Plan to tackle dirty money in UK set out in bill

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Martin Everson

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Measures to drive dirty money out of the UK and bring in stronger powers to tackle illicit activity have been presented to Parliament.

The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill would increase the powers of Companies House, which registers information about firms, to root out illegitimate businesses.

Campaigners welcomed the legislation, saying it was "long overdue".

But they said Companies House must been given enough resources to enforce it.

The invasion of Ukraine prompted a crackdown on money laundering, leading the government to accelerate plans to prevent wealthy individuals, including Russian oligarchs, from hiding money obtained through corrupt or illegal means in the UK.

Setting out plans for the bill in May, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it would allow the government to "crack down on kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse our open economy".

'Lax controls'​

It said the bill would mean anyone setting up, running, owning or controlling a company in the UK would need to verify their identity with Companies House, with the body able to challenge dubious information and inform security agencies of potential wrongdoing.

The bill will need to be debated and approved by Parliament before it becomes law.

Research by anti-corruption group Transparency International UK found that between 2000 and October 2019, 929 UK companies had been involved in 89 cases of corruption and money laundering, amounting to £137bn in economic damage.

However, it said the actual number of UK companies used in major financial crime could be in the thousands or tens of thousands.

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said: "Over the years, lax controls on company incorporation has seen thousands of UK firms and partnerships being used to launder the proceeds of corruption - hundreds of billions of pounds lost all around the world.

"Verifying the identities of those that own and direct companies and the professionals providing these services will help to make it harder for criminals to use and abuse UK businesses, but the effective implementation of these measures remains critical to their eventual success."

The organisation also said Companies House needed sufficient resources to enforce the legislation and noted that no assurances had been given that additional funding would be provided.

Money laundering​

It also called for further measures, such as banning UK companies from being controlled by opaque offshore firms.

Campaign group Spotlight on Corruption also welcomed the bill, with executive director Susan Hawley saying: "UK corporate structures have been the vehicle of choice for fraudsters and money launderers all over the globe for years owing to serious weaknesses at Companies House."

However, she said Companies House must be given the power to increase registration fees so it can properly resource its new powers.

She added that there were still gaps in the UK's defences, including making it easier to prosecute big banks and companies for economic crime.

Another Economic Crime Bill was fast-tracked through Parliament in March, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It included measures to force foreign owners of UK companies to declare and verify their identities and to make it simpler for UK authorities to sanction individuals.

A bill had been promised for several years, amid concerns that the City of London is being used as a conduit for illegal funds.

However, the war led to increased calls for a crackdown on money laundering, particularly by those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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