Criminal Finances Bill

Mark made the following contributions to a debate on the Criminal Finances Bill, legislation which amends the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002; makes provision in connection with terrorist property; creates corporate offences for cases where a person associated with a body corporate or partnership facilitates the commission by another person of a tax evasion offence; and for connected purposes.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

In the US context, does my hon. Friend accept that there is often a political element there, despite the division of power? The prosecutor is often looking to make a name for himself by taking on a big bank—often, it has to be said, a big non-US bank. It is a particular concern—not just in the banking world but beyond—that ​overseas companies tend to be fair game as far as prosecutions are concerned. There is actually a rather different regime there, and it might not necessarily point to a desire and a need for a change in UK law.

Nigel Mills

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point. It is interesting that the United States seems to favour prosecuting large banks and large companies that are internationally owned rather than US-owned. I am sure that the Foreign Office is trying to work out whether that is an unfair, anti-competitive move by the US. He is right that we should not try to read too much across from the US system into ours, but I was trying to make the point that people are confused about why people are prosecuted in the US but not over here.

Mark Field

My hon. Friend makes a strong and powerful case, but does he not recognise the distinction between privacy and secrecy? No one wants an entirely secret element, but most people who indulge in banking, whether in an overseas territory or anywhere else, expect a certain amount of privacy. There is no question but that we would expect law enforcement, the police and the tax authorities to have access to these registers. My hon. Friend has been fair in making the point that ultimately a lot of these issues should be constitutional questions for the territories; these measures should not be imposed on them by the UK. On the notion that anyone should have access to that information beyond the authorities I mentioned, as they would in his Tajikistan example, surely he can understand the reluctance for that to happen, particularly in the globalised financial world in which we live, and particularly if the same does not apply elsewhere.

Nigel Mills

I accept that we hear the privacy argument a lot—I am sure that it is made in the UK context as well—but we have taken the decision to have transparent registers so that we know who the ultimate beneficial owners of these entities are. If I think through the scenarios in which people would have a right to privacy, I can perhaps see that there might be a good reason not to publish if there is a real issue of individual safety, but I struggle to find many other situations for which there is a good argument for people being able to establish entities or other bodies in the overseas territories without being clear about who the ultimate owner is. If someone owns a company here or is a shareholder, that has to be public. That transparency exists for any kind of entity here, so I am not sure why a different argument ought to apply for our dependencies. In weighing the right to privacy against the right to ensure that we are not letting dirty, corrupt, criminal money into the system, we have to err on the latter side of the equation.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

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

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.

Nick Herbert

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.

Mark Field

I have spent the last 16 years as the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, and six of those years as an adviser to an international law firm with a substantial Isle of Man presence—Cains. Over the last two years, I have been the vice-chairman for international affairs for my party and have therefore had many dealings with and much knowledge of these sorts of issues.

I fervently agree with the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) that there has been a significant journey—indeed, a massive change—with respect to the mentality around beneficial ownership, getting registers together and having a certain openness about those registers. It is a journey that is ongoing.

I think it realistic to believe—my hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) presented some powerful arguments in this regard—that there is a real risk of competitive disadvantage applying to a number of the overseas territories. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst pointed out, and as was recognised by the right hon. Member for Don Valley, the Crown dependencies are in a different legal and constitutional position. They are not part of the United Kingdom. They have their own legitimate and democratic Governments, and I think it would be entirely wrong for the Government to railroad them, whether by means of Orders in Council or through the Bill.

My instinct is that we shall return to these issues. I support the Government: I do not think that the time is ripe for a provision such as new clause 6. It would, however, be wrong to assume that a huge amount of work has not been done quietly behind the scenes. I know from my own experience, and the experience of many other people, that in recent years there has been a sea change in the attitudes of a number of the overseas territories, and certainly in those of the Crown dependencies, many of which are ahead of the game when it comes to elements of the transparency agenda. I think there is a real risk—which was very well described by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk—that if we were to impose this provision on the overseas territories in such short order, a huge amount of business would leave those shores. Some would say, perhaps with some legitimacy, “We do not want to have this business here.”

I believe that we should continue the work of recent years, and consider global protocols that would prevent competitive disadvantage from coming into play. Surely that would be a better regime. I think it entirely wrong to perceive all our overseas territories as terrible tax havens where illicit work goes on. They have an astonishing amount of technology, which I have seen at first hand in, among others, the British Virgin Islands ​and the Cayman Islands, to enable them to co-operate instantaneously with law enforcement and tax authorities in the event of any suspicious transactions.

I hope that new clause 6 will not be pressed to a vote, or that the Government will win if it is. However, I also hope that the Minister will give us some idea of how he sees the future, given the ongoing conversations about a global protocol that we could all support.