Criminal Finances Bill
Nick's speech at Report Stage of the Criminal Finances Bill
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I rise to support new clause 6, to which I added my name in the full confidence that I was merely endorsing what I understood to be Government policy on ensuring transparency on these matters in the overseas territories, that policy having been announced by the previous Prime Minister. I find myself genuinely puzzled, therefore, about why that is apparently no longer Government policy, and I wish to raise some issues and put some questions that I hope the Minister can answer so as to reassure me and other hon. Members who have supported the new clause in good faith that there are good reasons why it should not go forward.
First, I thought that the argument about transparency had been established. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) suggested that transparency would, in itself, be an undesirable thing for the overseas territories to have to undertake, but it seems to me that we might well have applied that argument to the position in the UK. Had we accepted that argument, we would not have taken action here in the UK to require transparency.
Mark Field (Con)
It is fair enough that I be allowed to defend myself. I was making the point that while I favoured full transparency towards law enforcement agencies and the tax authorities, I did not support there being a full, open and public register at this stage, because I supported the idea of banking privacy.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying what he said, but my point still stands, which is that we have taken action in the UK to require such publication. Why is it right in the UK but wrong in the overseas territories? That was the point I was seeking to make. Perhaps the Minister can explain.
Secondly, I understand that constitutional objections have been raised to the new clause. The argument is that it would be wrong to insist that the overseas territories take action. If so, why did we propose it in the first place? As a result, hon. Members like me now find themselves on the wrong side of the Government’s opinion, when we thought we were supporting a policy in our manifesto. If there is a constitutional objection, was it not surprising that the previous Prime Minister announced the policy of transparency for the overseas territories?
Is it even right that the British Government never impose policies on our overseas territories? In 2000, the Government, by Order in Council, decriminalised homosexuality in the overseas territories. I doubt that many Members would oppose that policy, although I suspect it was opposed in many of the overseas territories. Do hon. Members say that the British Government were wrong to do that? Murder might still be a capital offence in some of the overseas territories had the Government not insisted on the abolition of such capital crimes in 1991. The principle is established that the Government are constitutionally entitled and have in practice, where there is an overriding public policy justification, legislated in relation to the overseas territories.
The third argument advanced against this measure is that the overseas territories are doing it anyway. We are told that it is not necessary to back new clause 6 because the overseas territories are well on their way to doing the right thing, but that takes us back to the question of what it is that they are doing. If they are producing registers, that is welcome, but my question still stands: why did we think transparency was a good thing, but now no longer believe that it is a good thing? We have reset that bar. We are now saying that the overseas territories are on their way to doing the right thing, but the right thing is now defined merely as the register, and it is no longer transparency.
I think the reason this has happened has been revealed by some of my hon. Friends for entirely honourable reasons, and it is that some of these overseas territories and therefore some of my hon. Friends fear that there will be a competitive disadvantage for the overseas territories if they are required to produce a public register as the new clause suggests, in the way they will eventually be required to do, and as the Government suggested at one point that they should.
However, let me say simply that if we accept the argument that being at a competitive disadvantage is an obstacle to taking measures against tax evasion or corruption, this House would do very little on those issues. It can always be argued that we could be putting our own banking arrangements or those of other countries at risk by taking steps deemed to be in the public interest on the grounds that they could produce corruption. To turn that around, if we accept the argument on competitive disadvantage, there would be no reason why the House should not reverse all the measures taken on banking transparency and establish some sort of regime that used to pertain in countries like as Switzerland where there would be wholesale banking secrecy, because that would be good for business and it would place us at a competitive advantage by comparison with other countries. It could be argued that such a thing would be entirely acceptable.
Clearly, that would not be acceptable. We have taken the opposite view: there is a reason to demand transparency and that transparency is essential in order to tackle corruption. We are talking about measures that are necessary to protect not just the UK taxpayer but the poorest countries in the world, which are disadvantaged and penalised because people are able to siphon off funds unlawfully and immorally and shelter them in various regimes. We are apparently saying that we are willing to accept that, because if we take action against it, some other regime will perform that immoral task. That seems to me to be a wrong position for the House of Commons to take, and if it were accepted, we would not have a Bill such as this one or any transparency measures at all.
I therefore hope that the Government will reconsider their position. New clause 6 is entirely reasonable, providing a period of time for the overseas territories to comply with the transparency requirement. I, for one, will take a great deal of convincing that something that was held by the Government to be desirable and that we hold to be desirable and right in our own country is wrong for the overseas territories.
Ben Wallace (Minister of State for Security)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq). I will take this opportunity to respond to the many points that have been raised in this debate. It is a regret that the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) is not in her place, but it is for fully understandable reasons. I pay tribute to her for the work she has done in campaigning for tax transparency, and I send her my best wishes at this time.
Let me now turn to the main thrust of this debate. What has dominated our proceedings is this question of whether our British overseas territories and Crown dependencies should have public registers of beneficial ownership. I am a supporter of transparency. I was the first Member of this House to publish my expenses—long before that was required. It was not a popular thing to do at the time, but I am a great believer in transparency. I learned that from my time in the Scottish Parliament, because I am also a great believer in respecting devolution and respecting constitutional arrangements.
Let me say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that we have not changed our ambition. Our ambition is still to have public registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. I repeated that to the leaders of those territories and dependencies just two weeks ago, but how we get there is where there are differences. We must recognise that, ever since David Cameron held that anti-corruption summit, we have come a long way—I am not sure whether it is 90%, 89%, or 85%. I do not know the percentage—I did not do the same course as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. None the less, we now have a commitment to keep either central registers or linked registers. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) needs to recognise that it is perfectly possible to link registers and to interrogate them centrally. We aim to fulfil that commitment by June 2017.
We are also committed to allowing our law enforcement agencies to have automatic access to those registers. We already do that in some of those territories, with requests coming back within hours. As a Home Office Minister, I am charged with ensuring that we see off organised crime, tackle corruption, and deal with money laundering. I believe that our arrangements do allow us to deal with potential crime and tax evasion. If I did not think that, I would not be here making the point that now is not the time to impose that on our overseas territories and Crown dependencies. I have faith that, at the moment, the capabilities of our law enforcement agencies enable us to interrogate those systems and to follow up and prosecute those people who encourage tax evasion not only in this country, but in other countries. This Bill gives us that extra territorial reach that many other countries do not have.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
Can the Minister give the House a categorical assurance that none of the money made from ill-gotten gains of criminal activity, through fuel fraud in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is illicitly put into those countries?
We find criminals using banking systems all over the world to hide their money, whether that is in Northern Ireland, London, the Republic of Ireland, Crown dependencies or elsewhere. Such places have agreed to work with our law enforcement agencies, and we will allow their law enforcement agencies access to our databases in order to follow up such activity.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton underplays the success of the United Kingdom’s leadership role. Without imposing on democratically elected Governments in those countries and without imposing our will in some sort of post-colonial way, we have achieved linked registers and access to registers for our law enforcement agencies across many Crown dependencies and overseas territories. We might compare ourselves with our nearest neighbours, the major economies—with all due respect, I do not mean Christmas Island—such as Germany and other European neighbours such as Spain. We are the ones with a public register and we, not them, are the ones ready to have a unified central register. Perhaps we should start by looking at the major economies, rather than sailing out on a gunboat to impose our will on overseas territories that have done an awful lot so far in getting to a position in which I am confident that our law enforcement agencies can bring people to justice. That is the fundamental point of this principle. We have not abandoned our ambition. We have decided that the way to do it is not to impose our will on overseas territories.
The Labour party’s new clause 17 is probably constitutionally bankrupt, if I may use that phrase. It would certainly cause all sorts of problems, although I am not sure that we can actually impose our will on a Crown dependency like that. All the good words of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton seem to have disappeared because the new clause leaves out overseas territories and would apply only to Crown dependencies. If Labour Members think that such a provision is right for Crown dependencies, why is it not right for overseas territories? I do not understand why they have left that out, although I suspect it is because, when it really comes to it, Labour Members do not now what they are talking about. If the Labour party wanted to be successful with this, it might have done it in its 13 years in Government.
I respect devolution and constitutional arrangements, and it is important to do that at this stage. Crucially, if we do this in partnership, we will get there. When we see people being prosecuted and the system of information exchange between law enforcement agencies working, we will have arrived at a successful point. I am confident that we will get there. I do not shy away from telling the overseas territories and Crown dependencies that our ambition is for transparency but, first and foremost, our ambition is for a central register that is easily interrogated by our law enforcement agencies.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s restatement that the Government remain committed to transparency. Will he give some kind of indication of a timetable, once his policy of registers is fully in place, by which he expects the overseas territories to be able to move to full transparency?
The first commitment is for the central register to be in place by June this year. Where overseas territories have trouble fulfilling that—for example, they just do not have the capacity to do it—we have offered help to allow them to do so. Hopefully that means that we will keep on target. As for setting a date for the public register, we first have to complete our own, and get it up and running. Once we know what challenges are involved in doing that and seeing how it works, we can have a grown-up discussion with our G20 partners about when they will do that. We should not just focus on the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Major economies, including our own, are guilty of allowing people to hide illicit funds, which is why we introduced this Bill. I suspect we will find many funds laundered not in those small overseas territories, but in some major economies in the G20. That is important.
You can read the full debate online here: http://tinyurl.com/hbm54l7