Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
My exhortation is twofold: if the Government cannot accept the amendments, they should bring measures forward in the other place to make sure that the thrust of this reform will happen, and for the Government to work with me and other right hon. and hon. Members to help us improve the way in which we deal with the prosecution of fraud in this jurisdiction.
Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to follow the expertise of the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who outlined in great detail the significance and importance of the new clauses. Yet again, the House has the opportunity to get it right, and to get it right now, today, rather than at some point or when parliamentary time allows or after consultation or in due course. Why not do it today?

I have heard no arguments from Ministers in Committee, on Second Reading or here this afternoon to excuse why it cannot be done today, now, with the new clauses that have been so diligently and expertly proposed by right hon. and hon. Members. As I said yesterday, these are cross-party new clauses. They are the most widely supported new clauses I have seen, and there is no reason why the Government cannot accept not only the proposals from this side of the House but the diligent work of their own Back Benchers on the new clauses. It makes absolute sense.

I support the Government amendments before us, both the correcting ones and those that allow Scottish Ministers and their responsibilities to be added to the Bill. It is good that they have been brought forward now, although I am slightly wary that that happened at such a late stage and that the problem had been missed. Regardless, I am happy to see them today. I also support the amendments on information sharing between agencies, which make sense.

I am, however, concerned that the Government will not accept the “failure to prevent” amendment. As I said in Committee, when the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) was a Back Bencher he was very supportive of the “failure to prevent” provisions, right up until 13 October 2022, when he said:

“Of all the measures we have talked about today, this would have the biggest effect in terms of cutting down on economic crime, because lots of our financial organisations are complicit when it suits their interests to be so.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 310.]

There is nothing in the Bill that would change that situation, but the new clause would. As I pointed out in Committee, now he is not just the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton but the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He has argued for a “failure to prevent” economic crime offence not just on 13 October last year, but on 7 July 2022, on 1, 22 and 28 February 2022, on 2 December 2021, on 9 November 2021, on 22 September 2021, on 18 May 2021, on 9 November 2020, on 25 February 2020, on 19 July 2019, on 23 April 2019, on 18 December 2018 and on 9 October 2018. Given that the hon. Gentleman has spent his parliamentary career arguing for this, it beggars belief that now he is a Minister with the power to implement it, he is not actually doing so.

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Together with other right hon. and hon. Members I got a letter dated 20 January from Ministers from the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy saying that they are “carefully assessing options”. Does that imply another dozen years of assessing something that we all know needs to happen? If we are to be serious about combating fraud, we must get on with this. If the Government are not happy with the wording in new clause 4, they should come up with their own wording. Fraud now constitutes just under half of all crime committed in the UK, and we must be doing more to counter it at all levels.
Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I have now to announce the result of today’s deferred Divisions.

On the draft Environmental Targets (Biodiversity) (England) Regulations 2022, the Ayes were 302 and the Noes were 166, so the Ayes have it.

On the draft Environmental Targets (Woodland and Trees Outside Woodland) (England) Regulations 2022, the Ayes were 302, the Noes were 166, so the Ayes have it.

On the draft Environmental Targets (Water) (England) Regulations 2022, the Ayes were 300, the Noes were 170, so the Ayes have it.

On the draft Environmental Targets (Fine Particulate Matter) (England) Regulations 2022, the Ayes were 301 and the Noes were 170, so the Ayes have it.

On the draft Environmental Targets (Residual Waste) (England) Regulations 2022, the Ayes were 301 and the Noes were 170, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
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It is a pleasure to speak to new clauses 1 and 2 in my name and those of many others, and it is a pleasure to follow so many excellent contributions to the debate. I hope it has become clear that there is a wide and deep cross-party consensus about the need to take this overdue Bill and repower it with not only good laws but proper resourcing so that we can begin to ensure that economic criminals in this country are put under rather more pressure.

A lot is in a name, and the Bill’s name is the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) pointed out, what is crucial to ensuring the corporate transparency we need to police economic crime is information. Much of that information comes from whistleblowers and, crucially, from courageous journalists who are prepared to take tremendous risks and go to tremendous lengths to pursue the truth, publish the truth and hold the guilty to account.

The challenge we have is that we know we cannot police economic crime without such transparency, but that old advice to journalists to follow the money in pursuit of the truth is becoming almost impossible because our courts—English courts, London courts, which were sanctuaries for justice for 1,000 years—are becoming the strike point of choice for oligarchs around the world to intimidate, to cow and to deter journalists from publishing the truth with the threat of sky-high legal costs. My friend the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is not in his place, and I, together with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), have been pushing this argument for almost a year. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight presented to the House a first-class private Member’s Bill, which I was proud to sign. I commend the Minister for the work that he did when he was Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee on ensuring that the cancer of strategic legal action against public participants is something that we know about and are collectively determined to act on.

Within the sub judice rules and exemptions that govern the debate, I can talk about some of the evidence that we now have on the record. There are now so many cases that it has become clear that there is a playbook for oligarchs. It is a playbook that all of them know and all of them follow. It is a playbook that is now predictable, and it is a playbook that we must draw to a close. We could draw it to a close this afternoon by agreeing to the amendments that we have tabled with cross-party support.

The first step in the playbook is to target the individual. Do not target the company, because companies are strong and individuals are weak. That is exactly why Arron Banks went for Carole Cadwalladr. He did not want to go for The Guardian or the Scott Trust; he wanted to go for an individual journalist. That is exactly why Prigozhin, as we now learn, decided to target Eliot Higgins and not Bellingcat, because of course an individual is always more vulnerable than a corporate organisation. In most of these cases, we see an oligarch taking aim fair and square at an individual and not the corporate organisation behind them to maximise the power of intimidation.

Secondly, having identified the individual, the task is to maximise the intimidation. Let us look at what Tom Burgis had to go through when he was writing his book about the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. The bad guys whom he was trying to expose actually went to the lengths of tapping his phone and bugging him. They must have done—that was the only way in which their investigators could turn up to a secret meeting that he was having with former Government officials in a car park. Those are the lengths that these people will go to.

Thirdly, there is the business of exaggerating the claims: taking some aside in a bit of written material and exaggerating it ridiculously to try to multiply legal costs. We saw that in particular with Mr Abramovich in his case against Catherine Belton and HarperCollins. It was a ridiculously exaggerated claim. Of course, the objective for Mr Abramovich was not to win his case. All he sought to do was maximise the legal costs for HarperCollins and Catherine Belton.

We see that now in a case in the Royal Courts of Justice, which I will not name but which I sat through a couple of weeks ago. That case is so thin. It entails an oligarch basically trying to claim that a number of emails that have been sent are in effect tantamount to a publication. Even though he is unable to name and specify the harm that has been done, he is seeking to bring a case for defamation. It is the flimsiest of cases anyone could imagine, yet hundreds of thousands of pounds have now been racked up in legal costs in an attempt to intimidate someone out of telling the truth.

Step four is to co-ordinate with others, which we saw in particular with Mr Abramovich, who decided to round up a number of his old mates to try to bring some kind of collective action—not just in this country, by the way, but in other countries such as Australia. That was a way to double the legal costs and maximise the pain against Catherine Belton and HarperCollins.

Then we have the attempts to rack up costs even though the grounds may be as flimsy as anything. Forensic News, for example, is being sued by Walter Soriano. Forensic News has a total of 12 subscribers in this country, yet Walter Soriano has been allowed to prosecute the case because of those 12 subscribers. Why could he possibly be doing that? Is it, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden described, because our legal costs are so high that the pain can be maximised by bringing a case here?

We see the same in the case referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) of the former rulers of Kazakhstan, who have brought a SLAPPs case against the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and openDemocracy. That was because openDemocracy had the temerity to expose the $8 billion siphoned off through Jusan Technologies, which is somehow now claiming that its economic interests in the UK have been damaged and therefore it is entitled to bring a case in the Royal Courts of Justice. As a result, openDemocracy and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are forking out thousands of pounds to defend themselves against this onslaught.

The situation we now have in this country is so appalling that, as we heard in the urgent question this afternoon, we have the spectacle of a Russian warlord being licensed by His Majesty’s Treasury to fly his lawyers to London to polish a case to sue an English journalist in an English court in order to undermine the sanctions this country has imposed on him. That is how ridiculous, corroded and broken our system has become. An exemption was licensed by a servant of the Crown to spend thousands of pounds flying lawyers to service the needs of the head of the Wagner Group in St Petersburg and to refine a lawfare case in an English court.

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I urge the Government to use the good will they have on this Bill and to support the new clauses I have mentioned. They should not waste this opportunity. The new clauses are bipartisan and based on evidence and politics. It is sickening and heartrending to see what is going on in Great Britain, America, China and Russia. Around the world, people are asking, “What is going on? What are politicians doing?” Many of us are ashamed and cannot hold our heads high. I urge the Government to give the public something worth having. The Bill gives us huge opportunities. I know the people on the Government Front Bench, I know where their hearts are, and I ask them to be brave, to use this opportunity to the maximum for today and tomorrow—it can be finalised in the future.
None Portrait Hon. Members
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Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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It is always a joy to hear from the hon. Gentleman.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. I think I should explain, for the benefit of Hansard, that the shadow Minister will be coming back on Third Reading. It is customary to go straight to the Minister, given that he moved the motion for the lead new clause.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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I thought that we were to have the joy and the privilege of hearing from the hon. Member for Aberavon, who can never say too much in this Chamber, or indeed anywhere else—which is lucky, because he very rarely says too little.

It is a huge pleasure to have been here this afternoon. Members in all parts of the House have made extremely powerful points, but I will touch on just a few of them, because many have been covered at length and in detail on numerous other occasions. If Members will forgive me, I will deal straight away with a few of the matters that I think require immediate attention.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for tabling new clause 6 and for the way in which he has approached the area of corporate criminal liability, in which he and I agree that reform is required. That is why the Government commissioned a review by the Law Commission, which my right hon. and learned Friend cited and which showed a definite need to clamp down on economic crime conducted by commercial organisations. We have been working closely across Government and with prosecutors in carefully considering its recommendations and how improvements can best be made. It is vital that any reform can be used by law enforcement agencies, does not duplicate what already exists and avoids placing unnecessary burdens on legitimate businesses, but we must also operate within the constraints of the Bill.

I share my right hon. and learned Friend’s passion for change. I am immensely grateful for his thoughtful input, and I greatly value my engagement with him, and with other Members, on this issue. I can assure him that the Government intend to address the need for a “failure to prevent” offence in the other place, and I would welcome further discussion with him about the most effective way in which that can be done.