Debates between Bob Seely and David Davis during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 17th Oct 2022
Mon 6th Jun 2022
National Security Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
Tue 1st Mar 2022
Tue 10th Mar 2020
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons & Report stage & 3rd reading

New Housing Supply

Debate between Bob Seely and David Davis
Monday 5th June 2023

(9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for a really fascinating speech and hope that the debate will be of equal quality. There is an issue with density. Garden cities are a fantastic idea, whether Hampstead garden suburb, Welwyn Garden City or the others, but we have some of the lowest density cities in the world. We are a small country with a high-density per-kilometre population compared with elsewhere in the world. How does he square that circle with the high-quality environment that he wants to see?

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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Part of that fits in with what my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) said, but I will deal with the point about the high density of the population in a moment.

Let us talk about the politics of nimbyism. Today, in a village in my constituency, a small development of 100 homes would generate thousands of objections. That is inevitably what happens. A garden town could deliver tens of thousands of homes and, if put in the right place, would probably generate a few hundred objections. I will talk about how to minimise that, too. Such a scheme would be fruitless unless we can ensure that new developments generate the funding they need to become places where people actually want to live. That is key.

Part of the problem with the existing process is that a mass of potential funding for infrastructure can quickly disappear, captured not by the local community but by landowners and developers. As soon as a hectare of farming land gets planning permission, its value will shoot up roughly a hundredfold. That is the order of magnitude. It goes from £21,000 for the average hectare of agricultural land to an enormous average residential land value of £2.1 million per hectare—that is outside of London. However, the vast majority of that will go to the landowner and the developer. About 27% will be captured by the state, mostly by the Treasury—that is over and above the money brought in by section 106 agreements.

There is no guarantee that money will be spent locally. Indeed, there is almost a guarantee that it will not be spent locally—I am looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), a former Treasury Minister, as I say that. This system starves local communities of funding that could pay for necessary infrastructure within the development, such as schools, roads, train stations, GPs and hospitals, fibre optics or cycle lanes—you name it—or even funding that could pay for larger and cheaper homes, which comes to the point about density. The result is piecemeal development around existing settlements that lacks the proper amenities to cope.

The solution lies with the example I have referred to already, set during the 20th century. The construction of new towns was centred around radical but effective legislation that allowed new town development corporations to buy large tracts of land at their existing use value. That meant that when buying up farmland for garden towns, the corporations paid the agricultural use price rather than the hope value, or hypothetical market price. I want to propose a slightly more sophisticated approach, because I do not really like expropriation—I am a Conservative, remember. We will have to have some sort of compulsory purchase, but there should be a proper compensation for that.

Consider an example of a 1,000 hectare garden town, a little smaller than Welwyn Garden City. Purchasing 1,000 hectares of land at agricultural value would cost £21 million, but as soon as it has planning permission the value would rise to £2.1 billion—remember that number. There is no change to the underlying land usefulness and no work undertaken—that is just a change of planning permission. But a Government-created garden town development corporation might pay the existing owners, let’s say, 10% of the development value. That is still £210 million, so we are now talking about a pretty rich farmer. That is ten times the existing use value and a profit for him of £190 million, but it still leaves £1.9 billion of uncaptured asset value. That £1.9 billion surplus can be used to invest in the town’s infrastructure, schools, medical centres, parks, pedestrian walkways, high-speed optical links, and road and rail connections.

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David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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Well, that is the rest of the argument. My aim is to create a well-designed town, which is attractive to live in. I looked around my own part of the world and I thought, “I can see where they would go.” I am not going to say it publicly as I do not want to change the land values, but I could certainly see that.

These developments would be built in areas of comparatively low population. They will not be on top of an existing town, as my hon. Friend describes, so they can, to a large extent, sidestep the nimby problem. Even in cases where there is a hamlet near to a proposed site, considering the size of the surplus, it could be used to buy out those who are objecting, with a small premium on the existing market price, a little bit of help with moving and the payment being tax free. That would minimise the nimby problem.

It is not as though we are short of space for these new developments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said, we often hear that the UK is full or that further development risks damaging our beautiful countryside. I am afraid I do not agree with such arguments. My hon. Friend has been in a helicopter more times than I have, so he will know that if he flies from London to York or Hereford to York, or wherever he likes, if he looks out of the window he will see that unless passing over a major conurbation, it is like looking at a golf course. Only 8.7% of England is developed; in Scotland, it would be a tiny fraction.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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My right hon. Friend may find that that figure is disputed. When we look at motorway service stations and urban lighting, we see that urban sprawl means the number is significantly greater than 8.7%. That number represents a very narrow definition and there are people who would at least double it.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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Like all mathematicians, as I am, I always treat numbers carefully. My hon. Friend might note that I said, “Look out of the window of a helicopter.” If he does that, he will see what I am talking about—large amounts of free tracts of land. I am talking about not just any old land, but land near motorways, railway hubs or the old Beeching railway lines, if we wanted to rebuild some of those. There are a whole series of places where we could put people.

It is not just a numbers game either. As the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and others have said, new communities need to have character. They need to be attractive to all sorts of members of society. Garden villages and towns make that possible. I am not necessarily trying to introduce another policy aim, but instead of shoehorning new houses into any nook and cranny we can find in existing settlements, we can build good-quality, spacious homes in new developments.

Lawfare and Investigative Journalism

Debate between Bob Seely and David Davis
Monday 17th October 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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I thank the right hon. Lady for drawing the attention of the House to that case. I do not know the substance of it, but the fact is that these cases are best resolved transparently and in public, with fearless reporting, not with repression of free speech. Oligarchs will often bring these claims as they know their opponents will, as in this case, have to back down either through the threat of bankruptcy or because they become bankrupt as a result of the operation, and it is a good example of this problem.

That is why the Government earlier this year found that some journalists

“no longer publish information on certain individuals or topics—such as exposing serious wrong-doing or corruption—because of potential legal costs.”

That also applies to some newspapers and some organisations whose job it is to expose this sort of information.

With every letter and every stage of legal action, organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism must divert resources and attention away from public interest reporting and towards defending themselves against bogus or trivial claims. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has a small team, with just a few dozen staff. To defend itself, it has been forced to divert much of its reporting team and senior management, as well as significant financial resources, to dealing with these legal threats.

This kind of lawfare is a potentially existential threat to investigative journalism, and that is precisely what the claimants in these cases intend. These proceedings are not initiated to prove the organisations wrong—the oligarchs know that the organisations are right—but rather to financially and psychologically exhaust them into retraction. What Nazarbayev wants is to import into the UK the contempt for free speech shown in Kazakhstan during his three-decade rule. As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) pointed out in his intervention, Nazarbayev is bringing to Britain what he imposed on Kazakhstan and we cannot allow that. This should offend the sensibilities of anyone who values a fair and equal justice system, as well as those who rightly appreciate the value of public interest reporting.

It is of some reassurance that the Government intend to reform the law around SLAPPs, but we must move more quickly. I say that directly to the Minister, who is an old friend of mine over the years; I am very pleased he is in his place and in the Department as he will do a fantastic job, but I say to him that we must move more quickly. There is no time to waste when even now we have oligarchs using SLAPPs to curb free speech and evade justice in our country. One of our ex-colleagues, Charlotte Leslie, is facing such a case at the moment. We as Members of Parliament have parliamentary privilege and so can speak without the threat of libel action, but that privilege brings with it a duty to speak up for those who cannot speak for fear of punishment by the likes of Nazarbayev.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the Government swiftly introduced sanctions on those with links to the Russian regime, making it harder for them to use our country as a money-laundering venue. It is high time that we applied that same urgency and purpose to addressing the damage that oligarchs are doing to our justice system and our free-speech values. For too long, we have facilitated oligarchs’ dirty money and corruption in the UK.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend is making a great speech and incredibly good points about lawfare. We have the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill before the House, and it would be wonderful if the Minister, when he is on his feet in a few minutes, confirmed that lawfare will be part of that. We have a lawfare Bill written and ready to go, and the Government could adopt it. There are three elements to it: the abuse of privacy laws; various other factors; and the aggressive abuse of libel law. The problem is, whether we like it or not, we may make grandiose speeches about how free speech must be defended, but it is being attacked all the time. In the last few years, it has been relentlessly attacked by criminals, by oligarchs and by Russian proxies and other corrupt proxies in this country. We need laws brought in now, not at some time in the future.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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My hon. Friend is exactly right. Our friends and neighbours in the US and Europe are taking action, and we must not be left behind. If we do not act, we will let dangerous people off the hook while allowing journalists and researchers to be punished for doing their jobs. What we need now is a commitment from Ministers to bring forward either a free-standing SLAPPs Bill or measures that form a component of another Bill. I do not care which it is, but it must happen soon.

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David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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Will the Minister give way?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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Will the Minister give way?

National Security Bill

Debate between Bob Seely and David Davis
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I am very aware of my right hon. Friend’s background. What would he do about oversight of DSF, because it does seem to fall between two Committees, and, as such, it seems to exist in a bit of a black hole when it comes to oversight.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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Can my hon. Friend explain the point?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I am talking about the oversight of the DSF—Director Special Forces. Arguably, at the moment, it does not fall within the remit of the Ministry of Defence. It does not fall within the remit of the Foreign Affairs Committee and it does not fall within the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Does my right hon. Friend think that it needs oversight, and how would he provide oversight of that rarified world that exists between the agencies and traditional defence?

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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My hon. Friend is tempting me into an area in which I will lose all my friends, as he well knows. My off-the-cuff response—and it is just an off-the-cuff response—is that it is an appropriate area for oversight by the ISC, not by the Defence Committee, simply because of the confidentiality and classification elements that apply.

Let me return to the question of the Official Secrets Act 1989. I agree with everything that has been said so far. I agree that we should look very closely at the Law Commission proposals, because we need certainty. What we have at the moment is an interpretation of the law by juries—whether it is the Ponting case, the Katharine Gun case, where we did not even get to the point because the Government ran away from the case on the first day of trial, or the Derek Pasquill case. In each case, we had an interpretation of the law on a commonsensical basis by juries. Thank heavens for that, frankly, because they have more sense, many times, than the Government have in these areas, but we need predictability on both sides. We need officials to know that if something is done that they think is against the public interest, they can be reasonably confident that the provision will be carried out. That, if it operates properly, will improve the public service. On the other side, the Government should also have a right to know what is coming in that area.

I will make one or two other small points. On the foreign power conditions in the Bill, Reprieve, Privacy International, Transparency International and other excellent organisations that do very good work have received some funding from other nations’ Governments. It does not seem to be the intention that the Bill would have them fall foul of this law, but that might be the effect, so we have to be very clear about how that works. Perfectly legitimate organisations could be left committing an offence, under this area of the Bill, if they use leaked information—which may not even be classified—to challenge Government policy. That requires a closer look.

Sanctions

Debate between Bob Seely and David Davis
Tuesday 1st March 2022

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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The right hon. Lady makes a point that will be made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) and others, and I have a lot of sympathy, but we have to be careful that we do not take away ordinary citizens’ rights—indeed, the proper rights of any individual—in how we deal with the lawyers, the accountants and so on.

Particularly in the lawfare area, a huge industry of enormous margins and enormous profits has been developed by various law firms, in particular, that have developed the tactics for defeating the Government’s imposition of proper laws.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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My right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) raise a very important point. CMS took instruction from a Ministry of the Interior official who was actually a front for organised crime in the Magnitsky case. Should organised crime have legal representation? Yes. Should foreign organised crime have legal representation? Potentially. Does foreign organised crime have the right to hire companies such as CMS to try to use lawfare to attack freedom of speech and Bill Browder in this country? I would argue not, and that is the debate we should be having.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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My hon. Friend and I sponsored the lawfare debate four weeks ago, and he played a sterling part—he made probably the most informative speech in the whole debate. Yes, we have to address lawfare, but it is a difficult area. There are quicker areas we can work on right now, bearing in mind that time means lives. We have to work faster than we have been.

As I said, the NCA was able to bring successfully only two unexplained wealth orders out of nine, but the truth is that it has 100 targets sitting in its files—not two or four—and it cannot pursue them. Its evidence was given to the Intelligence and Security Committee and is reflected in the Russia report, but Lynne Owens, who was then head of the NCA, said that it simply could not afford the huge legal bills that it faced. The truth is that frankly it does not have the huge calibre of skills—no agency can say that they have— that oligarchs with virtually infinite quantities of money can employ.

How can we get the Serious Fraud Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Crown Prosecution Service and the NCA all to use this legislation properly? First, we must ensure that the costs of unexplained wealth orders are brought under control from the state point of view. Again, we must be careful that we do not undermine the rights of ordinary citizens, so we may say that the rules will apply only to unexplained wealth orders of, let us say, more than £50 million or something like that—that will not worry the ordinary citizen—and put a cap on expenditure. We must also use the private sector. We must say, “This is a national emergency” and ask everybody to put their shoulder to the wheel and make these UWOs work properly. The NCA has a list of 100, but those of us who took part in the lawfare debate know that roughly 140 Russian oligarchs should be on the target list. Not all of them are in Britain, but they should be on the list because their money may be in Britain, even if that is not the case.

It seems to me that there is a serious issue that should be in today’s regulations. I worry about the Government moving so slowly that their prey escape them and that the people who are in effect the enemies of the people of Ukraine by proxy get away with things that we should not allow. We must fight fire with fire and beat the oligarchs at their own game.

I will pick one oligarch out. We have already seen the results of actions taken so far, with oligarchs scrambling to protect their reputations. In the newspapers in the last few days we have seen Roman Abramovich doing things to protect himself. According to the Spanish Intelligence Committee, he is the man—or at least one of the men—who manages Putin’s business affairs. That is a really important issue in considering whether he should be on our target list. He was refused a Swiss residency permit due to suspected involvement in money laundering and contacts with criminal organisations and, when his UK visa was up for renewal, he chose to withdraw his application as it became clear that he would need to explain the source of his wealth due to the changes that we introduced in 2015. I picked one, but I could have picked any of 100-plus to illustrate that there is information and knowledge—it is not a question of being unable to identify the individuals. It should not have taken a war for us to make a start on that.

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David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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This is not my main point, but I just point out that it is not just Britain; after all, the chairman of Gazprom and the former German Chancellor is another such example.

The point that I want to bring my hon. Friend to is his question about the lawyers. I do not feel that I responded properly to his intervention about the professions involved here. It seems to me that professional bodies themselves have to look very hard at the issue. We also have to make sure that the law is enforced. What he is talking about—people ignoring the origin of the money being paid to them—is actually a breach of the law that those people understand.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I do not want to abuse privilege, but, to put it bluntly, I have been told of law firms that do not carry out client checks. I have been told of law firms that are effectively complicit in breaking the law. I have been told of law firms that are knowingly taking from organised crime, but doing it through a front. I will not start naming names now, but people are coming to me and telling me about this stuff—they are telling others here as well. It is a very serious that our legal systems have become so corrupted.

When it comes to solicitors, certainly in the Belton case, there is John Kelly at Harbottle and Lewis; Geraldine Proudler at CMS; Nigel Tait at Carter-Ruck—how often should that company have been mispronounced—which represents the interests of Rosneft; and Hugh Tomlinson QC, who represented all of them. Tait is also going after Charlotte Leslie for another client, as I think some here have mentioned. We have to wonder about the reputations that these people will end up with in a few years’ time, even if they are behaving as well as they might—I am being careful in what I say. Perhaps they are really lovely people, but perhaps their amorality will really begin to bite their reputations in a way that will be uncomfortable.

I just wonder: how on earth have we allowed this to happen? I would love an answer from a lawyer in Government. A free press should be intimidating kleptocrats and criminals. Why have we got to this position in our society—a free society, the mother of Parliaments—where we have kleptocrats, criminals and oligarchs intimidating a free media? We have a coalition not of the willing, but of the woeful. Oligarchs, Putin’s henchmen, team up with amoral lawyers—we know the oligarch model. We heard that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). Just a few weeks ago, they told us how these firms set up a one-stop corruption shop to offer a form of legalised intimidation to silence not only their rivals, but journalists and authors.

There is also an unstructured, unregulated private eye business that is now collecting kompromat on people in this country. Do not get me wrong: people have the right to advice and legal representation, but that is being abused very badly in our society at the moment. To make the link with Putin, when it comes to the Belton case Catherine Belton says that the legal cases against her started two months after the Navalny video of Putin’s palace, when Navalny quoted from her book. As if by magic, a few weeks later three oligarchs, completely coincidentally, attack her to try to silence her and try to bankrupt HarperCollins and intimidate it into withdrawing the book.

Lawfare and UK Court System

Debate between Bob Seely and David Davis
Thursday 20th January 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of lawfare and the UK court system.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for his having issued a waiver for this debate. I of course recognise why it is important that Members of this House do not seek to influence the outcome of cases that are before the courts, and if these matters were before a jury, I would be wary of raising them, but they are matters of national importance and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise them.

We are rightly proud of our legal system in this country. Britain is home to some of the fairest and best courts in the world. Centuries of jurisprudence mean that London is among the most respected cities from a legal perspective. However, what is attractive to legitimate businessmen is also attractive to those with nefarious intentions: there are those with exceptionally deep pockets and exceptionally questionable ethics. These people use our justice system to threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations. What results is injustice, intimidation, suppression of free speech, the crushing of a free press, bullying and bankruptcy. It results in protection from investigation and gives encouragement to fraudsters, crooks and money launderers. It has turned London into the global capital of dirty money. In extreme cases, it can undermine the security of the state by allowing people to act as extensions of foreign powers.

This is lawfare—lawfare against British freedom of speech, lawfare against the freedom of the press, and lawfare against justice for our citizens. Lawfare is the misuse of legal systems and principles by extraordinarily rich individuals and organisations to destroy their critics and opponents. In many cases, our reporters face reputational and financial ruin in defending themselves from these malevolent cases; even if they win, the expense and impact are huge. The chilling effect on a free press is extraordinary. Some newspapers hesitate to cover certain topics, such as the influence of Russian oligarchs, for fear of costly litigation. In at least one case I know, the publication avoids the subject outright.

These sorts of cases, designed to silence criticism, are so prolific that they now have an acronym: SLAPPs, which stands for strategic litigation against public participation. Such lawsuits are based on laws on defamation, privacy, data protection and—ironically—harassment. In the UK the cost of defending a case, no matter how well sourced and how great the public interest, can run into millions of pounds. These cases are so time-consuming and costly because a disclosure process before trial can be dragged out by deep-pocketed claimants for years to financially hobble the defendant, even before they get to the ruling.

The issue is not just the financial and reputational damage inflicted by these cases; lives are also being destroyed. Defendants are unable to work. Every waking moment is spent looking over their shoulders, wondering who or what is just around the corner. This is not about legitimate recourse against journalists making mistakes—because, as we know in this House, they can and they do; it is about shutting down scrutiny through fear.

Early in 2021, Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny published a video investigation into President Putin’s palace on the Black sea. In the video, he waved a copy of “Putin’s People” by Catherine Belton, a much respected Financial Times journalist at the time. Just two months later, Belton and her publisher were suddenly served with a series of lawsuits, filed over the course of six weeks by four Russian billionaires and the state-run company Rosneft—that, I think, gives away that the Russian state is involved.

Media lawyers with decades of experience in such cases said that they had never seen a legal onslaught of such scale and intensity. Those cases dragged on for over a year, and the cost of that year alone ran into the millions—£1.5 million for Catherine Belton alone. If the case had gone on, it would have cost millions more.

One of those suing Belton—the final one—was Roman Abramovich, the multi-billionaire owner of Chelsea football club. Abramovich claimed that Belton’s book alleged that he had a corrupt relationship with the Russian President and was making payments into Kremlin slush funds. An identical suit was also filed in an Australian court by Abramovich, to effectively double the cost of defending the case and to further intimidate HarperCollins.

It is worth reminding people of Mr Abramovich’s background and the character of the man. We are speaking here of the man who manages President Putin’s private economic affairs, according to the Spanish national intelligence committee. This is a man who was refused a Swiss residency permit, due to suspected involvement in money laundering and contacts with criminal organisations. Abramovich was also deemed a danger to public security and a reputational risk to Switzerland.

Abramovich initially came to the UK on an investor visa. In 2015, the Home Office tightened the rules around those visas, so that applicants could be required to prove the origins of their wealth. In 2018, when his visa was up for renewal, Abramovich withdrew the application. When he bought Chelsea FC, Abramovich was the governor of the Chukotka region of Russia. It was alleged by associates of his that the purchase was done at the behest of the Kremlin. As a result of the purchase, he now has enormous soft power and influence in the UK. I ask the House to come to its own conclusion about whether this man is acting at the behest of the Kremlin or Putin’s Government.

Belton’s case is now settled. Interestingly, there was a huge spin to suggest that Abramovich had won hands down, and he had not, but that is another matter. But for her colleague on the Financial Times, Tom Burgis, the author of “Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World”, his legal battles are just beginning. Burgis is being sued by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, a privately owned Kazakh multinational mining company. Since April 2013, ENRC has been under investigation by our Serious Fraud Office for fraud, bribery and corruption. The investigation is one of the longest-running and most complicated cases that the SFO has on its books. This case, and its reporting, has prompted a wave of legal proceedings by ENRC in the United States and the UK against journalists, lawyers and Serious Fraud Office investigators.

In May 2015, two former employees of ENRC turned up dead on the same day in a Missouri hotel. They were due to be witnesses in the SFO case. The cause of their death was recorded as malaria, but the chances of two people dying from malaria on the same day and at the same time, broadly—within hours of each other—is vanishingly small. The next year, a geologist associated with the company was found dead in the back of a burned-out Audi in Johannesburg. Burgis outlined these facts in his book, but he is now facing the wrath of ENRC, which alleges that passages in the book are “untrue” and “highly damaging”—the reason? Because ENRC interpreted the reporting of the deaths as Burgis suggesting

“murder to protect its business interests, or alternatively, there are strong grounds to ‘suspect’”

that ENRC had them murdered.

Even given the waiver, I should not comment on the substance of the ongoing legal proceedings, but what I will say is that the FBI takes these allegations seriously enough that it is now investigating the Missouri deaths. Take from that what you will, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Amazingly, when the FT reported the FBI’s action, ENRC then took action against that paper. Are we now to understand that journalists are not allowed to publicly report the deaths of witnesses for fear that someone may deduce that they were murdered by a company like ENRC?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend is making a fantastically important speech, and I look forward to joining him to talk about these many important subjects. What does he think about those London-based law firms that are so willing to sell intimidatory legal threats as part of their services?

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend alights upon a very important point. It is very clear that some London-based law firms have found an incredibly profitable niche that they are willing to pursue without too much concern about the outcome. I think the professional bodies for those law firms should be looking very hard at them, as should the Government. It is an important point, which I am sure others will develop.

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David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The way that it happens is that there are legal firms that now specialise in making that sort of intimidating tactic work, and it is based on multiple different laws—as I said earlier, on everything from defamation to data protection and privacy. Therefore, we have to find a way to govern how the courts work to ensure that exactly what he says does not happen and that there are not multiple attempts. After all, someone can be charged only once for a crime, so why can someone be sued multiple times for another sort of misbehaviour?

It is not only Amersi who is engaged in bullying and egregious behaviour, and it is not just law. For instance, Mr Carl Hunter was in contact by phone with Ms Leslie to attempt to informally broker peace between her and Mr Amersi and to urge her to apologise. He told her:

“You need to consider your position—being able to walk the dog at night, being able to sleep well at night.”

He said that she was looking at a “world of pain” on it. Those are clear and unacceptable threats, of which recordings are available, made in an attempt to intimidate. Those recordings contain other rather sinister comments as well.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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To reinforce a point that other hon. Members will probably make, although the lawyers—the Carter-Rucks and the Mishcon de Reyas—will say, “Everything that we do is legal,” this is part of a really corrupt and intimidatory practice that veers well into the criminal. Even if the lawyers are obeying the law, other parts of these sorts of campaigns are, frankly, purely criminal.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I take my hon. Friend’s point. He will understand that I am picking my way carefully through my speech, given Mr Speaker’s ruling, so as not to trip into pre-empting the case. I am trying to present facts to the House so it can make its own judgment.

Charlotte Leslie has tried to settle the issue. After that intimidatory approach, she agreed to apologise to Mr Amersi and he rejected it. He is used to getting his way. He justified the use of money to get access to members of the royal family as “access capitalism”—that is his phrase. He has taken the same approach in this case. He throws money at a problem in an attempt to make it go away.

While Ms Leslie has been subject to legal harassment for a year, Sir Nicholas Soames has avoided the brunt of Amersi’s attack. Why? This is not a comment against Sir Nicholas, who is a very good man, but in Amersi’s own words—his rather odd English—it is because of his “grandioseness”. Charlotte, on the other hand, is not seen as grand and is therefore fair game. There is a simple non-legal word for that, which is bullying. That is what we are seeing.

So what do we need to do about SLAPPs? Members of this House will have many more ideas than me, and many of them are much more skilled and knowledgeable than me in these areas, but the clear fact is that there needs to be balance. Dealing with SLAPPs is an issue of balance. It is not wrong to sue journalists—sometimes they make serious mistakes or behave maliciously—but billionaires and multimillionaires should not be able to use the law to shut down legitimate criticism. Even if someone defends their case successfully, in this day and age they face material costs so huge that they will further deter others from following a story, and they can even destroy lives. Just to go off on a tangent, Charlotte Leslie, if she has to meet the costs of all of this, will probably have to sell her home and lose all her savings, and that is what an ordinary person faces in this context.

In the United States, 31 states have passed anti-SLAPP laws offering varying degrees of protection—remember that the US already has the first amendment—and in some cases allowing journalists and media organisations to file motions to dismiss such suits at an early stage on the grounds that the case involves protected speech on a matter of public interest. Such a protection does not exist in the UK, enabling the process to be dragged out at great expense to both parties. That is fine for those with deep pockets, but for an ordinary person it is immensely damaging financially and emotionally. It destroys the entire concept of equality under the law.

Other countries are already addressing this issue, and as they do, the problem for London will only grow as more and more ultra-wealthy individuals come here to exercise lawfare. If London is to remain the envy of the legal world, then we need to get a grip on the problem and stop this rampant abuse of our system. If we do not, we will continue to face these kinds of attacks on the freedom of our press—the foundation of our state—and we will leave our people subject to grotesque injustice in the face of this outrageous lawfare.

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill

Debate between Bob Seely and David Davis
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I have talked with the NSC and GCHQ people a few times since last summer. One of the most disturbing things I found out, I found out yesterday. I said, “You are making a pledge that you can militate against the system”—we know from the oversight board that actually they cannot—“but for how long is that guaranteed?” I was told that the guarantee that we can defend the system lasts about seven years, which is about the same length of time as a car warrantee—not 10 years, not 20 years, not three or four generations, but seven years.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but I suspect that seven years is a massive overestimate. Like our telephones, this technology changes every 18 months. Seven years is the achievement of an Einstein of this sector. That is point No. 1: our expert argument in the UK is that we are the only ones in step. That is not an argument that stands up very often.

My second point, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) referred earlier, is that this is a national security issue. The most recent debates on national security in this House in the past decade or so have been about terrorism, rather than potential massive conflicts between major powers. The House will remember that the IRA always used to say that we have to be lucky all the time, but they had to be lucky only once. That is a demonstration of the sort of analysis we must apply to security issues. Let us consider the Government’s argument. Let us imagine that the Government are right and we are wrong, but we do what we want to do. The worst case is that we spend a little more money and we introduce a technology, possibly better technology, maybe a year or two later. That is the worst-case outcome for our analysis. But if we are right and they are wrong, and we do what they say, the outcome will be to allow the undermining of our complete national infrastructure. This is not just a telecoms system; it is fundamental to the lifeblood of our entire national infrastructure. On a security analysis approach, it is just plum wrong.

Finally—this is designed to help the Secretary of State—there is the argument about time. I confess that I probably take the hardest line in our group on timing. My view is simple: we should separate this into two pieces. One is what happens about new installations. In my view, since they are called high risk vendors—the clue is in the name—there should be no more installations. I can see no loss in not installing another single piece of Huawei equipment. The argument that it cannot be done by anybody else has been proven by several speakers so far to be completely without foundation. My argument to the Secretary of State is that when he stands up, he must tell us whether his proposal involves continuing to put in place Huawei kit that we will then have to take out in our move to zero. On that basis, I am afraid it is very clear that the Back Benchers are right and the Government are wrong.