Death of Alexei Navalny

Bob Seely Excerpts
Monday 19th February 2024

(1 week, 2 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The House should have confidence and should be proud of the fact that we have sanctioned more than 1,900 individuals and entities. There is no space or place for dirty Russian money in the United Kingdom.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I just want to reinforce the point about Vladimir Kara-Murza. He is a British citizen, and he is now the most high-profile political prisoner in Russia. In my conversations with the Minister and his officials, when I have talked about prisoner swaps, which I was doing at the behest of the Navalny team, it was made quite clear that doing that encourages state hostage taking. I accept that argument, difficult thought it is, but unfortunately it comes at a price. In my conversations with Evgenia Kara-Murza, she is adamant that she now wants everything possible done to get Vladimir out, despite the fact that he went back of his own accord, because his health is in a fragile condition, and if Putin can kill Navalny, he can kill Kara-Murza. There is some criticism that the Government have not done everything possible in the past. Will the Minister reassure me that every option and every conceivable course of action to get Kara-Murza out—potentially including negotiated swaps with Russian spies in Sweden or wherever—will be looked at? Otherwise, he will be next.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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As my hon. Friend said, we do not and would not countenance a policy of prisoner swaps, but of course we continue to make every effort to support Mrs Kara-Murza and to seek the release of Vladimir.

Situation in the Red Sea

Bob Seely Excerpts
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Grant Shapps)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the situation in the Red Sea.

Last week at Lancaster House, I set out why we are living in a far more dangerous world. Members will need no reminding that we are dealing with multiple conflicts at once: Russia has increased the intensity of its attacks on Ukraine; the appalling Hamas atrocities of 7 October have brought conflict to that region; and, most recently of all, international shipping is now being threatened by Houthi proxies aided and abetted by Iran.

Since November, there have been more than 40 attacks on commercial vessels across the region. It is salutary to think that it has been 30 years since the maritime law was codified in the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. Some 168 nations back the UNCLOS treaty. The UK signed it, Yemen acceded to it, and even Iran is a signatory to it. There is a good reason why it has achieved such broad support. All nations rely on global trade, and none more so than the UK, given that a full 90% of UK commerce comes to us by sea.

Some 12% of international trade passes through the Red sea every single year, amounting to more than $1 trillion-worth of goods. In addition, 8% of global grain trade, 12 % of seaborne traded oil and 8% of the world’s liquefied natural gas all pass through this ancient seaway. Perhaps even more astonishing is that 40% of the goods that are traded between Europe and Asia go through the Red sea.

Sadly, the Houthis’ unlawful and callous attacks are putting all that trade at risk. Twelve international companies have been forced to suspend the passage through the Red sea because of the attacks. The number of vessels transiting Bab al-Mandab was 54% below the level observed in the previous year, and diverting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope has had a crippling impact, not only adding days of delay to vital deliveries but driving up international shipping costs to prohibitive levels. Some reports suggest that shipping costs are up by 300%.

What these Iran-backed Houthi pirate thugs forget is that it is the least well-off nations and people who suffer the most from their illegal actions, starting with Yemen itself, where almost all food comes by sea. At times like these, nations must stand up. Attacks on Red sea shipping automatically make this a global problem.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent speech. According to the House of Commons Library, there are 12 Iranian proxy forces in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Yemen, so this is not just about the Houthis, although that is what we are dealing with now. To what extent are we able to keep tabs on and monitor, or to work with allies who can keep tabs on and monitor, those dozen proxy forces that, sadly, Iran is now using with increased repetitiveness to attack not only our interests but the interests of our allies?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he is something of an expert in this area. Iran is absolutely behind all the different proxy groups that he outlined, and many more. In a way, Iran is able to control this situation without getting too involved itself, and the world needs to wake up and recognise that. We are of course monitoring all of that incredibly closely. Appeasing the Houthis now, or all these other groups, will not lead to a more stable tomorrow, in the case of the Houthis, in respect of the Red sea. Being blind to the sponsors of terror will not benefit the international order in the long run, which is why it is so important that the world has acted.

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John Healey Portrait John Healey
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What do I think? Well, it would be helpful to have access to the sort of classified information that the Defence Secretary has in order to make these decisions. It is his responsibility to do so, and it is our responsibility in this House to challenge and hold him to account when he makes those decisions—and, of course, if he fails to make decisions.

Perhaps I might return to the Red sea and the theme and focus of this debate. We now have around 2,500 military personnel in the middle east, and I begin by recognising their special service. Many were deployed at short notice—most were away from their families over Christmas—helping to supply essential aid for Palestinians in Gaza, working to reinforce regional security and reduce the risk of wider escalation, and, in cases such as those of the crew of HMS Diamond and the pilots of the Typhoons and air tankers, operating under great pressure and threat. They undertake their tasks with total professionalism. We thank them and are proud of them.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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At this juncture, I think it worth pointing out—the Secretary of State may want to refer to this—that Iranian proxies are regularly rocketing, or attempting to rocket, US bases in Iraq, some of which have a UK presence. It is only through good luck, and complex air defence, if I understand correctly, that there have not been considerable US casualties or potential UK casualties. That is a point that we need to bear in mind when we talk not only about Iranian proxies but about UK forces in the middle east.

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James Gray Portrait James Gray
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My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that I very much welcome him to the Front Bench. He is doing a good job standing in for the Foreign Secretary. I hope he will take note of the Procedure Committee’s report this afternoon on how a Secretary of State who is in the House of Lords should or should not be questioned by this House, and that the Government will accept the Procedure Committee’s proposal, namely that the Foreign Secretary should be called to the Bar of the House to take questions.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

James Gray Portrait James Gray
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We must not get too far off the subject, but of course.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I think I support what my hon. Friend says. Of the two times we voted on military action, the first time we were misled and the second time we were stung by having been misled, so we went the wrong way. As someone who was quite close to the Libyan conflict, as I saw it play out with ISIS in northern Iraq, I think we should have taken military action in principle over the use of chemical weapons. By not doing so, regardless of the outcome of the Syrian war, we weakened the idea of western resolve. I know it can be a bit of a cliché, but if we have a red line and dictators ignore it, we end up in a world of pain.

James Gray Portrait James Gray
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Both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) are seeking to involve me in a debate about a matter that happened some 10 or 15 years ago and is well beyond the scope of the debate. My point is not about whether or not striking against Syria was right, wrong or indifferent, but about the fact that we in this House chose not to do so. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), was absolutely right to say that not doing something is often as bad as doing something.

We in this House had a shortage of information—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) knows a lot about these things, and I am ready to admit that I do not—of briefings, of secret intelligence and of legal advice, but we chose to take that decision. It seems to me that, in the extremely dangerous world that we live in, we will see an awful lot of these decisions taken in the months and years to come. The way in which matters were handled this time shows that the pendulum, which had swung from the divine right of Kings in the middle ages, whereby the King decided on his own, to the time in 2003 and 2013 when we allowed this House to vote, albeit not necessarily sensibly, has swung back to precisely where it ought to be—namely, that if this House votes on something, it is, by that means, diminished. We cannot then hold the Government to account; we cannot come back and say, “You, Mr Government, have got that wrong,” because we voted for it. And if we had voted for it, the Secretary of State would surely say, “But you voted for it!”

Our whole purpose in this House and this Chamber is to scrutinise what the Government have done, hold them to account and, if necessary, remove them when they do the wrong thing.

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Liam Fox Portrait Sir Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con)
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I begin by paying tribute to all of our armed forces personnel who have been involved in action in the Red sea. They always rise to any challenge asked of them with professionalism and courage, and are a great example of the fact that our armed forces are so much more than the hardware we invest in.

I accept the point that the Secretary of State for Defence made at the outset of the debate—there is no direct link between the conflict in Gaza and the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red sea—but we would be wrong not to accept that there is interconnectivity between the tensions in different parts of the middle east today, and we need to understand the context of those tensions.

Back in 2020, the Trump Administration brokered the Abraham accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and then Morocco. It was a great exercise in leadership to bring reconciliation to a part of the world that had seen too much conflict for too long. It has resulted in a big improvement: both economically, in terms of business and trade between the countries involved, and in people-to-people relationships. For example, around half a million Israelis visited Dubai in the past few years, something that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

However, there was always one country that did not want the Abraham accords to succeed: Iran. It did not want those accords to succeed because it did not believe in a two-state solution, because it did not believe that Israel should exist. Ayatollah Khamenei has been tremendously consistent in his views about the purity of the Islamic revolution, his detestation of the west, and his contempt for the existence of the state of Israel. Anyone who is interested should read the book “Reading Khamenei” by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Iran was never going to want to see peace between the Arab states and Israel, because that threatened Iran’s hegemony—as it saw it—over the Islamic parts of the middle east.

The big question was always: what would Saudi Arabia do? It is a major player in the security of both the Red sea and the Gulf. When I saw the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on Fox News saying that every day he believed Saudi Arabia was closer to peace and reconciliation with Israel, my first reaction was that Iran would react against it, whether through its proxies: Hamas in Gaza, funded and armed by Iran; Hezbollah in Lebanon, funded and armed by Iran; or the Houthis in Yemen, funded and armed by Iran. In fact, it turns out that we now see all three being active, and we need to understand that that “axis of resistance” against the west, as Iran calls it, is something it will keep going as long as it possibly can. It will not seek peace; it will resist peace at all times.

In the Red sea, we are absolutely right to say—as many Members have done, and I do not want to go over that territory again—that the Houthi threat is a specific one that we must deal with. Some 95% of UK exports and imports go by sea, and in the whole global trading environment, 15% of all global trade passes through the Bab al-Mandab strait. As many Members have said, not to act would leave international maritime law in tatters, and having no deterrence there whatsoever would risk a bout of global inflation. We saw what the disruption from the conflict in Ukraine could do, and the same would be true were there to be permanent disruption in the Red sea. We would have disruption of vital supply chains, including food and the medicines that so many people depend on. So we were right to take action.

However, we need to come back to understanding the role of Iran in this and other processes. We have seen Iran develop drones that are sent to Russia by Iran Air to oppress the people of Ukraine, yet Iran Air still flies out of Heathrow airport in the United Kingdom. Why is it tolerated? We have seen the money moved around the global financial system by Iran to fund its proxies, but we still have two Iranian banks trading in the City of London within a stone’s throw of the Bank of England. Why is that happening? As the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), said, we have videos of antisemitic speeches by IRGC generals being investigated by the Charity Commission. The regulator is looking at footage of “Death to Israel” chants on an Islamic charity’s UK premises. Two of the videos show talks by IRGC leaders about an apocalyptic war on the Jews. Again as my hon. Friend said, the IRGC actually took responsibility this week for a military attack on a foreign territory, which is something they have not had the audacity to do before.

So I ask again: why is the IRGC not a proscribed organisation in this country? It is clearly involved in a wide range of activity that is dangerous to Britain’s national interests and our security. I have never once, when I have raised this issue in the House, been given a clear answer from those on the Front Branch about why we will not ban Iran Air, why we will not stop Iranian banks in the City and why we will not proscribe the IRGC. I live in a little bit of extra hope that we may get an answer tonight.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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The answer that the Government have so far given on the IRGC is that it is an arm of the state, and it is very difficult to proscribe an arm of the state. I am not saying I agree with that answer, but that is the answer given. Is there a way around it?

Liam Fox Portrait Sir Liam Fox
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It is an answer, but it is not a very convincing one. I hope we will get a better answer from the Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who I know is well capable of giving us answers in greater detail than that.

We face a choice in the Red sea and beyond: we are either going to deal with the political problems we face or, rather than the rosy future that the Abraham accords offered, we can go back to 1971, with a radicalised generation in the middle east and return to all the problems of hijacks, Munich and all the things we thought we had left behind us.

We need to drive a solution. As the Prime Minister said earlier this week, there must be a commitment to a two-state solution, and it is not acceptable for anyone to put a political block on that. We need security guarantees to be given for Israel and the Israeli people, who have a right to live in peace, and for any future Palestinian state. That will require an international peace agreement. It will require the United States, Saudi Arabia and others all to be willing to commit to that peace. It will require a new way of looking at politics in the region, and it is right that Hamas cannot be part of that if there is to be any way forward, and there will need to be massive economic reconstruction in the area.

In conclusion, let me say what I have said before in the House: when we look at the whole region, we see that peace is not just the absence of war or conflict, but the freedom from the fear of conflict, oppression or terror. It comes with concepts of rights that have to apply to all people—not just rights and dignity, but enforceable rights and dignity. Only when all the people of the middle east and the wider region have access to all those things will we have any chance of achieving the peace that is not just part of their security, but part of our security.

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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will try to wind up after seven minutes. I am mindful that lots of others want to get in. Lots of good speeches today; I just want to start by referring to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I completely agree with what she is saying about a two-state solution. Those friends of Israel who give Netanyahu and the Israeli right an easy ride on this are no friends of Israel, as far as I can see, because all they are doing is making Israel’s long-term future significantly more precarious. Israel’s existence is accepted and guaranteed when there is peace with the Palestinians, and until there is peace with Palestinians, Israel is always going to be under threat of some kind.

Where I differ from the hon. Lady is on her optimism. I would have agreed with her in the 1990s, but there has been so much more awful water under the bridge since then. On Palestinian statehood, I cannot see a good reason not to do it now, but if we had Palestinian statehood now and Hamas immediately took over that Palestinian statehood in the west bank, it would simply undermine the cause of Palestinian statehood. There is a significant problem there and, as the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Sir Liam Fox) rightly pointed out, Iran is behind so much of this.

I want to make a few points in the brief time I have. I want to make reference to the excellent speech made my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and also the speech of the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). There appears to be a growing, significant, provable link between the use of proxy warfare and non-state actors, often used by other states, and the rise in conflict-related sexual violence, which in some parts of the world and some conflicts is now endemic. We saw that with ISIS, which is a non-state actor, and arguably nobody’s proxy, in the use of Yazidi women effectively as the spoils of war until they were raped to death. We have seen it with the abuse of Israeli women by Hamas, but Hamas are also increasingly intolerant in their Islamist attitude towards women in their own society. We have also seen it with the Houthis, with Wagner in Ukraine and with Russian troops. It occasionally involves state troops, as well as non-state actors and proxies, and there is an increasing casualness with which sexual violence is used in conflict, which I think should disturb us all.

The world is moving to a more dangerous place; that is quite clear. It has been becoming more dangerous since 2010. Putin declared his new cold war in his Munich speech in 2007, but we did not want to notice. Unfortunately, everything since then has progressed quite logically from Putin’s point of view, although we have still feigned surprise. I do not know why we do that. Since 2015 we have had a growing China problem with an increasingly intolerant regime under President Xi. There is a battle for humanity under way in the 21st century between open societies and closed societies and between societies where AI and big data will hopefully be used to improve the quality of human life and places such as Iran, China and Russia where AI and big data will increasingly be used to control people and societies and, effectively, in an Orwellian state, to prevent people from rebelling because it will be possible to use algorithms to identify when they are about to rebel or fight back and do something about it. That is the bigger picture that we are dealing with.

It is particularly concerning at the moment that in several areas of the world we have conflicts between united axis powers, if I can call them that. Out of three potential conflicts that are under way at the moment or about to be, Ukraine and Russia is a hot war where the Russians believe that we are directly involved although we believe that we are indirectly involved. That war is fought with cyber, disinformation, espionage and poisoning, and some of that has been happening in the UK. We also have the expansion of China, with it trying to take territory in the South China sea and presenting an increasing threat to Taiwan. Xi has told his army to be ready to take Taiwan within the next three years, if I remember correctly.

In the middle east, Russia’s ally Iran is behind much of what is happening, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset so eloquently said. Iran now has 22 proxies. In Bahrain it has two or three and in Iraq it has at least six, some of which are rocketing UK and US forces. Where else? In Lebanon it has Hezbollah, which is potentially its most powerful proxy. It is strongly aligned to the regime in Syria. That is not a proxy but the regime has been heavily dependent on Iran to fight its wars. Throughout the middle east, the Iranians have built up a web that is a significant threat to us.

We have had conventional wars that we prepared for and fought for, or that we prepared our armed forces to fight and hopefully win, and we have this very black-and-white notion that we are either at peace or we are at war, yet the nature of war is changing. We are living in a world in which we are effectively in a perpetual state of conflict with some nations. Russia sees itself in perpetual conflict with us. There will be periods of hot war and periods of cold war, and we must be prepared as never before. Likewise, we are effectively waging an indirect war against a series of Iranian proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and whoever was rocketing us this week in Iraq. China’s power is more economic, but it is using “little blue men” to seize territory in the South China sea—that is in contrast to the “little green men” the Russians used in Crimea. In these key areas of the pre-global war phase, we are beginning to see a form of total war being waged by our adversaries in Ukraine, the middle east and the South China sea.

The Foreign Affairs Committee recently heard some interesting evidence on how Iran is, in many ways, both more unstable and more powerful than at any other time. It has 22 proxies, and it has the material to build and prepare a nuclear weapon within a week. Iran is at a potentially frightening stage but, at the same time, we know it is very unstable and we know that its young people, especially its young women, are hostile to the regime, as never before. Many people in Iran wish ill of the regime, so we are dealing with an Iran that is more aggressively adventurous in its foreign policy, potentially because of its weakness at home.

We have arguably not had enough deterrence, and we need more. Various Members have talked about that in greater deal than I have time to go into now.

All these things—the growing number of black swan moments and the growing instability in the world—are an argument for having a greater sense of strategy. Many people talk about strategy, and there are so many think-tanks in the UK dedicated to strategy. It would be wonderful to see politicians from both sides of the House engaging more in strategic thinking. One of my suggestions for global Britain is that, as well as having a National Security Council to deal with current problems, we should have a national strategy council that is always looking five, 10 or 20 years ahead to identify problems as they come.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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I fully agree with the last point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). We need those structures.

Before you came into the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, we discussed the nature of this debate and whether we should have a vote. We are taking military action in a region that has been described as a tinderbox by virtually every Member who has spoken. There are just over 20 Members present, and I say this with respect and affection, but most of them are the House’s defence nerds. The reason we do not have more Members present is that this is a discussion, not a debate. There is no decision to be made at the end and, as a result, I do not think the House is taking its responsibilities seriously. I think we are on the edge of real danger in this region, and it could spill over and affect the lives of our constituents. If we are to take military action, I want to take some responsibility as a Member of this House. I want to be able to go back to my constituents and explain how I have exercised that responsibility, which is why I believe we should have a vote.

I was in the Chamber one afternoon when, with even fewer Members present than now, John Reid reported that we were sending troops to Afghanistan. He gave the impression that not a shot would be fired in anger. There was hardly any debate and very little reporting back, but we lost 400 British troops in Afghanistan and tens of thousands of others, and the war went on for more than a decade.

I was also here for the vote on Iraq—we did have a vote then. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) said, “Yes, look at that, we made a huge mistake.” It was a huge mistake, but the mistake was that it was a whipped vote. I think that had it been an unwhipped vote, we would not have taken that decision. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) mentioned Syria. I was here for that vote, when I think we made the right decision, because we could have been getting into another Iraq situation and still be stuck there, with a huge loss of life—a loss of British life, as well as of others. That is why I believe that on these issues we should be able to vote and decide on when to take military action. We should exercise our own judgments, on the basis of our own views and consciences, because no more significant decision can be made than to send someone to where they could lose their life. That is why we should vote on these occasions. I think we will have to have a vote at some stage in the coming period, because I fear that this situation will go on and on.

Unrelated to that issue, I wish to make a plea. The International Court of Justice’s interim decision will be coming out soon, perhaps today, as some have said, or on Friday, and when it does come out it is important that we have a debate in this House. That would enable the Government to tell us what they will do in the light of that decision. The interim decision will almost certainly attach some conditions to the activities of Israel in particular, and it is important that we debate that in this House. It is also important that we have a decision-making process—a vote—on how we as a country can ensure that such a decision and its conditions are abided by and implemented.

My second brief point is that, time and again, the Prime Minister and others have said that there is no link between the Houthis’ actions and what is happening in Gaza. That argument is unsustainable. I agree with everything that has been said, by Members from across the House, about the Houthis—I condemn them outright. The basis of their beliefs, as far as I can see, has to be condemned. Their actions in Yemen and what they are doing at the moment have to be condemned. What they are doing is horrific, it is putting lives at risk and they are undermining their own people, but to say that it is completely unrelated to Gaza is unsustainable.

People have said, “Well, maybe it is ‘connected’ to Gaza,” As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, what is happening in Gaza is mobilising the Arab street across the middle east, and understandably so. People are watching the reportage of the human suffering and reacting aghast at what they are seeing on the ground in Gaza. As a result, they are putting pressure on their own regimes, right the way across, for some form of action. It is because both the US and the UK have not taken effective action that desire for action gets distorted in other forms—it is the Houthis’ excuse for their actions.

That leads us to the fact that we here have to accept our responsibility. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) talked about the House being shamed by the number of deaths—the 25,000 deaths that have taken place. We are shamed by witnessing on our television screens the operations and the amputations of children’s limbs without anaesthetics. We should be shamed, but we should be more shamed by our refusal to act soon enough. I think we were complicit with Biden in basically saying to the Israelis, “You have more time to sort this out with military action, rather than looking at a real strategic plan for the future.” We have a responsibility because of our history over the past century and a half in the region, so we should come forward with our own proposals soon. Some have been mentioned already and I do think that the recognition of Palestine is important, because that sends a message to Israel and elsewhere—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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rose

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
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If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am going to try to keep within the time if I can.

Recognition of Palestine will send a message to Israel that it has to come to terms with that reality at some stage. I know people have said that we have to get rid of Hamas, but, as soon as we can secure peace, Palestinians should be given the opportunity to vote for their leadership and be allowed to exercise democracy. I think people will be surprised at how the Palestinians will vote; I think they will vote for peace and for those who advocate peace. That might give us the opportunity to consolidate the Palestinian people, who have been so divided by Israel between the west bank and Gaza. We need to think creatively, for example like that, before we blunder even further. I hope the Government will now come forward with a more constructive plan, and let us vote on it.

Trial of Jimmy Lai

Bob Seely Excerpts
Monday 18th December 2023

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan
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The hon. Lady is right; it has been tragic to see the disintegration of all those freedoms, which, when both countries signed up to the Sino-British joint declaration, we considered that China would stand by. Of course, when we saw the national security law coming in, we responded very quickly and decisively, in particular with the new immigration path for British national overseas passport holders, so that we could provide that security for those who felt under most stress. We also suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely to provide protection for those people and we have extended our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong. This is a tragic situation, and we will continue to call for change and for the Hong Kong authorities to reverse the national security law and restore those freedoms that were part of Hong Kong’s extraordinary opportunity for economic success, as well as other things.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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Given everything that is happening in China, including this pitiful show trial, is it not now time that the Government of this country developed a proper, coherent cross-Government strategy for dealing with China, since they are patently lacking one at the moment?

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan
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As we set out in the integrated review refresh published in March, China’s challenge to both economic and global security is one that we consider to be right at the heart of the challenges we face. We continue to work closely with officials and in concert with G7 and other partners around the world to tackle some of those challenges.

Israel-Hamas War: Diplomacy

Bob Seely Excerpts
Monday 11th December 2023

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I understand the right hon. Lady’s strength of feeling, but she does no service to Members on either Front Bench, who have made it clear that the reasons why a ceasefire would not work are known to the House and that trying to secure humanitarian pauses—the longer the better—is the way to release humanitarian support to those who are suffering in the way she describes.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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The despicable actions of Hamas and Iran are responsible for this conflict, but proportionality is important in the rules of war, as my right hon. Friend knows. Can he explain what we are doing, working with our friends in the middle east, to encourage a sense of proportionality in Israel’s response, so that we minimise the many civilian casualties while respecting their need to take military action?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My hon. Friend expresses the balance very clearly and very well, particularly in the first part of his question. The important point, which Britain makes continually to Israel, is that its response must be proportionate, and it must operate within international humanitarian law.

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Bob Seely Excerpts
Tuesday 14th November 2023

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Mr Seely, are you going to be quiet?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Right—in which case, the shadow Foreign Secretary may continue.

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Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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We are speaking out in every way we can to try to protect vulnerable citizens. I quote what President Joe Biden said yesterday in an Oval Office address. He said that Al-Shifa Hospital “must be protected” and that

“it is my…expectation that there will be less intrusive action”.

Israel has made it clear that it has clashed with Hamas nearby, but has not fired on the hospitals themselves.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

First, I thank the FCDO for helping to rescue a group of Isle of Wight pilgrims who were caught in the Holy Land at the beginning of this dreadful conflict. Secondly—it is a genuine question—both sides have talked about the importance of protecting hospitals, but what can Israel do when those hospitals are being used to store ammunition and hold hostages, when there are military HQs and operational Hamas commands underneath those hospitals, and when Hamas are deliberately denying those hospitals fuel, because they would rather broadcast pictures of very tiny babies dying than try to save them?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend speaks with great eloquence and passion on this point. I can do no better than to commend the eloquence of his argument.

Hong Kong National Security Law Anniversary

Bob Seely Excerpts
Wednesday 28th June 2023

(8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I know we are concerned to hear whether Ministers can be more vocal when speaking out for British prisoners, or political prisoners across the board—in the case of not only Jimmy Lai, but Vladimir Kara-Murza.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. Before I bring in the shadow Minister, I want to point out that I know the hon. Gentleman has an express interest in this subject, but it is not good to intervene right at the end of a debate without having listened to it.

Situation in Russia

Bob Seely Excerpts
Monday 26th June 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about the personal courage that President Zelensky demonstrated at a point in time when Russian tanks were advancing on Kyiv. I have had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple of occasions, and it is a genuine privilege to do so.

We of course look at a wide range of open-source reporting. Much of that reporting is speculative, and much turns out to be inaccurate; we attempt to sift as much as we can, but it is difficult to get a clear picture of the events on the ground. As such, what we tend to do—as the hon. Gentleman will understand—is work on a range of potential scenarios and plan around the most credible and likely of them.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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The latest news, if it is to be believed, is that 8,000 Wagner mercenaries will be joining Yevgeny Prigozhin in Belarus, in a small town called Asipovichy where I understand some bases are being built at the dictator Lukashenko’s request. Without wishing to speculate on whether that brigade-sized force will be a greater threat to Lukashenko or to Putin in the short to medium term, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to assure us that that base will be very closely monitored, given its proximity not only to Russian nuclear weapons—we have seen the dual loyalties that the Russian army has towards Wagner—but to NATO borders?

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. and gallant Friend makes an incredibly important point: I am not at all sure that I would be comfortable with 8,000 Wagner fighters being my friends any time soon. We have made it absolutely clear to the Belarusian Government that we expect them not to be involved in or to facilitate attacks into Ukraine. We will of course keep a very close eye on reporting about the locations and activity of those Wagner fighters in Belarus.

Russian Assets: Seizure

Bob Seely Excerpts
Tuesday 14th March 2023

(11 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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Yes, of course. It is a disgusting organisation led by a disgusting individual carrying out disgusting atrocities in Russia. It is also using slave labour in some of these mines. Of course the Wagner Group must be proscribed, as should the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other such organisations. We should be at the forefront of this, not lagging behind.

The Government’s general belief is that seizing these central bank reserves would violate Russia’s sovereign immunity and would therefore be a breach of international law. If we think about it, Putin has redefined international crime and is now hiding behind international law. It is time for us to come together to make the modifications. That is the key.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that there may be something to learn from the Iraq war? Iraqi assets under Saddam Hussein’s rule were used— there was a formal legal process under which people could apply for those assets to rebuild infrastructure that had been damaged in Kuwait and elsewhere. I wonder whether the Government, when they answer the debate today, would say whether they are considering a similar process—a formal legal process under which Russian assets could be used to finance construction work in Ukraine.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would happily welcome that. It is a very good idea.

Ultimately, the war Putin initiated on Ukraine must now be punished in a variety of ways. It is unwarranted aggression against another country, and it therefore changes how international law should be applied. We should readjust and redefine international law to the new reality that Putin’s invasion has brought about. The old order is now broken, and we need to redefine it to make sure that the lesson for any other oligarch, future leader or demagogue is that they can never again hide behind these rules.

Although international law is always evolving, we need to recognise the exceptional nature of Russia’s aggression and conduct in Ukraine, as that is critical to what we do next. Russia’s aggression and invasion are breaches of the most fundamental principles of international law and order. Russia is aware of this breach but has not stopped its conduct, and it continues to threaten international security and peace. That unprecedented conduct creates a need for all Governments in the west to amend their laws together to deter other states. These amendments should use specific and limited criteria to preserve sovereign immunity in all cases. It is possible to do both without hiding behind the idea that sovereign immunity is an absolute that cannot be breached. Putin has breached it, and in future that should be the rule.

The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill could and should be strengthened to enable the seizure of undisclosed assets—that is the key. We already have a vehicle. It is wholly possible to make that difference, and to make it quite quickly. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I hope she will give that serious consideration, as it is really important.

As we know, sanctions evasion is already an offence. Embedding a new “disclosure or lose it” principle would go a long way to ensuring that sanctioned oligarchs are no longer able to conceal their dirty money here with impunity. That would help us to clean up what became a bad reputation for the City of London, whereby much of that ill-gotten money was hiding here, in one of the leading nations of the free world, and we did little or nothing to stop that.

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Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; this is beginning to sound like one of those “golden visas”. It was golden in description, but dirty and leaden in reality, and I think this is where we are again. We are going to find us all in agreement—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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Is the problem we have not shown, for example, in Abramovich’s allegedly shifting about £7 billion of assets out of the country the day before? What he did was perfectly legal, because I believe this was shifted to the United Arab Emirates or somewhere else in the middle east and his lawyers knew about it. In the United States, there is now talk about going after the law firms and the accountancy firms that help the oligarchs and that have helped these individuals to move their money around just before they have been sanctioned or to find ways around sanctions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way here is to go after these middlemen and women? We have not done that, but the problem is that what these people are doing is not necessarily illegal —they are shifting the money before it can be sanctioned, and money is a movable asset, unlike a house in Belgrave Square.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree. These individuals, Abramovich and others, may want this to be done, but somebody has to do it for them, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to follow the chain down, because we have to capture all the individuals down the chain, not just the one at the top. That is the key, because without those, this does not happen. He rightly says that, to avoid the sanctions, three weeks before the war began Abramovich was busy restructuring radically his assets. I believe that my hon. Friend is right to say that between £4 billion and £7 billion was squirreled away as a result, and we were not able to do anything about it. But we should have been ahead of the game on that one.

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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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rose—

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
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I will say a word about each of those things after I have given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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Does the right hon. Gentleman have a preferred option? Although it will be legally possible to seize Russian state assets—that has arguably been done before, so there is precedent—is he concerned about the seizure of private assets? I am tempted to say that those are legal. They are seized assets from a dirty period of Russian history, so I think one could say that they are not illegal, but how legal they are is another matter. If we are seizing oligarchs’ assets, how can we do so legally without setting a more tricky precedent?

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
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I will come to that now. There are three things that we will need to do. It is not just about private wealth; it is about public wealth—the assets of the Russian central bank. We know that $300 billion was held abroad. We know where about $30 billion of it is, and that money has been frozen. To seize that money, we will need to do a couple of things.

First, we will need to bring the world together at the United Nations to pass a resolution that revokes the doctrine of immunity for central banks when there has been a clear violation of the United Nations charter. I am under no illusions; we will not get 100%, but by getting a significant number of nations to sign up to that resolution, we begin to change the parameters of international law. That means that domestic law, when we move it, will be in a much safer legal space. Indeed, many international lawyers would say that seizing those assets is a legitimate countermeasure, but if there is a UN resolution, we have begun to change the concept of what is protected by immunity—such as central bank assets—and what is not.

Secondly, we then have to ensure that we do not fall foul of the European convention on human rights, particularly the first protocol, which enshrines the right to the enjoyment of assets. We have to ensure that there is no way that the Russian Government can be considered a victim. The safest way we can do that is to move quickly, as President Zelensky has proposed, to begin prosecuting Russia for the crime of aggression. If we have a UN resolution that has begun to revoke the concept of immunity in the case of aggression, and a tribunal that is prosecuting Russia for the crime of aggression, we will have begun to change fundamentally the context of international law.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is about the most expert person here when it comes to the workings of the international financial institutions and so on. Does he expect or think that we will be able to seize oligarch assets as part of that process? If so, do we have any idea how we will proceed down that route, or are we looking only at Russian state assets? At some point, all the oligarchs close to Putin will get their billions back.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think that we can use the same tactics to seize private and public assets, but I am conscious that we have to change the context and parameters of international law first. That is how we maximise the safety of domestic legislation, which has to be the third step. We in this House are lucky that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has set out precisely how to do that in his ten-minute rule Bill.

Crucially, we need to ensure that the State Immunity Act 1978, which gives immunity to central banks, is revoked or at least conditioned in a way that allow laws to be presented here so that we in Parliament can order the seizure, forfeiture and repurposing of assets.

My final point is a little more short term, meaning now. If we are to maximise the assets that we seize and repurpose for the reconstruction of Ukraine, we have to get serious about sanctions enforcement. Right now, frankly, we are not. There will be a lot more money available if we stop the nonsense that is going on in the dark at the moment. The truth is that sanctions enforcement in this country today is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, we have been told that as of October 2022, £18.4 billion-worth of Russian assets have been frozen in this country. We then learned from the scandal exposed by openDemocracy that the Treasury has been issuing licences like confetti, even to warlords such as Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group—in his case, to fly English lawyers to St Petersburg to prosecute an English journalist in an English court in order to silence him because he was writing the stories that triggered the sanctions against Prigozhin in the first place. What a nonsense!

As I began to dig into this, much worse was revealed. In the last Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation report, it was revealed that the Treasury is no longer issuing licences to individuals one by one to authorise specific expenditure; it is now issuing general licences that authorise an entire category of spending. In fact, 33 general licences were issued last year, so I naturally asked what the value of those general licences totalled. I was told on 15 February in a parliamentary answer:

“The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) does not disclose data from specific licences it has granted under UK sanctions regimes.”

When the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury came to the House on 25 January, we asked him whether, if he cannot tell us what the total value of the licences is, he could at least tell us what the licences were issued for. He said he could not tell us that because

“there is a delegated framework”

and that these decisions

“are routinely taken by senior civil servants.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2023; Vol. 726, c. 1014.]

I then asked what this delegated framework was and whether we in this House might have a look at it. I first tried a parliamentary question. The answer came back on 8 February:

“There are currently no plans to publish the delegation framework.”

I then had to try a freedom of information request, and I have it here in my hand. It came back to me on 9 March, and it says:

“we can confirm that HM Treasury does hold information within the scope of your request.

The information we have identified…we believe may engage the exemption provided for by section 35(1)(a)—formulation or development of Government policy.”

We now have a situation where Ministers are saying that it is the civil servants’ job, and the civil servants are saying that it is advice to Ministers. For that reason, we cannot get to what this delegated framework looks like.

I then asked whether they could at least tell us how many people we have busted for sanctions evasion. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation confessed that there were 147 reports of a breach last year, but when I asked the Minister for Security how many criminal investigations had resulted from that, he said that he could not answer

“For reasons of operational security”.

I went back to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation report to double-check, and of 147 reports of a breach, there have been a grand total of two monetary fines, both to fintech companies.

So there we have it: £18 billion frozen and licences issued like confetti in a secret regime that Ministers say is down to civil servants and civil servants say is actually advice to Ministers. Despite this flagrant abuse—and we know the scale of it, because the Financial Times told us that $250 million has been laundered by the Wagner Group—we have just two fines that total £86,000. Well, £86,000 in fines is not going to do much to help us rebuild Ukraine. I ask the Minister on the Front Bench to explain to us how she is going to do an awful lot better than that.

Sanctions enforcement in this country stinks to high heaven, and what concerns me most is the culture of secrecy around it. Many of us in this House have been around long enough to know that such a culture is never a recipe for good public policy. We in this House have to be realistic about the scale of finance that is needed; maximise the use of our Bretton Woods institutions; and move internationally and domestically, together with our allies, to change the parameters of international law and maximise the safety and security of domestic legislation that we pass here. But let us move now to send a clear signal from the UK—the home of the rule of law—that this is not going to be a safe haven for sanctions evasion. We are going to send that clear message by getting tough, and getting tough now.

War in Ukraine: Illicit Finance

Bob Seely Excerpts
Thursday 17th November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Second Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The cost of complacency: illicit finance and the war in Ukraine, HC 168, and the Government response, HC 688.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. In speaking to the report today, I will outline a series of points made by the Committee in this report and in its 2018 “Moscow’s Gold” report. I will also talk about SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation —and the case for more action on lawfare.

Our report finds that the UK sanctions response to the war, while ambitious, was initially limited by a lack of resourcing, and the new beneficial owners register still contains loopholes that put some individuals under the threshold for having to declare beneficial ownership. That is against the public interest. The report, which I strongly endorse—I encourage folks to read it should they have time—proposes a number of reforms, including new transatlantic sanctions partnerships, so that London and New York can work more closely together, and the appropriate resourcing of enforcement agencies. Both reports, and the Intelligence and Security Committee, note the lack of funding for the National Crime Agency and other serious crime organisations in the country and that some of them are threatened by the lawyers of oligarchs—potential bad actors. We believe that to be very strongly against our national interest.

In my opinion, and I think also in the opinion of the Committee and many people engaged with this issue, including the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and other hon. Members, the UK and its offshore territories have for too long turned a blind eye to the transfer and concealment of illicit or semi-licit—if that is a word—wealth, and have granted a number of high-risk individuals political and judicial protections that they do not deserve.

We have built a significant industry catering to the needs of some really quite unsavoury characters. To date, vast sums of both illicit and licit finance have been recycled through the UK’s bespoke package of the financial services industry, legal services, public relations services, private eyes, estate agents, luxury assets, concierge services, visa and citizenship routes and the private education system.

Transparency International and various other bodies have estimated that the amount of wealth, criminal or otherwise, that has flowed from the former Soviet Union via corrupt German and Scandinavian banks, via UK shell companies, to tax havens—sadly, very often the UK—is probably between £500 billion and £1 trillion. That is one of the greatest flows, probably the greatest flow, of illicit wealth in the history of humanity. The fact that we in London are a core part of that flow is frankly pretty shameful.

I was discussing the issue with the great Bill Browder the other day. One of the problems is that this is not just Colombian drug cartel money; this is money that has come from deeply corrupt, but potentially legal deals. For example, an executive at one of the big state gas or oil firms at some points in the 1990s could, if they had the connections, buy an oilfield or a gasfield equivalent to the North sea, for $100,000.

By borrowing that money off organised crime or other areas, that person would effectively become a billionaire overnight, by the sometimes legal, sometimes not, but deeply unethical transfer of state assets—the privatisation of state assets using organised crime as muscle and bureaucratic connections to facilitate it. That is what has happened in the former Soviet Union—in not only Russia, but also Ukraine back in the day, especially under Yanukovych and others, and Kazakhstan. Clearly, that has enriched a small number of people in the United Kingdom, but I do not believe it has been good for the United Kingdom as a whole. It is not good for our reputation and for London as a service industry—although it is undoubtedly true that it has very considerably enriched a small number of people.

In 2018, the Foreign Affairs Committee published an excellent report under the previous Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), called “Moscow’s Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK”. That report detailed that, despite the Government’s crackdown on Russian activity in the wake of the Skripal poisoning, back before the Ukraine war, business simply continued as usual for most of Putin’s allies in the United Kingdom.

One of the depressing things for me is that I was saying this before I was an MP, so nobody was listening, and have said it as an MP—and still nobody really listened. In 2007, back in the Munich conference speech, Putin declared a new cold war against the west. We have studiously done our best to turn a blind eye because it was too difficult for western states to get their heads around the fact that, in President Putin, we had an aggressive rival who did not accept the international system, would openly challenge it and would fight wars on his borders to secure what he thought were his vital interests—we can debate that or not. After his speech the invasion of Georgia happened, and then in 2014 there was the invasion of Ukraine through proxy groups that confused some people, but should not have done.

Before, during and after those events we have had a wave of assassinations, imprisonments and arrests. I met with Alexei Navalny’s chief of staff. Navalny now may be the most high profile political prisoner in the world; he is in a detention camp in permanent solitary confinement. That is the price for challenging President Putin. Last night, I was chatting to Marina Litvinenko, the wonderful wife of Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered in Piccadilly back in 2006—he died of radiation poisoning. The problem is that we repeatedly turned a blind eye. Our love of Russian money flowing through the financial and legal systems clouded our moral judgment. That has enabled Putin’s regime. We need to learn from those errors and mistakes.

What is the scale of the problem today? From 2008 to 2015, there were no state checks on tier 1 golden visas. At least eight individuals now sanctioned, or under investigation, are thought to have obtained citizenship through those means. They are citizens like you or me, Mr Efford. How can that be right or in the national interest? The National Crime Agency estimates that money laundering costs the UK £100 billion annually. Serious or organised crime is estimated to have a price tag of £37 billion.

Russians accused of corruption or having close links to the Putin regime have bought at least £1.5 billion worth of property in Great Britain according to Transparency International—that is a vast amount of property. One of the reasons why so many people are struggling with their mortgages is that there are vastly inflated prices for property in London and the south-east. That is in part because it is seen as an easy way to launder money: to pay over the odds for property and then to sell. Even if it is then sold at a loss of 10% or 20%, these people have laundered—legalised—a vast amount of corrupt and criminal, or semi-corrupt and semi-criminal, money.

That £1.5 billion is part of nearly £5.5 billion worth of property in the UK that has been purchased through offshore shell companies. That problem happened under new Labour and the coalition with the Liberal Democrats. What on earth is this country doing allowing offshore shell companies to be vehicles to buy property? It is just wrong. It is wrong that so many people close to Putin own so much property in this country. It is wrong that so many offshore vehicles have been used. What on earth are we doing allowing that to happen, and what on earth are we going to do to stop it? I would love the Minister to reassure us, rather than just saying that we are concerned about it.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Ind)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and I congratulate him. I want to be clear that this is not just an issue about Russia. In my constituency and elsewhere, the red princes and princesses of communist China are buying up property and inflating prices. We should not just focus on Russia when we talk about illicit finance.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Member for his very sensible point. There is absolutely a wider issue. As well as shell companies, there are vast developments on the south side of the river, around the US embassy, where entire blocks are being bought up as investment options rather than being used to provide housing for Londoners. That is shocking, especially because we have a housing shortage. There is a wider argument on reform of our housing in the UK for giving options first to allow ordinary folks to be buying it, rather than—as much as we love them—Hong Kong, Chinese or Indonesian investors to block buy endless numbers of flat and rent them out or never have them occupied.

I was going to talk a bit about the Azerbaijani laundromat. Between 2012 and 2014, about £3 billion went through UK shell companies as part of the so-called Azerbaijani laundromat; funding was dispersed from Azerbaijani officials to various outlets in this country. As well as that, London’s open economic environment has been a key centre for raising finance for companies or individuals over whom there are now very considerable question marks.

In 2017, En+ was floated on the London stock exchange, raising £1.5 billion from international investors in an initial public offering. We now know—well, we knew at the time—that En+ was very closely associated with Oleg Deripaska, despite his ownership of companies linked to supplying Russian military materials and sanctioned Russian shareholders. He himself is now sanctioned, I believe. En+ and Oleg Deripaska were part of a considerable lobbying effort by a former Member of the House of Lords—a former Conservative Minister, as much as it shames me to say it—to separate Deripaska from En+ in frankly pretty questionable circumstances.

Shortly after the Skripal poisoning, Russia continued to sell Russian sovereign debt in London, facilitated by the sanctioned Russian bank VTB. While our financial services provide anonymity to those who wish to invest, many UK legal firms have sought to further silence those who question the origin of investments.

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. I agree with everything he has to say. On sanctions, he will know, not least from the talk he did yesterday afternoon with a group of Ukrainians, that there is a big call in Ukraine at the moment to turn the freezing sanctions into confiscation sanctions, and to use the money we are holding, which would presumably otherwise be given back to the oligarchs, for the reconstruction of Ukraine. Would my hon. Friend comment on that?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I would love to; we were debating that yesterday at the Henry Jackson Society with Bill Browder and a number of other people. My hon. Friend is welcome to correct me on this, but I think Canada has prepared an Act to enable that frozen money effectively to be given to the Ukrainian authorities or set up in some kind of international fund to help reconstruction in Ukraine.

Jonathan Djanogly Portrait Mr Djanogly
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Act is quite straightforward. By way of clarification, it takes the existing sanctions legislation, including the Canadian Magnitsky law, and latches on to that the ability to change freezing orders into confiscation orders. It is a relatively simple way of going about what could be a very complicated process.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

Indeed. If it is effective, I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, and potentially other Members, to see how we can bring in such a law in the UK, so that we move from freezing money to taking money and using it for a more moral purpose.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member is making a powerful speech. I am pleased to see this report and the recommendations in it. I have been talking to Ukrainian MPs since the visit that he and I made to Kyiv. One of the biggest issues they have raised is about not just having sanctions but having a sanctions regime that ratchets up internationally. The sanctions partnership is absolutely essential.

Just now in the House, the Prime Minister was congratulating the work done already on sanctions, but we cannot stop there. We need to move on. The ramping up of sanctions and the seizing—not just freezing—of assets are absolutely being called for by Ukrainian politicians and people.

To put into context the sums the hon. Gentleman has been referring to, right now there is a $38 billion budget gap for the running of Ukraine and billions also need to be paid back in reparations. This solution is much needed and would restore the reputation of London as a financial centre, not a money laundering centre.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

That was a brief question!

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it was a speech.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I give way again.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this debate; I will speak for a wee minute in support of him. My understanding is that in earlier questions in the Chamber, the Government indicated that they were prepared to look at—I am not sure they committed themselves entirely—not just seizing the goods belonging to Russian oligarchs, but using that money for a purpose. The purpose we all asked for in the Chamber that day was for the money to be given to Ukraine. Would there not be some poetic justice if Russian money was used to directly help the Ukrainians?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. One of the things we were discussing yesterday was quite how that could happen. The initiative is being led by Bill Browder, who has championed the cause of Sergei Magnitsky ever since he was tortured and murdered 13 years ago yesterday. Ten years ago—a decade ago this month—the late, great John McCain brought in the first Magnitsky laws in the United States, and everyone else across the globe, or at least 35 nations, has followed suit.

The person dealing with this issue in Ukraine is a very powerful Ukrainian politician called Kira Rudik, who was also with us yesterday. She is in London today. She is trying to get a global coalition to do just what we have been discussing. I hope that we will soon have a draft law here that we can send to Government, debate and put down in some form to say, “These are the next steps.”

I pay tribute to Kyle Parker, too, who was also in the discussions we had yesterday. He is great man. A senior congressional staffer—these people have much more power in the US than they tend to in the UK—he wrote the Magnitsky Act and worked with Congressmen and Senators to get it through both Houses in the US system. We should be doing the same here.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs—it is a bit of a mouthful—are effectively the abuse of law by the rich to intimidate journalists, campaigners and others. SLAPPs are absolutely part and parcel of this system. Imagine the great caravan of wealth that flowed from the former Soviet Union to the tax havens of the Caribbean. It needed facilitators, which were the financial services companies, some of which are corrupt German and Scandinavian banks. I think their names are out there: Deutsche Bank, in Estonia, I think, and one or two others.

The system also needed attack dogs to protect the flow of that vast caravan of sometimes criminal wealth, and those were the legal firms. Those lawyers effectively built a business model of legalised intimidation whereby journalists and campaigners can be threatened. If someone in the Soviet Union, or Russia post the collapse of the Soviet Union, wanted to stop a journalist from trying to investigate them, they would ultimately just kill them. In the UK and the west, that is more difficult—not impossible, but it is more difficult to kill people and get away with it.

People are not physically destroyed in this country; instead, the legal system is used to financially destroy them. That has sadly happened to a number of people, including Charlotte Leslie, a former colleague of ours, and the wonderful journalist Catherine Belton. Various campaign groups have also been targeted. Most recently, Chatham House has been a target. Sadly, I understand it has given in to threats and is having to rewrite some of its reports.

This business model was set up to service the needs of the aggressive rich and powerful, including organised criminals and oligarchs, who did not want their affairs investigated. The three methods were the abuse of libel law, the abuse of privacy law—the right to privacy, meaning no one else can look into someone’s affairs—and data protection. The aim in all the cases was to mount up such staggering costs that even a technical victory would destroy the opponent, render them bankrupt or destroy their reputation. If they were a journalist, the aim was to make a newspaper or publishing house invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in defending them against the vast sums that oligarchs were willing to throw at them to make their lives difficult.

A slightly different case is that of the Maltese corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. It was a great privilege to recently meet her son, who works in the UK media. At the time she was murdered, she was facing 47 libel lawsuits, almost all of which were from UK law firms. That is staggering: before she was physically destroyed, she was being psychologically and financially destroyed.

I have discussed Catherine Belton and the costs of SLAPPs. My final point is that it is extraordinary that, as Spotlight on Corruption and Global Integrity have found, law firms in the UK currently face almost zero risk of criminal prosecution for money laundering, and there is a very limited prospect of their facing any meaningful fines. I was told privately that a number of UK law firms support that criminal money-laundering activity. Yet almost nothing is done, and almost nothing is investigated.

What are the solutions? First, close the loopholes in Companies House. I know that the Government have made strides on that, but there is more to be done. The right hon. Member for Barking is working with a number of Members on both sides of the House to tighten up the regulations. If the Government could be sympathetic, we would be grateful. Secondly, the UK’s economic crime enforcement system remains under-resourced. It needs to be better resourced, so that we can fight the bad guys and girls better.

Thirdly, we need to better supervise the so-called professional enablers, so that they cannot effectively operate outside money laundering regulations. Fourthly, as we tighten up regulations here, we need to expand our UK regulations to British overseas territories. It is absolute nonsense that criminal and organised crime and tax havens benefit people in the Caribbean.

We very much welcome the Ministry of Justice’s response to the call for evidence on SLAPPs and its proposals for legislative reform. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and I—and perhaps others—will present a Bill on SLAPPs, so that a Bill is ready when the Government want to introduce one; we love saving Government time, and increasing the productivity of Government and politicians. We will provide a model for SLAPPs law. It will ensure that SLAPPs are disposed of more quickly in court, that the costs of being attacked by SLAPPs are kept to a minimum, and that the costs for SLAPP filers are higher, which will potentially deter further SLAPPs. There are other measures, but I will not go into them now.

In summary, as a result of the UK’s economic permissiveness, we have for too long become a safe haven for kleptocrats. That has to end. The situation is getting better, but it is a shame that it took a major war in eastern Europe for things to change dramatically. We take pride in the openness and transparency of speech, and in the UK’s open economic system. However, that freedom of speech and open economic system must be better protected. A laissez-faire, criminalised free-for-all is not an open economic system; it is a corruption of that system. We need to clamp down on the sources of illicit finance coming through the UK. I urge the Government to continue reforming Companies House, to resource our enforcement bodies, and to read and take in the many excellent recommendations in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report.

--- Later in debate ---
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I thank everyone for taking part in the debate and I thank you, Mr Efford, for chairing.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Second Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The cost of complacency: illicit finance and the war in Ukraine, HC 168, and the Government response, HC 688.

Missile Incident in Poland

Bob Seely Excerpts
Wednesday 16th November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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The hon. Lady makes an important point. Her words echo those of the Prime Minister and mine on the international stage. What we have seen, through Vladimir Putin’s attempt to use energy supply to blackmail countries that are supporting Ukraine in its self-defence, is a warning that we have to wean ourselves off hydrocarbons—particularly those through which we are reliant on autocratic states such as Russia.

That incentivises us to work at renewable energy generation and storage here in the UK, and to work with our international friends and partners to wean the world off hydrocarbons, which is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I did when we went to Sharm El Sheikh for COP27. It is one of the points that he is discussing with the membership of the G20 in Indonesia at the moment. We have been at the forefront of many of the green energy generation technologies. We are absolutely committed to making sure that we help the Ukrainians to defend themselves in the here and now, and that we all defend each other through a greener and more sustainable energy mix in future.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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In this unfortunate incident, two facts seem to be clear. First, the strategy of the Russians is to hold a military line across the south and the east and to destroy Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure; we probably agree on that. I understand fully the great work the Government are doing, which is generally fantastic, and the fact that we are the largest donor in Europe by some distance. However, there is a simple fact that we cannot get around. The Ukrainians have been saying for months that they do not have the air defence equipment to protect the cities and the infrastructure and the water supplies and the electricity and their own troops. Despite the fantastic work that the Secretary of State and his team are doing, the Ukrainians do not have enough air defence kit, and this is becoming critical to the survival of the Ukrainian state and its people’s morale in the coming months.

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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My hon. and gallant Friend, who has made a career, both in uniform and out, of analysing these things, is absolutely right in his assessment of the immediate tactics that the Russians are endeavouring to use. By extension, he is also right about the need to help the Ukrainians with their air defence systems. I am assured by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister for Armed Forces that exactly that issue will be discussed at Ramstein, at military-to-military level and at Foreign Minister-to-Foreign Minister level. The equipment and the integration of that equipment are key, and will remain an absolute priority for us.