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Yvette Cooper – 2022 Speech on Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

The speech made by Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 13 October 2022.

Let me first join in the tributes paid earlier by Members on both sides of the House to Sir David Amess. His parliamentary office was just above mine, and I know that we all remember him very fondly.

I rise to support the Bill’s Second Reading, and also to welcome the Home Secretary to her first full debate in the Chamber in her new post. It has been—what?—about five weeks since she was appointed, and I must say that she has been busy.

We have seen a series of major public disagreements between the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister: on restoring a net migration target, and then not; on leaving the European convention on human rights, and then not; on reclassifying drugs, and then not; on seasonal agricultural workers, still unresolved; on the claim that the Prime Minister did not see small boats as a priority and did not want her to talk about Rwanda; on some kind of row with the Business Secretary about florists, which nobody could follow; and on the Indian trade deal, which is something the Prime Minister had been working on for years, and which the Home Secretary seems to have single-handedly scuppered with a passing remark during an interview with The Spectator. Furthermore, according to the latest story this morning, the Home Secretary is not actually involved in immigration policy decisions at all, although they are at the heart of her Department.

We have to wonder whether there is anything that the new Home Secretary and the new Prime Minister agree on—although, to be fair to the Home Secretary, it is not clear that the Prime Minister agrees with herself from one day to the next. There have been so many U-turns that the Cabinet is spinning in circles. I have seen 11 Home Secretaries come and go, but I have never seen anything like the chaos and confusion that we are seeing now. There are disagreements from time to time, of course, but the scale of this is actually dangerous, because the Home Office is too important.

On issues of national security, crime and migration, we need the sense that there is some stability: that the people at the top are capable of self-discipline, that there is collective Cabinet responsibility, and that, at least on home affairs, they are making statements in the interests of the country, rather than behaving as if they were still in the process of a leadership campaign—although I guess that is exactly what is going on. If they are not capable of getting their act together and being a Government who are focused on those matters, they should get out of the way, and give way to someone else who can.

Suella Braverman rose—

Yvette Cooper

If the Home Secretary wants to respond to any of those points, I shall welcome her doing so.

Suella Braverman

I am not sure whether it has dawned on the right hon. Lady that we are here to talk about the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which is an important measure to tackle fraud and support victims of this heinous crime. I am not sure whether she is really focusing on that. I thank her for the party political broadcast, but let us get on with the job in hand.

Yvette Cooper

There are plenty of aspects of the Bill that we can discuss, but I note that the Home Secretary chose not to deny any of the chaotic things that she has been saying in the papers. This is not stuff that we have made up; these are things that the new Home Secretary has been saying, which undermine her ability, and indeed the country’s ability, to deal with issues relating to national security, economic crime, fraud and migration—all the serious challenges that the country faces.

This Bill, which is long overdue, should constitute an area in which the whole country can come together and in which, across the House, there is broad agreement in the national interest. I welcome the Bill, but I am concerned that it does not go far enough. The Home Secretary will have heard the points made by Members in all parts of the House: extremely detailed work has been done by many Members with great expertise in respect of areas in which the Government need to go further. I hope that the Government will listen and will be able to go further, because the whole House will agree that action on economic crime in the UK is urgently needed.

This is a rough estimate, but the National Crime Agency says that £100 billion of dirty money flows through the UK every year, and that fraud is causing £190 billion-worth of damage. Economic crime is growing. According to the latest PwC global survey, 64% of businesses have experienced fraud, corruption or other economic or financial crime within the past two years, up from 50% just four years ago. Last year, 4.5 million frauds were perpetrated against people across the country, a 25% increase in the last few years. This is hugely damaging to families and communities, to our economy and businesses, to our international reputation, and also to our security.

The organised crime that is facilitated by weak financial systems has a deeply pernicious impact on our communities and our children, drawing young people into crime, gangs and exploitation, and fuelling the most appalling violence on our streets. It undermines our economy. It undermines legitimate businesses and financial organisations, and the thousands of people who work in them, who are standing up for high standards, are also undermined by this kind of crime and exploitation.

As I have said, economic crime is deeply damaging to our international reputation. London’s reputation as the money-laundering capital of the world is a source of national shame. Ours is a country that has long prided itself on the rule of law and on strong economic institutions, which is what traditionally made it a good place in which to invest, but that is being undermined by economic crime. United States allies have expressed frustration at the UK’s failure to tackle fully the problem of the flow of illicit Russian funds through what they have called Londongrad, and exposure to corrupt oligarchs and networks of kleptocracy means that that undermines our national security too.

Catherine West

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is also necessary for the courts in London to accept that there are limits to how many cases can be held involving libellous action against good authors such as Catherine Belton, who wrote “Putin’s People” with the aim of educating the general population? Are not these false claims which keep coming up in court a complete waste of the courts’ time?

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend has made an important point which I hope can be explored further in Committee. There is clearly a problem when those with the deepest pockets, who effectively have endless wealth that they can draw upon, can use and abuse the court system in order to silence people. That issue needs to be addressed further.

We know that this problem has a wide impact on the state of our economy and our national security. We supported the last economic crime Bill and we support this one, although there are deep concerns about how long this process has taken, and also about the gaps. We welcome, in particular, the overhaul of Companies House, which Labour has supported and has pressed the Government to get on with, and which I know has been championed by Members on both sides of the House. It is right to give Companies House powers to check and challenge basic information. When we try to explain this to people, most of them are shocked to learn that it did not already have powers to check the identities of people trying to set up shell companies.

We welcome the measures on cryptoassets. The new technology is outpacing action against economic crime and organised crime. The power to freeze and seize criminal assets cannot just be an analogue one in a digital age. We welcome the measures to encourage information sharing to help spot fraud and money laundering, and we welcome the measures that the Home Secretary has referred to about the ability for the SRA to increase fines.

There are sensible measures in the Bill, but the delays in getting this far have caused a problem, and so do the gaps in the Bill. We are still playing catch-up rather than looking forward, and it should not have taken a war for us to get this far. Transparency International warned about serious problems back in 2015. For years, the National Crime Agency has called internally on the Home Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury to do much more. We were promised action in 2016, in 2018 and in 2019, but as of August, fewer than half the recommendations in the Government’s 2019 economic crime plan had been enacted. The shadow Attorney General called for action on serious corporate fraud nine years ago. As shadow Home Secretary, I called 10 years ago for stronger laws and action on economic crime and fraud.

We are very clear about the importance of the matter. The Labour party believes in stronger action to defend our national interest, our economy and our national security from the organised criminals, fraudsters, corrupt oligarchs and kleptocrats. We know that that depends on having robust powers and procedures in place to defend our economy and our financial and economic institutions from fraud and abuse.

Chris Bryant

In fact, we tabled some of the measures in the Bill as amendments in 2018, and all that lot voted against them. One of my anxieties is about what happens with oligarchs’ assets that are frozen by the UK. There is a legitimate question about whether it is right for the state to seize assets that belong to private individuals. On the whole, that is not a good thing—that is what authoritarian regimes do—but we need some clarity on how we proceed in a time of war, which is effectively where we are at the moment. I note that Abramovich’s Chelsea was sold, and the money is still sitting in his bank account because the Foreign Office still has not put in place a means of transferring it to Ukraine. This is months in, and it is absolutely bonkers.

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to the work he has done over very many years, long before other people were talking about these issues and highlighting the risks. I also pay tribute to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). We really need to get the detail right and go further.

I agree with the principle that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has raised. Safeguards must be in place, but in an extreme time of war, when oligarchs have supported and enabled Putin’s regime and his illegal war for so long, there is a strong case for using their assets to support Ukraine. I do hope that the Government will look further at that. Canada and other countries have changed their laws in the most serious of circumstances, and we are keen to talk to the Government about taking forward something similar.

We want to explore with the Government going further on other measures, such as provisions to enable Companies House to publish and verify up-to-date information on shareholders, and provisions on third-party enablers of organised crime and kleptocracy. The Home Secretary will know that there have long been concerns about those who help organised criminals and kleptocrats hide their money, and who cover up for crime. The regime for preventing that and for effectively regulating high-risk sectors is still too weak. She will be aware that the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision has said that 81% of professional supervisors on money laundering do not have an effective risk-based approach. I hope that we can look further at that in Committee and work with the Government on stronger measures.

We have already raised with the Home Secretary concerns about enforcement, and I will keep pushing her on the question of funding for the National Crime Agency. We know that it was asked to draw up proposals for 20% staffing cuts. I think that is irresponsible at a time when we face economic crime; when the NCA’s work can benefit the Exchequer and the economy by taking strong action, including on criminal asset seizures; and when the NCA needs to deal with wider issues around organised crime, people smuggling and trafficking. I will keep pressing the Home Secretary, because she did not rule out the 20% staffing cuts, and we want to know that they have been abandoned.

There have been wider questions about training for law enforcement in things such as cryptocurrencies.

Chris Bryant

One issue that is quite difficult for UK agencies concerns moneys that come from British companies straight into sanctioned accounts in the United States. British paper manufacturer Mondi, for instance, is selling off its arm in Russia, but it has just sold it to one of Putin’s closest allies. In other words, millions of British pounds have gone into Russian pockets and will end up funding the war in Ukraine. How do we make sure that we have the resources to track down these problems and bring these people to book?

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend is right. Our law enforcement needs a level of agility to keep up with the scale and pace at which organised criminals and corrupt oligarchs work and the resources that they have at their disposal.

Hon. Members have raised concerns about the huge gap in the Bill when it comes to tackling fraud, particularly serious corporate fraud—many Members have raised concerns about the proposed legislation in that regard—but fraud more widely, too. It has become the single most common crime that we face, not just the most common economic crime. There were 4.5 million fraud offences—40% of total crimes—last year, and, shockingly, only 0.01% of them were charged. Charges for fraud have dropped. In 2015, 9,000 fraud charges were brought, but last year there were fewer than 5,000. That is a 47% drop in fraudsters being taken to court. Serious Fraud Office prosecutions plummeted by 60%, and SFO convictions were down from 10 in 2016 to just three last year. That is not justice, and it is not keeping people safe. It is as though the Government have shrugged their shoulders and said that criminals and fraudsters can have free rein. We must have proper enforcement in place and take action on serious crimes.

Kate Green

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I want to return to the question of resources for Companies House, and its new enforcement powers. Rightly, it will put most of its effort into dealing with serious organised crime and matters of national security. Does she share my concern that without adequate resourcing, the day-to-day frauds that affect so many of our constituents simply will not receive the attention they deserve?

Yvette Cooper

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because enforcement in these areas saves money—for the economy overall, and often also for public sector organisations. We need a proper enforcement plan from the Government.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)

Does the shadow Home Secretary agree that strengthening our enforcement and plugging the enforcement gap is not just about resourcing for public bodies; it is also about having a much more effective whistleblowing regime? That can turbocharge what public bodies can do. It dramatically improves their ability to spot financial crimes —particularly fraud—and to intervene effectively and prosecute.

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Member makes a very important point. There are issues around both whistleblowing and safeguards for whistleblowers, and around information sharing. Information sharing is rightly included in the Bill, but many hon. Members will be aware that RUSI has pointed out that if we are looking to the future, as well as some of the issues around whistleblowing, there ought to be the potential to use artificial intelligence, for example, to spot patterns of fraud and corruption. As the hon. Member says, we need ways to detect potential fraud; we need routes—be it through whistle- blowing, information sharing or spotting things that happen—through which to identify it and then for speedy enforcement action to be taken.

Let me press the Home Secretary on the need to tackle corporate criminal liability. The shadow Attorney General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), originally called for action on that nine years ago, and the Treasury Committee and the Law Commission have both called for action. Corporate fraudsters should not be able to get away with sequestering millions because the law just is not strong enough. I urge the Home Secretary to look at this urgently. It will have crossed her desk while she was Attorney General, and we need rapid action.

Labour will support the Bill on Second Reading, but we have to be honest that it does not yet go far enough. We should not stand for dirty money, fraudsters, organised criminals, and the deep and serious crimes that they facilitate. We must stand up for our national security; for our economy; for good businesses and professional services that are being undermined; for our law enforcement bodies, which need support and backing to deliver; and, most of all, for those who become the victims—those who are exploited here and across the world. Britain should be leading the way. The Bill is welcome, but it is not yet good enough. We hope that, with concerted cross- party action, we can all get our act together and make it better.