On 9th March 2022, the House of Lords debated the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Leeds spoke in the debate, raising concerns about the background to the bill, which was introduced in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I welcome this Bill and the speed with which it is being brought to us, but I share some of the concerns that have been represented already. I do not intend to go into any of the detail of matters that have already been spoken about; I am sure other noble Lords would be better at that than I might be.
I hesitate to bring an ethical argument because, in my experience in this House, ethical arguments simply get ignored. Indeed, one Minister replied to an ethical argument made on a different Bill by saying, “We will not listen to strictures on morality from anyone.” That led me, at the next stage—on Report—simply to say that that implies there is no place in politics for ethics. But it is my ethical concerns, which one might represent as cultural, that cause me to stand now.
Culture is not cleaned up by one act or one reaction to a particular stimulus, albeit a serious one such as the invasion of Ukraine. Some months ago, the Foreign Secretary threatened that sanctions would be introduced if Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. At the time, I thought that we should not be threatening that as a reaction to something else that happens. This stuff is immoral. The money that is sweeping through the sewers of London needs to be cleared up for its own sake, not simply as a bargaining chip in relation to Ukraine. If we are going to get rid of dirty money, we ought to do so because it is a moral obligation, not because it is a tactic.
If money is dirty and people are—we keep hearing the word—corrupt, is it that the money is indeed dirty and these people are indeed corrupt, or is it just that the game has changed, so it is now convenient for us to label them in that way? They were not corrupt six months ago, a year ago or five years ago—that was just the reality of the world in which we lived. If it is just the game that changes, and therefore we react to that, I think we have an ongoing ethical, cultural problem. We are tactical, and that is all. If we are going to change the culture, we have to be led by conviction rooted in values, not simply the pragmatics of the particularity of the case we are dealing with.
I am very pleased that an amendment will be tabled in Committee to Clause 18, so I will not say more about that now. I welcome the Bill, but I am concerned about the wider culture within which it sits; I hope that that will be registered, even if disagreed with.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Rooker (Lab): My Lords, I very much agree with the contents of virtually all the speeches we have heard so far. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said that he wanted to introduce some ethics into the debate. I deeply regret that before I finish I shall introduce some politics into it. The constant theme in the House of Commons on Monday was that alarm bells have been ringing for years and been ignored by the Government. It is sad to say that this is an entirely fair point to make. I shall therefore go through a bit of the history. I make no apology for saying “I told you so”.
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP): As a nation, we are today like a guilty individual hastily pushing an illicit lover out of the window of their bedroom as the world’s media comes storming through the front door, this Bill being scanty garments hastily donned in ill order. The world, with its attention focused in particular down the road on the City of London, will clearly not be deceived about our state of disarray. According to the International Monetary Fund, as much as 5% of the world’s GDP is laundered money, and only 1% of it is ever spotted. Collectively, developing countries have lost $16.3 trillion to illicit leakages since 1980. A very significant chunk of that flows just down the road from here. The Thames is dwarfed by a far dirtier and deadlier stream of corruption, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds noted.
It is worth noting that we are here today because of President Putin. His actions forced our Government to react. We should not be reacting; we should have been proactive many years ago. As the right reverend Prelate said, we should not need this spur, yet clearly the Government are like a horse that has been baulking at the gate, not wanting to be pushed away from a lush, tasty pasture even when it has been made deadly ill by the colic of ill-gotten gains.
Lord Fox (LD): This has been a strong debate. Some of your Lordships—the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Rooker, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, to name but three—have, with justification, been able to say that this issue has been on their agendas for some time.Others, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, have highlighted the purpose of and focus on ethics that we should also dwell on. There was a sense of frustration in all the speeches that it has taken the terrible events in Ukraine—the onslaught on civilians—to cause this Government finally to act. They are acting, and we should take advantage of that, but it is awful that it has taken that to get to this point.
In welcoming this Bill, we are not blind to its shortcomings. Your Lordships have been wise to set out whole areas of action that need to be resolved before we can start the process of cleaning out the dirty money in the United Kingdom’s economy.
Then there is the self-created loophole that was referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds: Clause 18. This allows all aspects of the register to be ignored if the Secretary of State decides that it is in the interests of national wealth to hide an oligarch’s assets. How big does the factory have to be for the theft to be ignored? How many jobs can a kleptocrat wash their soul with in this country? That is the nature of that clause—it hits right at the heart of what the right reverend Prelate had to say. It is, frankly, a continuation of what happens now; in other words, “The money is all right, so we won’t look at where it has come from.” My noble friend Lady Kramer was very strong on that issue. If we are to allow this line to continue in the Bill, it would essentially mean selling our moral soul in a different way—and it would put it into statute. We will have to address this issue when we get there.
Lord Coaker (Lab): We as Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome it and, as we did in the other place, will support the Government in taking this through as quickly as we can. Although, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, my noble friend Lord Rooker and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others have argued, should we not have acted before now? If money is dirty, then it is dirty. We must crack down; the UK’s role as a global centre for Russian money laundering has to stop. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, reminded us, Russian oligarchs secretly hiding money—as with all dirty money from anyone from anywhere—has to be stopped. There must be no hiding place or safe haven with hidden investments.
I say to the Minister that all the questions and challenges from me and other noble Lords are because we want the Bill to work. We want the sanctions to work and this economic crime Bill and the one that will follow it in due course to succeed. We all want the Government to succeed in this. It is not in any of our interests for the Government to fail or for these measures not to work. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said, let this be the beginning of the new economic and monetary framework because it is ethically the right thing to do.
As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, mentioned, the Government need to explain the provision that someone will not be sanctioned if doing so is not in the economic interests of the country. The Bill as currently drafted appears to read as though there will be exemptions for occasions when it is not in the economic interests of the country for us to take action against a company or individual. Are we really saying that? Some clarification on that from the Minister will be welcome.
Lord Callanan (Con): Moving on, many noble Lords, including my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Faulks, raised the legitimate question of why it has taken the Government so long to introduce the legislation. I can assure them it is not for the want of trying on my part; it is purely about the pressure on the legislative programme. They, as well as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, stressed the importance, and I totally agree, of stopping dirty money flowing from Russia and, indeed, other countries. This is not just about Russia. It benefits us in terms of Russia but, frankly, this reform is long overdue and it will also help us in the fight against money laundering from other jurisdictions. What matters is that, despite the long delay, we are now urgently bringing this legislation forward. We were planning to put this in the wider economic crime Bill but we decided to introduce these measures earlier, to put them into effect shortly. I am grateful for the support of the Opposition in doing that, and the wider economic crime Bill measures will follow in due course.