Cryptoassets: Regulation — [Christina Rees in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 7th September 2022.

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Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury) 10:29 am, 7th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees.

I congratulate Martin Docherty-Hughes on securing this important debate and on setting out in detail many important issues, particularly a number of matters that he raised around fraud and things that the Government can do. He has significant expertise in this area, as is evident from what he has presented in today’s debate and the fact that he chairs the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain. I thank other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, particularly the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who raised a number of issues, such as fraud. I also thank those who have made interventions, raising consumer protection issues.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the important issue of cryptocurrencies and cryptoassets, and the Government’s regulatory approach to the industry. This debate is well overdue. In recent years, crypto has entered the mainstream, with an estimated 2.3 million people in the UK owning cryptoassets and the number of companies trading in crypto likely to grow further over the coming years, so this is a good moment to reflect on both the benefits and risks of cryptoassets and related technologies.

Many early advocates of crypto believed that it could lead to the end of central banking, the replacement of the dollar and fiat money by Bitcoin—or digital gold—and an upending of the regulation of markets and of the potential surveillance of consumers. However, crypto supporters have so far been disappointed. Like many utopian projects, this had collided with the realities of geopolitics, corporate power and illicit finance. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. With reports that Russian oligarchs may have converted their assets into cryptocurrencies to avoid sanctions, many are rightly questioning whether crypto has a future at all.

In recent months, we have seen a huge crash in the value of many of the leading cryptoassets. During the recent period of crypto market turmoil, Bitcoin, Ethereum and other coins have collapsed, putting millions of UK consumers’ savings at risk. Research published by crypto trading platform Gemini found that the number of people investing in crypto has rocketed in the last 12 months, and as many as one in five people in the UK has lost money in the crypto crash. Despite this, the Government are wilfully using out-of-date data, which estimates that only 3.9% to 4.4% of British adults own crypto. I am not sure whether the Minister has more up-to-date stats. Not only that, but the Government have so far failed to properly regulate the crypto sector and protect consumers. They also have no idea how many people have been affected by the current crypto crisis, so there is clearly a desperate need for a clear strategy on the regulation of cryptoassets and blockchain technology.

Labour believes that we do not need to choose between a total crackdown on ownership of cryptocurrencies and the wild west approach advocated by some. Properly regulated blockchain technology has the potential to transform our economy and the financial services sector. Many innovative companies are embracing different forms of blockchain technology to improve transparency in order to finance and create highly skilled, high-productivity jobs across the UK. This has the potential to reduce inequalities, with £69.6 million having been invested in financial technology companies based outside London and the south-east in 2021 alone, driving efficiency in all sorts of industries.

I am afraid, however, that so far the Government have risked undermining the reputation of the sector. In the absence of a comprehensive strategy regime, the UK has become a centre for illicit crypto activity. According to research by Chainalysis, which is a global leader in blockchain research, cryptocurrency-based crime, such as terrorist financing, money laundering, fraud and scams, hit a new all-time high in 2021, with illicit activity in the UK estimated to be worth more than £500 million; that is really alarming. Despite the pressure from Labour and the financial sector, the Treasury has yet to acknowledge the scale of the threat, and the FCA has identified more than 230 unregistered cryptoasset firms operating in the UK right now. Many companies have not even applied for anti-money laundering or “know your customer” checks, yet they face little or no sanction from the Government. That has allowed some firms to exploit anonymity-enhancing technology to protect the identity of criminals and individuals linked to hostile states such as Russia.

As several Members have mentioned, there is a rise in crypto-related scams in the UK, which is very concerning, and reports of digital asset fraud were up 50% in 2021 compared with the previous year. I suspect there is even more such fraud now.