A new Economic Crime Bill to bolster the government’s ability to target Russian oligarchs has been pushed through the Commons.
The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill received an unopposed third reading on Monday evening and will now go to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.
It was rushed through the Commons in the hope it will be passed in time to deter Russian oligarchs from the UK following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The aim of the bill is to make it difficult for people to hide their wealth in the UK, especially from overseas, including criminals and people wanting to hide illicitly acquired money – especially through property purchases.
The bill has faced multiple delays and there was speculation it might have been dropped, but it was tabled last week after Russia invaded Ukraine and was fast-tracked through the initial stages.
Most opposition parties support the bill, but some MPs feel there are too many loopholes.
However, with the government’s safe majority, all proposed amendments were voted down.
Key developments in the Ukraine crisis:
• Ukraine says Russia keeps firing despite humanitarian deal
• President Zelenskyy to make ‘historic address’ to British MPs
• Ukrainian boy travels 600 miles along to escape his homeland
• Russia becomes the world’s most sanctioned country
• PM explains why West cannot cut off Russian gas immediately
Here are some of the key elements of the bill:
Register of overseas UK land ownership
A register of overseas entities would be set up, so the actual owners of land or property in the UK bought by people or companies overseas in the last 20 years would be named.
At the moment, many multi-million pound homes in the UK are owned by shell companies based overseas, so it is not possible to know who the actual owner is.
Failure to name the actual owner of property would be a criminal offence under the bill, with up to five years’ in jail.
More powers for investigators
Investigators would also be allowed to target people who manage properties within complicated offshore arrangements, even if they’re not the actual beneficiary.
And the National Crime Agency will be protected against extortionate legal costs for going after these very wealthy people, as long as they act reasonably and properly.
Under the bill, it would be easier for the UK to sanction individuals as they would no longer have to have, or be suspected to have, breached sanctions law.
The UK has faced criticism for the relatively small number of oligarchs it has sanctioned since the Ukraine invasion started compared with other countries such as the US. However, the government maintains it is doing all it can.
Unexplained wealth orders
Unexplained wealth orders would also be tightened up, so people will have to explain how they gained their money.
This is in the hope of catching or preventing those who are suspected of gaining their money through illicit or criminal means.