James Cleverly – 2022 Speech on Anti-corruption Sanctions in Kazakhstan

The speech made by James Cleverly, the Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America, in the House of Commons on 3 February 2022.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for securing the debate and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on these complex issues both in her former role as a Select Committee Chair and as chair of the all-party group on anti-corruption and responsible tax. As my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister with responsibility for south and central Asia, is in the other place, it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

This month, the UK celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan, our largest partner in central Asia. Over the years, we have built a strong partnership in areas such as oil and gas investment, education and financial services, as well as promoting human rights and democratic values. We have had real success in encouraging a more open business environment in Kazakhstan, including through the Astana International Financial Centre.

Hon. Members—though few are here—will have witnessed the violent clashes that took place in January after initially peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan over increased fuel prices. As the right hon. Lady said, the latest estimates are that more than 200 people died during those clashes. There were reports of organised attacks on property and law enforcement officers, and almost 10,000 people were detained. I am sure that she will join me and others in roundly condemning the violence and loss of life.

My noble Friend Lord Ahmad has been engaged intensively on these issues, speaking to senior Kazakh contacts last month, including President Tokayev’s special representative on 14 January. In each of these calls, the Minister has underlined the importance of Kazakhstan respecting its international human rights commitments. President Tokayev has called what happened an “attempted coup” and we are urgently seeking further information about that very serious development. We welcome the President’s decision to establish an investigative commission to ascertain what led to these unprecedented events and loss of life. We support the Kazakh authorities’ commitment that this will be an effective and transparent investigation and have encouraged them to consider international and independent expertise.

In his public remarks, the President was clear that the original peaceful protests were based on legitimate grievances about the socioeconomic situation and that urgent economic reform is needed. We support that message and we seek opportunities, with our international partners, to support those reforms.

President Tokayev has also been critical of an existing social system that has seen economic growth largely benefit a small number of very rich people in society, as the right hon. Lady highlighted. We are well aware of reports on the alleged acquisition of assets by wealthy members of elite Kazakh society, including of substantial property holdings here in the UK. It is, of course, the role of law enforcement agencies to investigate any specific allegations of wrongdoing, as she said.

As a leading financial services centre, the UK can, unfortunately, be the destination for the proceeds of corruption, despite findings from the Financial Action Task Force that the UK has one of the strongest systems to combat money laundering and terrorist financing of more than 60 countries assessed to date. Consequently, the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy committed to take stronger action to bear down on illicit finance, including by bolstering the National Economic Crime Centre and working with our closest allies, such as the United States, to maximise our collective impact against this common threat.

The recent spending review has put new resources behind that commitment: £42 million for economic crime reform from now until 2025. That is in addition to £63 million for Companies House reform and the introduction of the economic crime (anti-money laundering) levy, which will raise around £100 million per year from the private sector, to combat economic crime from 2023. These additional resources will significantly enhance our ability to tackle transnational corruption and illicit finance.

Since 2006, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has funded the National Crime Agency’s international corruption unit, a world-renowned law enforcement capability focused on investigating corruption from developing countries with UK links. Since funding started in 2006, ICU investigations have resulted in the conviction of 30 people and companies for corruption offences. It has also frozen, confiscated or returned to developing countries more than £1.1 billion-worth of stolen assets.

In addition, the UK leads and hosts the International Anti-Corruption Coordination Centre, which brings together specialist law enforcement officers from multiple agencies around the world to tackle allegations of grand corruption. The IACCC significantly enhances our ability to investigate complex, multi-jurisdictional corruption cases. Since its launch in 2017, it has provided support on 88 investigations.

In 2019, the UK launched its economic crime plan that provides a joined-up public and private sector response to economic crime. The success of our public-private partnership is perfectly demonstrated by the work of the joint money laundering intelligence taskforce, a mechanism that enables law enforcement and the financial sector to work more closely together to detect, prevent and disrupt money laundering and economic crime. To date, the joint money laundering intelligence taskforce has helped more than 600 law enforcement investigations. This has directly contributed to over 150 arrests and the seizure of more than £34 million in illicit funds.

Finally, in April last year, the UK launched the global anti-corruption sanctions regime, which the right hon. Lady mentioned in her remarks. This allows the Government to impose asset freezes and travel bans on those involved in serious corruption around the world, and it sends a message that the UK will not tolerate those individuals, or their ill-gotten gains, in our country. The regime does not target countries, but instead targets those individuals or organisations that are responsible. We believe that this is a strong, personal deterrent and it has been used so far to sanction 27 individuals in 10 different countries.

Collectively, these investments significantly enhance our ability to bring corrupt actors to justice. They also send a clear message that we will use the full force of our capabilities to bear down on those who seek to use the UK as a destination for their illegitimate wealth.

Criminals, corrupt elites and individuals who threaten our security are not welcome in the UK.

Dame Margaret Hodge

I am extremely grateful to the Minister, but he has given me a very general response. I named more than 20 individuals, many of whom are members of the same family. Will he undertake to investigate the circumstances that I briefly outlined, and undertake that, if I am correct, those individuals will face sanctions under the new regime?

James Cleverly

The right hon. Lady will, I am sure, understand that it can sometimes be counterproductive to go into details about what future sanctions designations the UK Government might undertake, but I can absolutely assure her that my officials, and indeed the House, will have taken note of the individuals she highlighted in her speech.

In relation to Kazakhstan, or indeed any other country, our law enforcement agencies continue to monitor and, if necessary, investigate particular cases where circumstances require. We know that corruption and illicit finance can have a devastating impact on states and citizens by undermining democracy, bankrolling authoritarian agendas, and enabling serious and organised crime. The UK has shown, on the world stage, that it has both the means and the will to promote responsible financial behaviour. We have shown that we stand ready to take action, domestically and internationally, wherever necessary. I am sure you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we must now stand together to show that corruption has no place in this country.