The Economic Crime BillDoesn’t Nearly Go Far Enough
If the Government really want to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs, it needs to think bigger, says Gareth Roberts
Any lawyer will tell you that, whether you are trying to stop an errant spouse from hiding a pension during the financial stages of a divorce, or seeking to stop a drug dealer from dissipating the assets they have made from criminal activity, speed is of the essence.
If you drag your feet, there is every chance that the assets you believed existed will be long gone before you get your hands anywhere near them.
The Government has asserted that attempts to seize and freeze the assets of Russians living in the UK are being held up by lawyers – which left me questioning whether the Government is either competent enough to impose this sanction or, just as concerning, if it has the will to successfully seize, freeze or restrain the assets of Russian oligarchs.
Russians who made millions from the break up and privatisation of old Soviet state industries have been allowed – even encouraged – to use the City of London to process and store their money. Much of this cash has, in turn, been invested in the UK property market or into football teams, luxury yachts, petro-chemical firms and retail consortiums.
In short, the UK has become awash with Russian money and has proved a generous repository for the wealth of some profoundly unsavoury characters.
The relationship between these individuals and the Kremlin is symbiotic: Russian President Vladimir Putin has allowed oligarchs to thrive and they, in turn, have provided their support for both his regime and his economy.
Successive UK governments have allowed this to happen – indeed it is clear that the modern Conservative Party has been very comfortable in the presence of Russian money.
Following the invasion of the Ukraine, the Government has rightly stated its intention to sanction Russian banks and millionaires. Boris Johnson stated in the House of Commons that he would impose a “barrage of sanctions” that would “squeeze Russia from the global economy”.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, meanwhile, has declared that there will be comprehensive sanctions against more than 100 Russian oligarchs and companies.
Less clear is how this will be brought about – with Truss now seemingly suggesting that lawyers are holding up the process.
On Monday, the Government laid down the second reading of its Economic Crime Bill – a piece of legislation that seeks to set up a register of overseas interests. If it becomes law, which may take weeks if not months, it will impose a duty on individuals to register their ownership of land and any unexplained wealth – a failure to do so, or a failure to do so honestly, will lead to a criminal sanction with the imposition of a financial penalty or a period of imprisonment of up to 12 months.
As it stands, it is potentially a useful piece of law that will assist our crime agencies and the Treasury in ensuring that those who attempt to use the UK to launder money cannot do so with impunity. But, as a tool in the war against Putin, it is woefully inadequate.
A Bolder Plan
The measure was first proposed, to much fanfare, in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, before being quietly shelved. If the Government had enacted its plan two years ago, establishing a properly-enforced register, we would now have a record of those who own property in the UK as a result of their activities in Russia.
The Government’s tardiness has given the oligarchs a two-year head start to dissipate assets and has left us woefully behind the curve. When one considers the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, Putin’s further aggression in Ukraine should not have taken anyone by surprise.
Similarly, the proposed punishment of a fine or a 12 month maximum term of imprisonment is laughable. Neither will scare billionaire oligarchs in Mayfair or Chelsea.
Nor will the policy deflect the Kremlin from its bloody desire to occupy the free and independent state of Ukraine.
The Government is, of course, right to talk about sanctions. It is right to target Russian billionaires – but it must do so effectively. The current powers available to government and law enforcement agencies are wholly inadequate. We need a new playbook.
What is needed, and needed immediately, is an emergency bill that will instantly give the Government the power to seize all assets, including the yachts, football clubs and bank accounts of wealthy Russians living in the UK – whilst at the same time compelling banks and lawyers to comply with the bill or face the consequences of significant criminal sanctions including substantial prison sentences.
If lawyers sought to challenge the provisions then, of course, they could do so by way of Judicial Review post facto, but the onus would be on them to prove the voracity of the money after the event, rather than for the Government to prove that the money was tainted or the source of ‘unexpected wealth’ prior to investigation and potential confiscation.
In essence, the Government must have the ability to knock on the doors of oligarchs and declare that their property is being seized and will remain in the care of the UK until further notice. It must have the power immediately to enter banks and demand that the accounts of Putin’s collaborators are frozen and restrained until further order.
If this sounds draconian, well, so be it. I am sure that Ukrainians facing the prospect of their homes being destroyed by artillery fire will see it as a proportionate response.
Parliament must come together to ensure that the friends of Putin are not left to enjoy their lives of luxury in London while the people of Ukraine cower in bomb shelters.