New Clause 75 - The Economic Crime Committee of Parliament

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 29th November 2022.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations establish a body to be known as the Economic Crime Committee of Parliament (in this section referred to as “the ECC”).

(2) The ECC will consist of nine members who are to be drawn both from the members of the House of Commons and from the members of the House of Lords.

(3) Each member of the ECC is to be appointed by the House of Parliament from which the member is to be drawn.

(4) The ECC will have the power to meet confidentially.

(5) The ECC may examine or otherwise oversee any regulatory, enforcement or supervision agencies involved in work related, but not limited to—

(a) tax avoidance and evasion by corporations;

(b) illicit finance;

(c) anti-money laundering supervision;

(d) tackling fraud;

(e) kleptocracy and corruption; and

(f) whistleblower protection.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

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

I have been promoting accountability for years now. In the work that I did with the Minister as we thought about how we could tackle economic crime and turn round the tanker, we always said there were four ways in which we had to respond. One was through having not more regulation, but smart regulation. The second was through tough enforcement. The third was through broad transparency—the ruling of the European Court of Justice last week is an absolute nightmare that could create real difficulties for us in the economic crime space. The fourth was accountability, and with the new clause we are suggesting a way for us to have that accountability.

There is interest in this subject across the House. Bim Afolami has written a paper on these issues. Can we find a mechanism for holding the regulatory bodies properly accountable to Parliament for what they do?

A lot of these questions arose when I chaired the Public Accounts Committee and we first started looking at tax avoidance. The rule is that everybody should be equal before the law in tax, but there was always a suspicion that sweetheart deals were being struck with certain big corporations and high net worth individuals. In fact, early on we came across one involving Goldman Sachs; on the back of a story in Private Eye, we uncovered a sweetheart deal. To this day, though, I do not understand whether Google is paying the correct tax or whether there is a deal there, and I could say the same about a lot of the big multinational companies. Because of the confidentiality of taxpayers’ interests, Parliament has no way to get the information that it needs to assure itself that the tax authorities are treating all taxpayers equally.

I have worked with all the agencies in this area—the NCA, the Serious Fraud Office, the Metropolitan police and so on—so whistleblowers, or just people who come across something that is wrong, often come to me, and I give the case to one of the agencies—and that is the last I ever hear of it. I always pursue the cases, but all too often I get the response, “Oh, there are security reasons for you not being given the information.” There was the Savaro case, which I referred to BEIS at the time. It went through BEIS and I still do not know whether anybody was pursued. Certainly, there were people behind that explosion in Lebanon, which led to so many deaths and loss of property.

I think that Parliament needs a better hold on what is happening and better accountability around how those agencies are operating. In the new clause, we suggest that we mirror the Intelligence and Security Committee, which meets under Privy Council terms. The proposed economic crime committee could be a Committee of both Houses, meeting under Privy Council terms and overseeing all the regulatory bodies in this space—in financial services and economic crime. It could call for papers relating to individual cases, which would remain confidential because the ECC would meet in private. The ECC could then produce reports on systemic changes that are necessary, arising from consideration of those individual cases.

I think that that would massively improve accountability, as well as the performance and effectiveness of the agencies. With that information, members of the ECC would have a better understanding of what, if anything, they needed to do as legislators to improve the situation. I believe that this committee will happen one day, but I am proposing it today as a new clause in this Bill. I know that the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and those who support him in this mission would be happy to support me today, and I hope that Ministers give it a good hearing.

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

I am happy to support new clause 75, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, which would require the Secretary of State by regulation to establish a body to be known as the economic crime committee of Parliament.

The new clause is driven by and based on the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability. Our call for those two principles to be adhered to is important because it recognises that the structures for reviewing progress, and scrutinising and reviewing economic crime, are simply not good enough. There is too much siloed thinking. This aspect of scrutiny does not sit neatly within BEIS, the Treasury, the Home Office, or the Ministries of Defence and of Justice; it really spans the waterfront, yet those Departments are all vital parts of what should be a systemic approach to tackling economic crime.

The proposed committee would consist of nine Members drawn from the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with each member of the ECC appointed by their respective House of Parliament. The ECC would have the power to meet confidentially; it could examine or otherwise oversee any regulatory enforcement or supervision agencies involved in work related to, but not limited to, tax avoidance and evasion by corporations, illicit finance, money laundering, fraud, kleptocracy, corruption, and whistleblower protection.

We welcome the new clause as it would introduce a vital mechanism for transparency and accountability within the Bill. If the Minister does not agree with it, we hope that he will acknowledge that the existing mechanisms are unfit for the kind of joined-up, systemic, expert-driven scrutiny that is needed to keep pace with and keep ahead of economic crime. Throughout this Committee’s proceedings, my colleagues and I have tabled amendments and new clauses designed to increase the scrutiny and transparency of the measures that the Bill will introduce, so as to ensure that when they are implemented, they are as effective as possible. If the Minister is not able to support the new clause, Parliament and the country more broadly would need him to come up with something better.

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

I wholeheartedly agree with the new clause. When the Treasury Committee looked at this issue, what struck me was that economic crime was nobody’s priority. Our report said:

Economic crime seems not to be a priority for law enforcement. The number of agencies responsible for fighting economic crime and fraud is bewildering.”

If it is bewildering in that sense, it is bewildering to Parliament, too. This is a BEIS and Home Office Bill, yet it has huge Treasury implications and huge security implications, and that gets to the heart of why this new clause is so important. There needs to be a body in Parliament that holds all these agencies to account in one place. If BEIS does a little bit, and the Home Office does a little bit, and security does a little bit, and the Treasury does a little bit, there will not be the cohesive scrutiny of all those agencies that is needed. Committees could well be palmed off with different responses by different agencies, with nobody consistently holding them to account.

The work of the Treasury Committee is very wide ranging. We have two meetings a week, and that is not enough to cover all the issues we need to cover. Setting up a bespoke Committee that could build up expertise on this issue would allow for that accountability. It could meet in private if it needed to, although it would ideally meet in public. The point is that it would keep an eye on all the things that we have agreed to in the Bill, and we would be holding all these agencies and Ministers to account in a consistent way. The reports of the ECC would also, we hope, be taken seriously, and its recommendations implemented.

It is not really enough that the Treasury Committee or another Committee looks at economic crime every once in a while and sees how things are going. The Treasury Committee has done that previously, looking back at previous reports and asking, “How are things going now?” but there is not that week in, week out consistent scrutiny of what is happening. Without scrutiny and consistency, it is difficult to see how the Government will get this right. We are legislating here, but legislation cannot be put on a shelf and left; it has to be living legislation that is scrutinised on a regular basis. A committee of sort proposed in the new clause really would give Parliament a lot of power to ensure that these measures are implemented correctly and that the agencies responsible for economic crime, which affects all of our constituents, continue to be held to account.

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

The right hon. Member for Barking will not be surprised to hear that I am a huge fan of parliamentary scrutiny, not just of Government but of various issues that others have sometimes felt are not in the immediate remit of the scrutinising Committee. As she will be aware, I received some criticism when the Foreign Affairs Committee, which I was fortunate to chair, focused so clearly on economic crime in 2017-18—in fact, it was some of the first work that we did—because of the national security threat that it poses to the United Kingdom. Its importance in foreign policy is very clear.

The Treasury Committee has done an awful lot of extremely good work on this issue; over the years, it has done some excellent reports on economic crime. The Public Accounts Committee, the Justice Committee and others have also focused on economic crime at various points. However, while I completely understand the right hon. Lady’s argument, I cannot support the new clause, because it is simply not up to a Secretary of State to set up a Committee of the House. As she knows very well, that is a decision for the House; it would therefore not be appropriate to have that provision in the Bill.

I would add that there are various other elements that already scrutinise quite a lot of the agencies referred to. There is the Economic Crime Strategic Board, co-chaired by the Chancellor and the Home Secretary—I know it is within Government, but it is still a challenging body because it supervises the agencies of Government. Various other levels of scrutiny appear at different points, which help to oversee the function of the agencies and different elements that the Government are trying to deliver—that the ministerial element of the Government is trying to get the bureaucratic element of the Government to deliver. It is really important that we keep those intentions.

How the House decides to scrutinise the ministerial and bureaucratic elements of the Government is up to the House. The right hon. Lady can see that I am a strong supporter of parliamentary scrutiny, and there are ways that it can be done without a Committee. Some have argued—but not on this in particular—that we now have so many Members on so many Committees that a quorum is sometimes difficult; whether it would be in this or not, I cannot possibly comment. While I understand her point, I will not support this for the reasons that I have identified, but I sympathise entirely with her intent.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking 10:45 am, 29th November 2022

I am sure that, in that spirit, the Minister also accepts that scrutiny by the Executive is different to scrutiny by the legislature.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

What we are seeking is scrutiny by the legislature. I take what he said, and will reflect on it. There is cross-party support for this concept; whether we have got it quite right is open to debate, and we will have to find another means of getting it debated in the House. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.