Senior Conservatives are pushing for tougher laws to combat fraud and money laundering in what could be another challenge from the Government’s backbenches.
A group of MPs led by former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland has proposed a series of amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill that would make it easier to hold companies and managers responsible for economic crime.
The amendments include a new duty to prevent economic crime, meaning businesses could be prosecuted if they do not take steps to stop offences such as fraud.
They would also mean senior executives could be jailed for up to seven years for failing to prevent economic crime.
Justice Committee chairman Sir Bob Neill, who has co-sponsored the amendments, said the Government had been “too cautious” on economic crime and needed to go further to bring the law up to date.
He said: “It’s something which prosecutors in the UK have been calling for for a very long time, including current and previous DPPs (directors of public prosecutions) support it and current and previous heads of the Serious Fraud Office.
“The Law Commission has already said it’s a good idea, the evidence is overwhelming, the legal profession thinks it’s a good idea. We don’t have to hang around.”
The amendments have attracted cross-party support so far, with a total of 23 MPs adding their names to the proposals.
These include seven Conservatives such as the Government’s former anti-corruption champion John Penrose and Tory grandee Sir Peter Bottomley.
Sir Bob added that the amendments presented an “opportunity”, and their backers would be looking for a commitment from the Government to at least introduce changes when the Bill reaches the House of Lords.
Rishi Sunak’s Government has recently made several concessions to backbench campaigns in other areas, including housing targets, onshore wind farms and changes to the Online Safety Bill, which will be a cause for optimism among backers of the former justice secretary’s proposals.
Other cross-party amendments proposed for the Economic Crime Bill include changes to the “identification doctrine”, which would make it easier to hold a company responsible for the actions of its senior managers, and the establishment of an Office for Whistleblowers that would protect people coming forward to expose economic crime.
Mr Penrose said the whistleblowing proposals would act as a “force multiplier” for the police by expanding protections beyond employees.
He said: “It’s in everybody’s interest. It really helps justice and at the moment we are asking the police to fight with one arm tied behind their back.”
Labour veteran Dame Margaret Hodge, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax, has also lent her support to the amendments.
She said: “I have been encouraged to see so many colleagues from across the House happy to support these crucial amendments to this important but flawed Bill.
“It demonstrates that taking a zero-tolerance approach to dirty money is not a party-political matter, particularly in light of Putin’s vicious assault on Ukraine.
“It now falls to the Government to see sense and work with us to close the loopholes and strengthen the law. If they don’t, the UK will continue to tarnish its reputation as a good place to do business, and our country will suffer for it.”
MPs will debate the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill on January 24 and 25.