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Sanctions Bill Speech

Andrew Mitchell’s speech in the debate on the Second Reading of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill.

Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield 7:08 pm, 20th February 2018

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I want to start by making clear that I think this is a very good Bill. It is clearly the right approach to take in these circumstances and a good administrative measure. It delivers sensible and orderly governance and addresses quite rightly the post-Brexit situation and the new framework for implementing sanctions. My purpose in this debate is to suggest two ways in which the Bill can be improved further.

First, I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to an area of the Bill that the Minister for Europe and the Americas understands extremely well. Sanctions regimes inevitably affect the peace-building work that humanitarian agencies do in some fragile and difficult places, and in particular key NGOs operating in sanctioned countries. I pay tribute to the remarkable work that is being done by British NGOs in some very difficult parts of the world; I am thinking, for instance, of Syria and Yemen.

Clare Short, the distinguished former International Development Secretary—she set up DFID—and I gave evidence to the Select Committee on the difficulties that can arise for the agencies on occasion. They can fall foul of terrorism measures, which adversely affect their life-saving work. There are difficulties in working in lawless areas, which inevitably involves negotiating with some extremely bad people. Under the regime that the Foreign Secretary is ushering in, the Bill will bring much greater clarity for donors who deliver via NGOs and for banks worried that they may fall foul of the regulations. It will help to reduce bank de-risking—I have heard of NGOs not being able to maintain access to their bank accounts or to transfer funds because of the regulations—when banks fear that they may breach sanctions by providing banking services. I hope the Bill will reduce banks’ concerns, assist transport and logistics companies in their work, help NGOs to access formal banking channels, and reduce or eliminate possibilities for remittancing, which, as Members on both sides of the House will know, involves a far bigger transfer of funds to the poor world than international aid.

The Geneva Convention states that humanitarian aid be provided to those most in need, without discrimination. The Bill has the capacity to empower leading UK and experienced international charities to carry out our international obligations under such conventions yet more effectively. Building on that, we want to see a general licensing system for financial transactions for the provision of goods and services, which are essential to the delivery of critical aid, for individuals and entities that may be located in areas covered by sanctions.

My first point is that, while accepting that the Government have international obligations in respect of sanctions regimes that inevitably have an impact on the Government’s ability to deliver those commitments in full and on all occasions, the Bill nevertheless has the power to improve this area greatly. I hope the Minister for Europe and the Americas—as I have said, he has a very strong understanding of these matters from his time as an International Development Minister—will say a word or two about that tonight.

My second point is about an area in which the Bill can be improved. This was mentioned by Helen Goodman, who led for the Opposition. It builds on the important comments made recently by David Cameron, the former Prime Minister about the Magnitsky rules and the Magnitsky amendment, and I hope that the Bill is susceptible to improvement in that respect.

In spite of our self-image as a country that lives by the rule of law, the reality is that officials from autocracies around the world who are guilty of appalling crimes come to London to live safely and comfortably without much interference from us. There is now a mechanism to prevent this, which is used by the United States and other countries, called the Magnitsky Act. It is named after the Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, the appalling treatment of whom was described by the hon. Lady. The Magnitsky Act freezes the assets and bans the visas of human rights violators from around the world. The State Department recently published its Magnitsky list, which includes the son of Russia’s general prosecutor, a general from Myanmar implicated in ethnic cleansing, the ex-dictator of Gambia, a shady international fraudster from Israel and a retired Pakistani colonel suspected of organ trafficking.

Alarmingly, every single person on that list is able to travel to the United Kingdom.

Last year, Parliament took an important step to combat this impunity by passing the Magnitsky amendment to the Criminal Finances Bill, under which human rights violators can now have their assets frozen by the Government. Unfortunately, the law is narrowly defined and does not match the standard of other Magnitsky laws around the world. For example, it does not address the issue of visas, and it places a huge burden on the Government in going to court to obtain an order to freeze assets, rather than giving my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the power to do so by decree.

The Magnitsky amendment to this Bill—I very much hope it will be considered in Committee or, if not, on Report—would bring our legislation into conformity with Magnitsky Acts around the world. Any amendment would define precisely the types of human rights violators to be sanctioned, and most importantly, it would follow an example set by the United States and other countries by placing a requirement on the Government to report annually to Parliament on how effectively the sanctions regime is being used. In my judgment, we should not allow the Government to declare victory over human rights violators with the passage of a law that never gets implemented. I believe that such an amendment may well attract support from all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I submit that, if passed, it would bring this aspect of UK law up to international standards.

John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare
As the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption champion, I am listening very carefully to what my right hon. Friend is suggesting. He mentioned existing legal powers. Does he have any sense of how often they are being used at the moment, even though he believes they are relatively narrowly defined?

Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield
It is early days, but I think the existing powers are being used rather less than my hon. Friend and I would wish, and I have read out a list of people who are sanctioned by other countries, but not sanctioned by the UK. That was my second point.

My final point relates to the much discussed issue of open registers and the overseas territories. The House will recall the actions of the coalition Government and Britain’s leadership at the G8 in tackling tax evasion and tax havens. I thought the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland was a touch too curmudgeonly in acknowledging the extent to which the coalition Government made real progress on those matters. The UK has introduced publicly accessible registers of people with significant control, abolished bearer or anonymous shares and introduced unexplained wealth orders, while the anti-bribery law was finally introduced by the coalition Government. Britain has a proud record of world leadership on this under a Conservative-led Government.

This is the fourth occasion on which I, along with my right hon. and hon. Friends—under the able, cross-party leadership of Dame Margaret Hodge—have tried to coax the Government into visiting on the overseas territories the same level of openness and transparency as we have in this country. Let us be clear on the constitutional position, which the Government set out in 2012:
“As a matter of constitutional law the UK Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for the Territories.”

The overseas territories themselves recognise that they gain hugely from their relationship with the United Kingdom.

The overseas territories have been resistant to this argument for three reasons. The first—let us call it the Dutch Antilles argument—is that if they have open registers, all the hot money will head off to other less law-abiding jurisdictions. Leaving aside the issue of whether any decent person should wish to handle hot money obtained through corruption or worse, the fact is that the international consensus is to bear down on such havens, and their footprint is narrowing. Indeed, havens that embrace such transparency will secure a business advantage precisely because their legitimate business will no longer be tainted by fears of the reverse. There is an understanding of this point in at least some of the overseas territories, which, if I may put it this way, camp on the prayer of St Augustine: “O Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”

The second argument, which we must address head-on, is that the overseas territories’ private registers are already available to lawmakers and regulators such as the Inland Revenue. The territories proudly say that they can turn around inquiries from HMRC within hours. This is commendable, but it completely misses the point. That fact is underlined by the recent release of information by journalists, which the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned. Registers must be open—to civil society, the media, journalists, non-governmental organisations—if all the relevant dots are to be joined up, as the release of the Paradise papers so clearly shows. With the best will in the world, the regulatory authorities are not in that business, and narrow questions from regulatory authorities simply do not suffice.

Finally, I come to the point made movingly by the Foreign Secretary that many, although not all, overseas territories suffered an existential calamity from the recent hurricanes. The whole House will share his concern. I am sure the whole House can assist by agreeing, in any amendment, a longer but definitive period of time in which this reform in the overseas territories should take place.

Around the world, the UK is looked to and respected for its leadership on international development. Helping the poorest in often far-flung places is written deep into this country’s DNA. It is who we are as a Parliament. The appalling but temporary crisis afflicting Oxfam will not change that. We have an obligation, not least to our own taxpayers, to champion transparency and openness, and to have zero tolerance towards corruption. The highly respected Africa Progress Panel has shown that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo more than £1.5 billion of stolen funds and taxes have disappeared. These are funds stolen from some of the poorest people on the planet, who by contrast live in one of the richest mineral and resource-endowed countries in the world. As the World Bank has made clear, the money stolen from the people of Africa through unpaid taxes or concealment dwarfs all the foreign direct investment and international development money that flows into Africa each year. Much of that money ends up salted away in the tax havens I have described. We owe it to the poor of Africa, as well as to our own taxpayers, to take the action we can to bring about an end to this scandal.

I urge the Government, on this fourth occasion, to look very seriously at the amendment that will undoubtedly be tabled by Dame Margaret Hodge on Report, if not before. Four times we have been around this track. There is significant support on both sides of the House for that amendment. I urge those on the Treasury Bench to look very seriously at whether they can accommodate the House of Commons on this point.

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