Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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Indeed, and we considered an amendment in yesterday’s debate to address that specific issue, so that any funds arising from a confiscation order, or other such order, could be enjoyed by the enforcement agencies themselves, which would provide an additional incentive. We discussed last week’s Danske Bank settlement of criminal issues in the United States, from which the enforcement agencies received $2 billion. Just imagine the amount of enforcement activity that could be funded from that fee. We are timid in that regard, so I completely concur with the right hon. Gentleman on that.

The other argument in relation to cost caps is that the fear of facing huge costs if one fails in a case provides a disincentive to the enforcement agents to pursue as vigorously as one would like economic crime prosecutions. The Minister has said to me previously that there is no evidence to back that up, but I just do not buy that. A proper analysis of how people in the NCA, the Serious Fraud Office and other agencies think before they decide to pursue a prosecution would very quickly reveal that there is a disincentive. It is for those two reasons that we considered cost caps. The US is our model. Each party bears its own costs, which is much more effective. We heard figures yesterday—I will not repeat them because I have to get on—that the US gets much more money in and it does not cost as much to its enforcement agencies.

Those are the things that I wanted to cover. I hope that, in summing up, the Minister will please give us some concessions. I urge him to reflect on the degree of unanimity across the House and on the very senior figures on his own Back Benches who have chosen to work, in particular, with members of the two all-party groups to reach consensus. We do argue these things out. We come to a view after an extensive debate on a subject; it is never an open and shut case. Back Benchers are in a better position at present than those on the Front Bench, so I ask the Minister to listen to us because we may just be right and it would be good if there was a concession on something.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
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I rise to speak to new clause 7, which is in my name, and the names of Members across the House. It would require the Secretary of State to set up an office for whistleblowers within 12 months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, and as chair of the all-party group for whistleblowers, I wish to register my interest.

The office for whistleblowers would be an independent body, which reports to Parliament and would have three main duties: to protect whistleblowers from detriment resulting from their disclosures; to ensure that these disclosures are investigated; and to escalate information and evidence of wrongdoing that is outside its remit to the appropriate authority, including regulators or, if appropriate, the police.

I thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who introduced this new clause at Committee stage and spoke to it robustly and with the knowledge and passion of someone who has been pursuing this for many years.

Despite a complete lack of reference in the Bill, whistleblowers and whistleblowing have a pivotal role in the fight against economic crime. Indeed, when this proposal was debated at Committee, the right hon. Member for Barking referenced her time as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and noted that all the work that the Committee did on economic crime came from whistleblowers, and yet, in a Bill that seeks to tackle economic crime, whistleblowers are not referenced.

One statistic that has been shared many times when debating this subject in Parliament is that 43% of economic crime is detected and exposed through whistleblowers. However, in his response to the Committee debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) noted that he believed that about 100% of economic crime detection could be attributed to whistleblowing. Once again, that appears to be confirmation that, if we want to know where an economic crime is being committed, it is most likely to be a whistleblower who exposes it.

The objectives of the office I propose in this new clause would be to encourage support and advise whistleblowers, providing a safe place to share information and acting on evidence of detriment to the whistleblower. We simply must protect whistleblowers who speak out, risking retaliation, as we have heard, harassment and losing their job—or, in the case of serious organised crime, possibly a much worse outcome. The office will enhance protections of those who whistleblow, while at the same time incentivising such disclosures by providing a safe space to share information.

There is evidence that an office for whistleblowers does incentivise disclosures. In 2020, the International Bar Association measured countries with whistleblowing legislation against a list of 20 best practices. The UK met just five of the 20. Meanwhile, the United States, where an Office of the Whistleblower sits within the Securities and Exchange Commission, met 16 of the best practices. That office received 12,300 disclosures in 2022, nearly double that of 2020, and, as its chief stated:

“The significant increase in the number of whistleblower tips and awards since the program’s inception shows that the program, with its enhanced confidentiality protections, is effectively incentivizing whistleblowers to make the often difficult decision to come forward with information”.

This is a cross-party, cross-departmental issue. Whistleblowers are to be thanked for, among many things, uncovering waste in our public services, highlighting poor or dangerous medical practices and conduct, and revealing the laundering, funnelling and theft of vast amounts of public and private money. When people steal from the public purse, it is society that suffers and our constituents who pay the price. According to law firm Pinsent Masons, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs received nearly 14,000 tip-offs regarding misuse of the covid furlough scheme. In just one case, £27.4 million of taxpayer money had been falsely claimed by a fraudster who, despite never having been to the UK, registered four companies in London and claimed furlough for more than 2,700 non-existent employees. Some £26.5 million of public money was recovered as a result, in a case that also reinforces the importance of Companies House reform.

We have heard details of the Danske Bank money laundering scheme in previous debates, so I will not delve into the details again, but in that case we know that criminals took advantage of UK limited liability partnerships. That is why the reforms at Companies House and to limited partnerships are needed. However, once again, it was a whistleblower who brought that $230 billion economic crime to light, halting the stream of illegal Russian money laundering. Without him, it might never have been uncovered and might have continued for years.

That was before Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but we know that illicit finance helped to fund the war and will continue to fund it, unless it is stopped. I welcome the swift action the Government have taken to tackle the scourge of financial crime, first by passing the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, then by introducing the Bill we are debating today. However, while the Government have introduced measures that will go far in preventing economic crime, as it stands, neither piece of legislation supports those very people who are key to its detection.

Having spoken to many dozens of whistleblowers over the years, I know that someone who reports wrongdoing can risk jeopardising their reputation, their career, their mental health, their wellbeing and that of their family. It is not a decision made lightly. Whistle-blowers who expose economic crime must balance the risk to themselves in the name of doing what is right. That should not be the case.

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Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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The right hon. Lady knows very well that I would find it impossible not to listen to her. I look forward to seeing how we can return to this issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), will no doubt wish to have a strong input as well, so I shall say no more at this stage.

Let me now touch on the question of whistleblowers, and pay enormous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), who has been a friend of many of us for a number of years since she was first elected and who has championed, consistently and clearly, the need for an office for whistleblowers. She is absolutely right: what the country needs is an office for whistleblowers, and what we need to do is ensure that we have the updates to the legislation that she so correctly highlighted. The establishment of such an office would, however, be a significant undertaking. It would have major financial applications owing to its size, it would require significant staffing, and, as matters stand, it might duplicate the role of regulators without the same level of sector expertise. I know that my hon. Friend had the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State earlier this week to discuss her new clause and plans for the review, which I understand will be set out soon, I hope that the meeting was constructive.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson
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I have indeed had a meeting with the Under-Secretary to discuss this. There is a long way to go on it and I am steadfast about setting up the office for whistleblowers. However, the conversations have been constructive, I am grateful to Ministers and I will not be pressing my new clause to a vote.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that and to the Under-Secretary for having had those conversations. He knows my support for her interest in this important matter.

Clearly, many amendments have been tabled today. The last point I wish to make before we move on to Third Reading is that the Government listened an awful lot on this Bill. Many of us, including myself and the Under-Secretary, who have been taking it through this place, have been listening extremely carefully, for many reasons. One of those reasons is that we picked this up, as many people do, a long way down its process of drafting and through its progress through this House. No doubt there are areas where all of us could tweak, adjust, test and push, but we think that the Bill offers major progress on the situation where we began; I am delighted that that point was shared across this House. So although there are areas where we could have further discussion—I am sure the other place will have criticisms and comment, and we will have improvements and additions—we feel that this Bill, as it stands, is a vast improvement on where we are. Although there is progress to be made, and there always will be, we believe that the Bill marks a useful point of progress for our country in fighting economic crime.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 14 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3

Home Office review of the Tier 1 (Investor) visa scheme: publication

“Home Office review of the Tier 1 (Investor) visa scheme: publication

Within a day of the passage of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish in full the findings of the Home Office review of the Tier 1 (Investor) visa scheme which relate to economic crime.” —(Layla Moran.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.