Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
This is very simple. All businesses should take reasonable steps to stop economic crimes such as fraud and money laundering being committed on their behalf by their employees. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will insist on these amendments, and I will support him if he does.
Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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My Lords, my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier wonders why the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, supports his amendment. I have heard wags tell me that he is referred to as a Green Peer, on account of the number of times he recycles his gags. That might be a little unfair—I hear disapproval, but never mind.

I will speak to these amendments, having followed the Bill extremely closely. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, is of course right to pinpoint what we are debating: fraud perpetrated to benefit a relevant body. However, the noble Lord actually said “on the company’s behalf”, and that is not right. I do not think it is necessarily to capture exclusively where a company seeks to benefit itself; it could also, quite rightly, seek to capture an employee who commits fraud to benefit himself or herself because of a bonus arrangement or other matters. So it is not just on a company’s behalf.

In Grand Committee and elsewhere, I have argued that there should be exemptions for small and medium-sized companies, in opposition to Amendment 110. I totally agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier that the numbers proposed by the Government—any two of the following: a turnover of £36 million; a balance sheet of £18 million, which is undefined; and 250 employees, which is easy to define—are not appropriate. As he said, they capture only 0.5% of companies, but of course they capture the most important companies, which is where this legislation is perhaps intended to attack—it covers pretty much every FTSE and AIM company, which would perhaps have someone to put their mind to undertaking a fraud.

Although I have reservations about Amendment 110, curiously enough I support my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier’s Amendment 117, which is eminently sensible and deals with the issue. He has specified a turnover of more than £10 million, a balance sheet of more than £3 million, and more than 25 employees, which is sensible and fair. However, that applies only to fraud. His Amendment 125D does not have any SME exemption but simply says that the Secretary of State must issue guidance specifically for SMEs and particular micro-enterprises. He recognises that there is a difference for SMEs and micro-enterprises, and I think we should do so. I am nervous about this legislation: we just do not know what that regulation might be and do not understand what the guidance might be, how it might work and what effect it will have on SMEs and micro-enterprises.

I had a micro-enterprise at one point; I started a business. I refer your Lordships to the register of interests, which discloses that the business grew quite substantially, but it was originally micro by any definition. I do not know how many of your Lordships have started and run a micro-business, where everything revolves around survival and one’s entire life revolves around next week’s and next month’s wages, paying suppliers and creditors, and dealing with HMRC. There are so many pressures on micro-businesses, growing through to SME businesses, and we should think very carefully about putting another hurdle in place, however small, that makes an entrepreneur say, “You know what? Maybe I won’t bother. The Government are saying that I’ve got to take care about failure to prevent fraud. Really? Is that something I should worry about at this micro level? Have I not got enough to do to try to survive?”

I urge caution in adopting Amendment 110. If it is passed, I urge the House to adopt Amendment 117. I would be very careful about adopting Amendment 125 without clarification of exactly what will be in Amendment 125B.

Baroness Morgan of Cotes Portrait Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly to this group. I thank my noble friend the Minister for the steps that the Government have taken in relation to the failure to prevent fraud offence and the identification doctrine. These are significant steps, and he is right to say that they will obviously be followed up in future Bills.

It is worth remembering the scale of fraud in England and Wales in particular. Some 40% of crime is fraud against individuals, and clearly the scale of the cases against small, medium-sized and large businesses is also devastating. On Friday, we will debate the wider issues relating to fraud looked at by the committee on digital fraud, which I was privileged to chair. I am grateful that, from that committee and the work with my noble friend, the Fraud Strategy was published in early May.

I support my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier’s Amendment 110 and the associated Amendment 121, and have added my name to them. He and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, set out clearly why these amendments are necessary. There is no SME exemption in the Bribery Act or in relation to tax evasion.

I want to take on one of the points raised by my noble friend Lord Leigh. He talked about the survival of SMEs, and he is of course right to do so. I have not set up a small business but I have set up a small charity, and many of the issues are similar. If that small business or small charity were the victim of fraud, it would be absolutely devastating. One of the arguments here is the burden on small businesses of having to set up fraud-prevention measures, but they have to do it anyway these days because they have to be very cautious about anyone attempting invoice fraud or utility fraud. If they have an employee, they have to make sure that they are making best use and correct use of the corporate credit card, for example.

Noble Lords rightly referred to Clause 192 and the guidance that the Government will publish. We already have an example of it, as the Government have published the outline of how it would look. If this amendment is passed, it would be perfectly within the rights of the Government to set out clearly how that guidance should be interpreted by small and medium-sized enterprises, which are quite used to reading extensive amounts of guidance. If we want to have a broader debate about red tape and regulation, that is perhaps for another day, but they are used to dealing with much guidance. If they are likely to be victims of fraud, they will take that guidance very seriously.

I support these amendments and I support my noble and learned friend’s Amendment 125A on expanding the failure to prevent offence to money laundering. If we are going to introduce the failure to prevent offence, which I thoroughly welcome, we might as well do it properly and expand it to money laundering, which is also a huge a problem and one that the Bill seeks to tackle as well.