MPs and anti-corruption experts have warned that the UK government must not delay long-awaited measures to tackle economic crime, after a minister resigned over the government’s failure to prevent more than £4.3bn in fraudulent claims for Covid business loans.
Lord Agnew dramatically quit on Monday as a minister at the Treasury and Cabinet Office with oversight of fraud prevention, in another blow to the embattled prime minister. In a resignation letter to Boris Johnson, published on Tuesday, Agnew revealed that in a decision apparently taken last week, a key piece of legislation, the economic crime bill, had been rejected for consideration during the next parliamentary year. He described the decision as “foolish”.
The bill was expected to bring forward measures, among others, to improve almost nonexistent oversight of the UK’s business register, Companies House, and finally bring in a public register of beneficial ownership of property – revealing the individuals behind offshore companies used to hold valuable UK homes and land. Tougher laws on fraud and changes to McMafia-style legislation to target the unexplained wealth of kleptocrats were also expected.
Responsibility for planning bills to be included in the annual Queen’s speech at the start of each parliamentary session lies with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the house and head of the parliamentary business and legislation committee.
Robert Palmer, executive director of Tax Justice UK, a campaign group, decried the decision to “kick anti-corruption legislation into the long grass yet again”.
“We need stronger rules to deter the rich and powerful from dodging tax or hiding their wealth. British companies can still be used to funnel dirty money through the UK.”
Many of the measures expected in the bill have cross-party support, and the prime minister on Tuesday told the House of Commons that the government was bringing forward a “register of beneficial interest” as part of its efforts to “track down Russian money in this country”, amid concerns Russia could invade Ukraine.
Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former minister who has campaigned for transparency measures to clean up what has become known as the “London Laundromat”, warned against further delay.
“Any backsliding, particularly at a moment like this, would be hugely regrettable,” Mitchell said.
Campaigners have long highlighted the UK’s role in laundering the proceeds of global financial crime and the looting of states with high levels of corruption. Property in London and the south-east of England is particularly prized.
Agnew resigned after highlighting the huge levels of fraud detected in the UK’s Covid-19 business support schemes after the government decided to write off £4.3bn in loans thought to be fraudulent. Many of those loans were claimed by fraudulent shell companies registered in the UK.
Money laundering and other forms of financial crime are made easier by the UK’s relatively lax approach to checking companies, after changes in 2011 under then business secretary Vince Cable to make it quicker to register a company online. Companies House infamously acknowledges at the top of its website that it “does not verify the accuracy of the information filed”.
That has left it wide open to abuse. “Adolf Tooth Fairy Hitler” was registered as a company director until apparently resigning on 31 December, while one of the few prosecutions for fraudulent information on Companies House was of a Warwickshire businessman who had openly created a company under Cable’s name to prove how open the system was to fraud.
It costs only £12 to set up a company in the UK. Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP who has campaigned persistently for tougher measures on financial crime, has called for that cost to be increased to a “still cheap” £50, a move that would massively increase Companies House’s resources.
For years, the government has resisted reforming Companies House. The Covid loans fiasco shows it was wrong to do so, say campaigners. UK companies are not just used for money laundering by bad actors in far off foreign countries, but here in Britain, on an industrial scale.
Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a thinktank, said: “The weak governance and toothless powers of Companies House enable fraud and economic crime around the world, and right here in the UK. The government’s failure to address this has been brutally exposed by the large-scale Covid loan frauds – money stolen from UK taxpayers as a result of indifference and negligence at the heart of government.”
Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said shelving the reforms would allow even more illicit wealth into the UK.
“With criminals exploiting some of the same weaknesses used to funnel dirty money into Britain, clearly a reformed Companies House could have played a key role in preventing the mountain of Covid loan fraud that has left the public billions out of pocket,” he said.
Hodge said further delay to the economic crime bill would be a “serious betrayal by this government”.
They cannot kick the can down the road any longer without economic crime causing further untold damage,” she said.
A government spokesperson said: “We remain committed to tackling economic crime.
“We’re already taking action on multiple fronts to crack down on anyone who has sought to exploit our Covid-19 support schemes.
“This includes investing over £100m in a taxpayer protection taskforce made up of nearly 1,300 staff – which is expected to recover an additional £1bn of taxpayer’s money.”