure or publication complained of was likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), in determining whether the defendant has shown the matters mentioned in subsection (1), the court must have regard to all the circumstances of the case.
(3) In determining whether it was reasonable for the defendant to believe that the disclosure or publication complained of was likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime, the court must make such allowance for editorial judgement as it considers appropriate.
(4) For the avoidance of doubt, the defence under this section may be relied upon irrespective of whether the statement complained of is a statement of fact or a statement of opinion.”—
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 65—Economic crime: power to strike out statement of case for abuse of process—
“The court may strike out the whole or part of any statement of case which can be reasonably understood as having the purpose of concealing, or preventing disclosure or publication of, any information likely to be relevant to the investigation of an economic crime
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I thank the Minister for Security, along with Mr Davis and Bob Seely, who have worked assiduously on this issue over the course of this year.
In many ways, we have debated this issue a lot during our consideration of the Bill. There is a shared belief across the Committee that sunlight is the best disinfectant and, because this is the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, it is important that we empower everyone who brings transparency to the business of investigating economic crime, including journalists.
Yet I am afraid that, to many people, “global Britain” now means that our country is a global centre for lawfare. Our courts, which have been sanctuaries for justice for 1,000 years, have become arenas of silence where expensive lawyers—Schillings and others—are used systematically by bad people to try to rack up enormous costs for journalists, to such an extent that they are no longer able to bring important information and news into the public domain.
The issue is now so serious that, when the Foreign Policy Centre surveyed investigative journalists around the world, it found that three quarters of them had received legal threats designed to shut them up. The origin of those threats is, by and large, this country; in fact, this country was responsible for more legal threats than the United States and the European Union put together. We have become a global centre for lawfare against people who are being so courageous and brave in trying to bring crime to public attention.
We have so many of these strategic lawsuits against public participation, as they are called, that there is now a clear playbook. First, the company or oligarch will try to target an individual. They will always try to target the individual journalist rather than the organisation they work for because, frankly, they know that they can intimidate the individual far more than they can intimidate a corporate organisation. That is exactly what brave journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr and Catherine Belton had to face.
Secondly, the company or oligarch will then file the most ludicrously exaggerated claims. Look, for example, at the claims that Mr Mohamed Amersi has filed against a former Member of this House, Charlotte Leslie. It is the most ridiculous, conflated nonsense that he is trying to put through the court, but that is par for the course, because, of course, they are not interested in winning the case; all they are interested in doing is racking up as much cost as possible to damage the poorer party.
Thirdly, the claimant will go to enormous lengths to try to intimidate the individual. In “Kleptopia”, the journalist Tom Burgis, the author of that and other wonderful books, tells a story of how private investigators from Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation suddenly turned up at a meeting in an underground car park between him and a former director of the Serious Fraud Office. There is no way they could have known that meeting was taking place unless they were hacking and bugging his phone, but that is the kind of intimidation that these individuals think is acceptable.
Fourthly, these oligarchs will try to co-ordinate with others. Look at the way Roman Abramovich tried to intimidate Catherine Belton: he sidled up with all sorts of cronies and mates to try to bring a concerted action against her and her publisher, HarperCollins. Finally, they will try to file claims in multiple jurisdictions, such as Australia, in order to maximise the costs.
If anyone thinks that this is something of the past, there is one case in particular that shows that it is very much of the present. The Nazarbayevs are trying to take the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to court. That is a great example, frankly, of this whole playbook being thrown at journalists trying to expose economic crime.
The Nazarbayev Fund’s holding company, Jusan Technologies Ltd, issued defamation proceedings in the High Court on
All the tactics I mentioned are now being used against the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It is simply outrageous that a country that prides itself on being the home of free speech is now home to courts being used to silence journalists. New clauses 64 and 65 seek to take the regime set out in clause 155 onwards, related to protected disclosures, and say, “Well, look, if we are going to protect disclosures, then among the group that we should be trying to protect are journalists, and the disclosures that we should be trying to protect are of information relating to the investigation of an economic crime.”
With my thanks to the Clerks and others, we have taken a slightly different approach in the new clauses, but that is basically the intellectual and philosophical approach that we seek to take, and that is why people are happy that the new clauses are within the scope of the Bill. Crucially, the new clauses seek to equip a judge—not us here in this House—with the power to dismiss legal actions clearly designed to silence journalists and others investigating economic crime.
Because the Minister was such a vociferous supporter of the anti-SLAPPs campaign, I know that the Government will accept the new clauses straight into the Bill. If not, there will have to be a pretty good explanation. This subject is of wide interest to Members across the House. We know—this is why we are here today—that economic crime is morphing enormously and that those behind it are bad people who are determined to try to silence free speech and damage our democracy. We know the truth that Václav Havel gave us, which is that the best way to fight totalitarians, bully boys, dictators and their friends is to live in truth. That is what these new clauses seek to do.
I will be brief. I fully support the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and I fully support the new clause. I pay tribute to the other Members he mentioned who have played an important role in raising the profile and awareness of this very important issue. The Committee has an opportunity to reflect on the need for urgent action by the Government to crack down on abuses of our legal system by the wealthy and powerful individuals who seek to shut down dissenting voices whose investigations are inconvenient to them.
Surely, the Government have been aware for some time of the most flagrant cases of jurisdiction shopping by oligarchs and kleptocrats in British courts, but recognition of the problem has not been backed up by the necessary legislation. The Government have missed repeated opportunities to legislate against SLAPPs, and although consultations have been launched and expert advice and evidence has been reviewed, we still have not seen meaningful action to deal with these problems. It remains unclear when, or even if, new legislation will be forthcoming. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this important subject.
I very much to support everything that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said. In his evidence to the Committee, Thomas Mayne of Chatham House said:
“This is a perfect opportunity for some kind of anti-SLAPP legislation to be put in the Bill.”––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee,
If the new clause is not going to be accepted this afternoon, will the Minister explain exactly when we will pass this legislation? Not “in due course”, not “at some point”, not “when legislative time permits”—when precisely will we legislate on this issue, if not now?
It is a huge pleasure to speak on this new clause. None of what I am going to say to begin with will particularly surprise the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, because—
He knows very well that I am not going to accept it. The way in which the new clause is set out cuts across many other aspects of law, and it would quite severely affect jurisprudence in this country. However, he is absolutely right to point out the issue, and it is worth taking a bit of time to explain how we intend to address it.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, and I are extremely clear that this is an important aspect of legal reform that we need to see in the United Kingdom. It is important because it affects freedom of speech in this country, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, and because it has a certain negative influence on the legal environment in which, sadly, people have to operate. He rightly spoke about Catherine Belton, whose work in exposing many of the crimes of the Putin regime has been frankly exemplary and heroic.
It is important that we address this. The way to do that is not to treat it simply as an economic crime, which it is not. It is not just a crime that affects the economy of our country or the movement of dirty money. It is a crime that is about freedom of speech and the access to justice that many people in our county need. We should look at it more as an offence against a fundamental democratic value than as an economic crime. That is why the work is being done with the Ministry of Justice, for rather obvious reasons. We are ensuring that we have a piece of anti-SLAPPs legislation, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly calls it, that addresses the whole problem.
The UK is still leading the way on the issue at national level. We are not yet where we wish to be, but we are doing better than many others. It is worth remembering that many different groups are working on this. The Solicitors Regulation Authority is already doing a lot of work to review the 20 firms suspected of involvement in SLAPP activity. The SRA is shortly to issue its regulated professionals with another warning notice, which will provide guidance on conduct in such disputes. It has already outlined guidance on certain oppressive behaviours, and has expressly linked those to the growing focus on the use of SLAPPs in England and Wales.
As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill knows, there are many different tactics—aggressive letters, labelling correspondence and seeking to run up bills, as he rightly identified—that challenge people’s access to justice. They are exactly what the SRA is looking at and will be communicating with the MOJ about.
First, will the Minister describe the action that, according to him, the Government are taking? I do not understand what action they are taking.
Secondly, the new clauses that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill tabled were written by a group of lawyers who support the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition. They are not like the new clauses that we put together—they have been given considerable consideration—so I do not quite see how they could be bad law. They have thought this through.
Thirdly, there is a real tendency—I say this with the greatest respect and affection for the Minister’s work—for Ministers to shift a bit a paper to the left or right and do nothing with it. It is the easiest thing to do. We have described this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the world; I plead with the Minister to grasp it and accept the new clauses. Let us move forward, rather than shifting the paper aside.
I am surprised to hear the right hon. Lady speak so negatively about her other amendments and new clauses. New clause 64 is not the only one that is well drafted; others have been as well. New clause 64 focuses, quite rightly, on getting anti-SLAPP provisions into the Bill, but it would extend the reach a bit further than we could take. I am happy to look further at the issue. I am happy to listen carefully to the opinions not only of the right hon. Lady, but of the people who advised the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, on different approaches to the question. I am extremely happy to listen, but I am afraid we will not accept the new clause.
I will be looking closer at the new clause in the proceedings on the Bill, but whether it makes it through will not necessarily be my final decision, as she knows very well. I would be interested to hear the arguments of the people to whom the hon. Lady has spoken.
I am grateful for the chance to intervene, because I sense that the Minister has almost reached the conclusion of his remarks without giving the Committee the date on which a more comprehensive proposal, which is what he argues for, will be presented to the House. We know that the Ministry of Justice has already conducted its consultation, and that the consultation responses have been analysed, but we have not had a hard date from either the Leader of the House or the Justice Secretary. If the Minister is in reassuring mode, he could perhaps furnish us with that date now.
I am afraid I will have to ask the Ministry of Justice for that information, but I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman. With that, I rest.
The truth is that people will be appalled by this debate. We gathered an enormous number of campaign groups and journalists together in the House on Tuesday evening, at a function that I had the privilege to co-sponsor with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. The kinetic energy behind reform is significant. The law will change—we will get there—but the question is whether this Government want to be the authors of that change or continue to oppose it.
Every single day that the law does not change, bad people and bad lawyers will be racking up millions of pounds in legal costs in order to intimidate and stop publication by journalists who are hunting the truth. I am afraid that is not a good place for this Government to be in.
I refer the Committee to my entry the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The question I have is not a challenge to what has been said. As a practising solicitor I agree with the points the right hon. Gentleman is making, but the new clause would impact upon some general points regarding the professional duties of solicitors to their clients. A solicitor accepts a brief and then has to act in the best interests of that client and do various other things. If that involves criminality, it is a different question altogether. The Law Society is very much behind these proposals; what further regulation or advice should there be for solicitors to ensure that they can act within legislation such as that proposed?
Order. The hon. Gentleman referred to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests but did not specify what it was or how it was relevant to his question.
I apologise; I said I was a practising solicitor part way through my intervention. I mentioned that because I was touching on the legal profession, how it interacts with legislation and professional duties, as also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security.
The hon. Member is not just a practising solicitor, but clearly also a recovering solicitor. The SRA has been on the front foot in wanting to crack down on some of the bad behaviour. We had this debate in January on the Floor of the House; it was one of the best debates I have seen in 18 years in this place. What became clear was that, although there are some in the legal profession who do have to operate on that cab-rank rule—they have to step forward and plea in favour of people who are at the front of the queue—there are others who have choices about who they represent. The truth is that here in London there are groups of lawyers, such as Schillings—there are many others—who are making millions out of some very bad people. In fact, those people are so bad that they have subsequently been sanctioned, in this country and around the world.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the SRA were to fine those solicitors who engaged in that sort of false litigation—it is phony litigation—it would be a little cost on business given the millions they are making? Abramovich, for example, is worth, as far as we know, £12 billion. If he spends £50 million on a legal case, it is peanuts to him, and it is certainly peanuts to the solicitors who are subject to fines by the SRA.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the whole strategy behind a strategic legal action against the public participant is not to win: they just want to damage their opponent to such an extent that they cannot afford to tell the truth.
It has been a disappointing debate, and it will disappoint many of the people who are watching and following it. It is unfortunate timing, because the anti-SLAPP coalition is coming together for its second annual conference on Monday, when it will publish a draft and more comprehensive law. We have not had a date from the Minister as to when the Government may have listened and brought forward a more comprehensive argument. If the argument is that the measures I am moving today are too fragmented or nugatory, that is fine, but let us hear the date for when a more comprehensive solution will be proposed. The Secretary of State for Justice has said it will be forthcoming but has not provided the date. That was the point of the new clauses: we want to know the date.
I will not press my new clauses to a vote because I do not have the numbers in Committee, but I suspect I will on the Floor of the House. That is why they will come back on Report, in due course. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.