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London is a ‘magnet for dirty money’, says UK government’s anti-corruption tsar

The Conservative MP writes today on openDemocracy that urgent action is needed to stop ‘growing’ levels of fraud

Martin Williams
10 February 2022, 10.51am
John Penrose, the UK government’s anti-corruption tsar, warned that online fraud is growing
Composite by openDemocracy via Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The UK government’s anti-corruption tsar has called the City of London “a magnet for dirty cash” and warned that online fraud is growing.

Writing today for openDemocracy, Conservative MP John Penrose appeared to rebuff the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, who recently suggested that fraud is not something that “people experience in their daily lives”.

As scammers took advantage of changes to the way people shopped and transferred their money during the pandemic, fraud increased by 32% in England and Wales, according to the official crime survey in the year ending June 2021.

“Our public political debate is stuck in a 1980s time warp, where everyone ritually demands more ‘bobbies on the beat’,” Penrose wrote. “But criminals have moved on. Old-fashioned crimes like burglaries and robberies are much less common, while online scams and frauds are growing.”

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The intervention by Penrose follows ministerial pressure on the government to introduce an Economic Crime Bill, which would include measures to clamp down on fraudsters using fake names to set up British companies.

Last month, treasury minister Lord Agnew resigned partly because of an apparent plan to ditch the bill, sparking criticism from MPs – including Penrose.

Ministers initially refused to “speculate” on when the bill would be brought forward. But earlier this month Boris Johnson eventually promised it would be voted on “in the third session of this parliament”.

Yesterday, Johnson was again forced to defend the government’s commitment to tackling fraud following Kwarteng’s comments last weekend. “We have strengthened our anti-fraud taskforce, we are bringing forward an Economic Crime Bill,” he said.

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Delay to Economic Crime Bill should concern anyone who cares about stopping kleptocrats, oligarchs and organised crime lords stashing their loot in the UK

In his piece for openDemocracy, Penrose wrote: “Further postponing the Economic Crime Bill would have sent a message to the oligarchs, kleptocrats and crime lords that it was business as usual for them in London.”

He added: “With Russian troops massing on the border of Ukraine, any signs of less-than-steely will to back up our threat of sanctions against Russian oligarchs could send precisely the wrong message to Vladimir Putin. After all, it’s much harder to grab an oligarch’s cash if you don’t know where it’s being kept in the first place.”

openDemocracy reported last month how the official companies register is littered with fake names, because no identity checks are required.

They include the director of a small company near Heathrow Airport who gives his name as ‘Holy Jesus Christ’. Legal documents give his occupation as ‘Creator’, his nationality as ‘Angelic’, and his country of residence as ‘Heaven’.

Another active company’s directors include ‘Adolf Tooth Fairy Hitler’, while a Saudi Arabian labourer called Donald Duck is said to run a sales firm in south London.

It’s much harder to grab an oligarch’s cash if you don’t know where it’s being kept in the first place

As well as verifying company directors for the first time, the Economic Crime Bill would also introduce greater scrutiny for British firms that are controlled from other countries.

Penrose is one of a number of Conservative MPs who has urged the prime minister to bring the bill forward as soon as possible. In January, fellow Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake said that delaying the bill would be “a very significant strategic error”.

“The legislation has been promised in manifesto after manifesto,” Hollinrake told openDemocracy. “And with good reason, as the measures within it will crack down on fraud, corruption, organised crime, terrorism and the impoverishment of nations by corrupt politicians and kleptocrats. I call on the government to reconsider.”

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