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Measures tabled to freeze 'ill-gotten gains' of dictators

New powers to stop "blood-stained dictators" and despots from laundering their money through the UK by freezing their assets have been tabled by the Government.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said the move would send a "major signal" around the world that the UK could not be used as a base to hide "ill-gotten gains".

Meanwhile, Tory former justice minister Dominic Raab urged the Government to "stop turning a blind eye to the blood money of butchers" as he called for wider reaching measures to be introduced.

The proposals come largely in response to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who claimed in 2008 that fraud was committed by an organised crime group in Russia in collusion with corrupt Interior Ministry officials.

Mr Magnitsky was arrested shortly after, accused of stealing the money himself and died a year later in jail after what supporters claim was a systematic torture campaign.

The Government's proposals, brought forward as an amendment to the Criminal Finances Bill, would expand the scope of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to include instances of gross human rights abuses and violations.

Mr Wallace said: "We are putting on the statute book a new power to take action based on gross human rights abuse, torture, degrading treatment. We have not done that before.

"That's a major step and a major signal to countries around the world that if there is evidence presented we could interdict with their assets and make sure we send that very powerful message that London, the United Kingdom, is not a base for them to put their assets or ill-gotten gains from such behaviour."

Mr Raab brought forward alternative proposals, backed by dozens of MPs from different parties, which would also allow individuals to ask the High Court to make an order to freeze the assets of anyone guilty of such activity.

But Mr Wallace warned the cross-party push would "open up a whole can of worms".

Tory former minister Sir Eric Pickles, the Government's anti-corruption champion, backed Mr Wallace's measures and said: "The concern and the worry would be that we would get not just vexatious complaints but complaints designed just for publicity in the almost certain knowledge that the complaint would not be seen through by the court and that there would be virtually no cost to the people making the complaint.

"This gives the opportunity of actually nabbing the guilty and saying to people that blood-stained dictators have no place in putting their money in this country."

Mr Wallace added: "This measure would send a clear statement that the UK will not stand by and allow those who have committed gross abuse or violations around the world to launder their money here."

Mr Raab said he was concerned the Government's proposals were not as "robust" as his own measures because they do not impose a duty on law enforcement agencies to act and because they do not allow for third party applications to the court.

"We have to stop turning a blind eye to the blood money of butchers and despots which frankly flows all too freely through some UK businesses, banks and property," he said.

However, following reassurances from Mr Wallace relating to enforcement and a stated desire to ensure the new powers work effectively, Mr Raab indicated he would accept the Government's move.

The Criminal Finance Bill is aimed at improving the Government's ability to target the revenue generated by organised crime, focusing in particular on money-laundering and terrorist finance.

Sir Eric said: "I do entirely agree that a posthumous conviction for dishonesty for theft is as ridiculous as occurred during the French revolution of putting animals out on trials.

"But we have to understand that there are parts of the world that governments and private business move hand in hand, that would make the Tudor court look like the very epitome of Puritan restraint.

"And it's to those people that we're sending out a very clear message that their assets will be seized, that their lives will be interrupted, and that those who seek to buy expensive flats, expensive jewellery, that they will face a problem."

Labour former minister Chris Bryant, though, said the Government still felt it could appease these corrupt dictators adding that " they want to pussyfoot around the issue".

Mr Bryant also warned that new measures to combat corruption would have to be brought in once the UK leaves the European Union.

"We will have to find new mechanisms to be able to ensure that we do not become the sink spot for international corruption, bribery and human rights abusers who want to abuse the rights and privileges of owning and living in the United Kingdom," he said.

MPs approved the Government's amendment unopposed.

The Government also tabled a group of separate amendments to beef up powers for enforcement agencies tackling white collar crime.

The proposals would close loopholes which prevent HM Revenue and Customs from fighting certain types of tax fraud and also allow suspicious financial transactions to be frozen for longer periods while investigations are under way.

Mr Wallace, moving the amendment for the Government, said: "Fraud is a crime regardless of which function of HMRC it is committed against.

"These amendments will ensure necessary powers are available in all such cases. They do not provide HMRC with any new criminal justice powers."

However shadow home affairs minister Carolyn Harris said the Bill was a missed opportunity "to stamp out everyday corruption of the super-rich" and questioned how it would be enforced.

She said: "We of course support the Government's effort to tighten up state powers against white collar crime but we have concerns that it's squandering an opportunity that the Bill provides to stamp out everyday corruption of the super-rich getting a free ride on the expense of the wider society, thereby fuelling inequality.

"A problem is that amid the Government's cuts to public services, this Bill could be very difficult to enforce.

"Whilst I understand the giving of new powers to HMRC, is the Government not concerned about how they will carry out their new duties, given that the Coalition decimated HMRC's budgets by £100 million and they are set to lose 137 of their officers by 2027?

"There seems little point in creating laws that potentially cannot be enforced unless it is of course to give the impression that the Government is doing something, a theme I fear that has sadly run through the proceedings of the Bill so far."

The Government's amendment was approved unopposed by MPs.


From Belfast Telegraph