The resignation of Lord Agnew, the government’s anti-fraud minister, in the middle of a speech last month, didn’t just dangerously raise the heart rates of various elderly peers. Agnew’s claim in his resignation letter that the Economic Crime Bill had been dropped from the government’s legislative plans was distressing for anybody who cares about stopping kleptocrats, oligarchs and organised crime lords stashing their loot in the UK.
Our public political debate is stuck in a 1980s time warp where everyone ritually demands more ‘bobbies on the beat’, but criminals have moved on. Old-fashioned crimes like burglaries and robberies are much less common, while online scams and frauds are growing. That means our law enforcement has to keep up to date, which is why the bill matters so much.
At the heart of it all are the global financial markets based in the City of London. They’re an important economic powerhouse for our economy, but they’re also a magnet for dirty cash. Even if only a tiny fraction of daily trading is illicit, it’s still big money. And since the City’s success depends on Britain’s reputation as an honest, rules-based, free-trading country, anything that corrodes our brand is lethal.
So the Economic Crime Bill matters because it will close the loopholes that currently allow those crime lords to launder their cash through global financial markets – and then, once it’s squeaky-clean, buy themselves posh penthouse apartments in London and put a Ferrari in the basement parking garage.
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The most important change is extra transparency, so anyone who owns UK property or controls a British company will have to come clean about who they really are. That will mean anyone in the UK, or in a country that’s ruled by a kleptocrat who’s robbing them blind, will be able to ‘follow the money’ back to its source. And if you can follow the money, you can grab it and return it to its rightful owners.
In other words, 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. And because the bill had been postponed a couple of times before, they might have concluded that we Brits weren’t terribly serious about all this in the first place.
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But 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.
So when, 10 days after Lord Agnew’s bombshell, the prime minister confirmed that the bill was back in the government’s plans and we’d be voting on it in the next parliamentary term, there was a collective sigh of relief all round.
A week may be a long time in politics, but 10 days is enough to get something done.
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