Nigel Mills – 2016 Speech on Anti-Corruption Summit

Below is the text of the speech made by Nigel Mills, the Conservative MP for Amber Valley, in Westminster Hall on 3 May 2016.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Anti-Corruption Summit.

Hon. Members, members of the public and people watching this debate will not be surprised to learn that tackling corruption is one of the biggest items on the agenda this year. Barely a day goes by without it hitting the news. As co-chair of the all-party group on anti-corruption, I was keen to hold this debate so we can air the issues that the Government hope to tackle in the important summit next week and subject the summit to parliamentary scrutiny.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for awarding me this debate. Unusually for a Back-Bench debate, we are not here to criticise the Government. We may have some suggestions about how they can be a bit stronger, but we are here to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government for holding the summit, for placing this issue at the top of the agenda and for consistently championing transparency and accountability as enablers of good governance. We want real actions and agreements from the summit next week, so that those important things can be taken forward and enforced. I will set the scene and explain how I see the agenda, and then I will ask the Minister some questions about how the summit will work, who will be there, what the key Government aims are and how we can enforce the actions that are agreed.

In next Thursday’s summit, international partners will, we hope, agree a package of practical steps to expose corruption, punish the perpetrators, support the victims and drive out the culture of corruption. That is clearly timely, given what we have seen in recent weeks and months. It is difficult to measure the impact of corruption, but the scale has never been more obvious: the FIFA scandal, the Unaoil leaks and the recent Panama papers gave us a glimpse of the far-reaching and egregious damage that bribery, fraud, grand corruption and tax evasion can cause. As the Prime Minister said last July,

“Corruption is one of the greatest enemies of progress in our time.”

Bribes, tax evasion and grand corruption destabilise development, keep the vulnerable in poverty, add significantly to the cost of doing business and fund terrorism. We all agree that we need to find a way of fixing those things.

Next week’s extraordinary summit is outside the usual gamut of United Nations, G20, G7 or even OECD processes. It is a one-off, stand-alone, unique summit, and we are all keen to understand how any actions that are agreed can be enforced. We do not want just warm words next week; real action must result from them.

It is right that the UK takes the lead on this issue, because we are uniquely exposed to corruption. Our status as a pre-eminent global financial centre and the unfortunate financial secrecy touted by our overseas territories and Crown dependencies make the UK seem a safe haven for the proceeds of corruption and the individuals and organisations that facilitate and benefit from financial crime and tax evasion. We ought to recognise that.

When MPs go around the world and look at the issues that developing countries face, we often think, “Isn’t it great that we’re not suffering from that level of day-to-day corruption? We don’t have to bribe public officials to get the service we want. We are not at risk of being stopped by the police and being asked for a charge to keep driving.” But the UK is not completely corruption-free. As a big financial centre, we are very exposed to corruption, and we are used as a way to launder money and hide the proceeds of corruption and crime elsewhere in the world.

It is right that we praise what the Government have done in that regard. We will soon be one of the first countries in the world, and the first in the European Union, to have a public register of beneficial ownership. That is a real step forward, which will allow us all to see who owns the companies that operate in the UK. I am sure that it will give us some extremely useful and interesting information. We all welcome the recent consultation on extending that transparency to property ownership. We also welcome the new anti-money laundering action plan, which, if fully implemented, will bolster the regulators’ enforcement powers and their ability to identify and freeze suspicious transactions.

Of course, we have issues with our overseas territories, and if we cannot convince them to get on board with this agenda, our reputation for being a truly anti-corruption jurisdiction will not be intact. As the Panama papers show, secret company ownership makes most cases of large-scale corruption, money laundering and terrorist financing possible. Without secrecy, much of that could not be done.

A World Bank review of more than 200 of the biggest corruption cases between 1980 and 2010 found that more than 70% relied on shadow entities that hide ownership. Sadly, company service providers in the UK and the Crown dependencies are second on the list of providing the shell entities that facilitate those awful crimes. This summit and our international reputation will prevail only if we secure commitments from all our overseas territories and dependencies to introduce public registers of beneficial ownership and strip companies of the secrecy that allows them to hide the proceeds of crime, corruption and tax evasion.

Success will depend on whether we tackle the risks that are somewhat closer to home. Trillions of pounds flow through the UK’s financial system every year, and sadly some of those transactions are less than clean. The National Crime Agency recently estimated that tens to hundreds of billions of pounds-worth of corrupt and illicit funds are laundered through the UK each year. Last week, the acting chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority appeared before the Treasury Committee, and when asked whether the UK system is suitably hostile to money launderers, she could only reply, “We could do better.” Clearly, we could and must do better. The laundered funds that are used to buy property here get into the system through the secrecy that our overseas territories allow. It is harder to spot and stop such funds once they are in the system, so we need to prevent them from getting there in the first place.

We must tackle money laundering in the UK. We welcome the action plan, but having 27 different institutions to supervise the anti-money laundering rules in the bodies that they regulate is far too many. They cannot have a real picture of what is going on, what action is needed, the trends and who is not complying. Will the Minister say whether the Government plan to find a way to reduce the number of supervisors, so that we can be confident that the new rules and those that are already in place will be enforced?

Law enforcement authorities identify three sectors that do not adequately report suspicious activity: the legal sector, accountancy and estate agency. Property ownership is a topical issue, and the fact that only 0.05% of all suspicious activity reports came from estate agents in 2013-14 suggests that action is needed to make that sector transparent. Recent research from Transparency International and investigations from Global Witness show how London’s property market is used for corrupt ends. More than 36,000 properties in London are owned by companies registered in offshore jurisdictions, and almost 10% of the properties in Westminster are owned by anonymous companies. We clearly cannot allow that situation to continue.

Anonymity has a clear link to corruption. More than 75% of corruption cases involving property investigated by the Metropolitan police’s proceeds of corruption unit involved anonymous companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions, 78% of which were registered in the UK’s overseas territories or Crown dependencies. This huge problem is sadly centred in territories over which we have some influence, so it is imperative that we produce some action from them.

Senior figures at the National Crime Agency have reported that corrupt investment in London’s most expensive properties is driving up house prices across the board. So money laundering not only is a problem for the rich and powerful, but has an impact on everyday life here in London. The longer we allow London to be a kleptocrats’ playground, the worse off we are making ordinary people.

We have all those statistics to recount, and an APG inquiry is ongoing at which we have heard many anecdotes about how British firms working overseas are losing out on contracts to unscrupulous firms based in countries that do not have the same regulations and rules, and do not play fair, as we do. We are losing jobs and income here, because other countries around the world are not following the rules that they ought to be. It is right for us to make a stand. We do not want businesses bribing their way into contracts around the world. Where we find that happening, businesses and their executives will be punished, and serious action will be taken. We will not turn a blind eye to it. Recently, Ernst and Young’s 2016 global fraud survey of senior executives found that 98% of UK respondents believed that it was important to know who ultimately owns and controls the entities with which they do business. So this is not a minority interest; the business world agrees that we should all know about such things.

Turning to the summit next week, will the Minister confirm exactly which countries are attending and the level of their representation? How many of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies will be present? Perhaps he will list which ones will not be. According to the recent statement, the two territories that had not agreed to have even a closed register of official ownership were Guernsey, which had some excuse to do with having elections and so could not agree—has any progress been made?—and Anguilla. Has some sense prevailed in that small part of the world? Has it seen the light?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (John Penrose)

I will try to answer the broader questions at the end, but I can confirm that Anguilla has signed up. Guernsey’s election was last week, so we expect discussions to begin in earnest very promptly.

Nigel Mills

At least we have all the territories over that first hurdle.

Next week, the important thing will be to get real commitments on beneficial ownership and a timeframe for the register to be transparent and public, so everyone can see who owns every company established in a jurisdiction. For law-enforcement providers to be able to find such information in a timely way may be of some use, but we also want everyone to be able to search the register—for example, campaign groups could trace right through the system and see who owns properties. I suspect that law enforcement does not have the resources, sadly, to do that proactively, whereas sunlight and transparency will give us far more progress than a closed register ever could.

Will the Minister confirm whether the summit agenda includes discussion of a certain time by which all those territories will have a publicly accessible register of who owns companies and, preferably, of trusts in the jurisdiction? I accept that trusts are more complicated, but we need to see some progress on them as well.

Last autumn, I attended a meeting at which the Government’s anti-corruption champion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles)—sadly, he cannot be present today—confirmed that the Prime Minister was pretty determined to get overseas territories on board with a public register. The words the anti-corruption champion used were

“through legislation, guidance or naked pressure”.

I am not sure whether the summit counts as guidance or naked pressure, but if those do not work, what other options do the Government have? My right hon. Friend said “legislation”—his word—so will the Government put that on the table? At some point, will they take action if the territories will not go as far as we want them to, or is that completely off the table?

What other major countries are turning up? Are the Americans sending anyone next week, because they clearly have an important role to play in sorting out the world financial system? Those of us who would like to see greater action on global tax avoidance realise that the Americans have a real and vital role in that situation, so are they turning up next week?

If some actions are agreed next week and, as we hope, they are specific and have a real timeframe, how will they be enforced? Presumably, there will be no binding global agreement, but are the Government conscious of that? We do not want to hear warm words and promises that have been made before, followed by years of drift; we want real, concrete actions that are reviewed, with a timescale and ways to enforce progress.

If there is an agreement next week and some territories subsequently resile from it, what actions will the Government propose taking to convince the territories otherwise? It is not encouraging to see the Government announce that everyone has agreed to a closed register, and then senior people from some of our overseas territories glory in being able to say, “We’ve won. We’ve got everything we wanted out of this,” implying that it will be business as usual—presumably, not what we were aiming for. We want any agreement next week to be meaningful and strong, not just hot air.

With those thoughts, I wish the Government and the Minister well at the summit next week. We hope that they will come out with a strong and binding agreement, which can take the agenda forward towards finding ways of materially reducing the amount of corrupt money that flows around the world, especially into the UK. Nations around the world should, rightly, keep the money that they earn and have the tax revenues necessary to grow their economies. Everyone throughout the world should be able to see our financial system moving in the direction of being open, transparent and honest, rather than corrupt.