Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in the shadow of the Kremlin seemed like a movie scene. A million miles from the reality of our everyday lives here in Britain.
But we owe it to Nemtsov to remember that, while much of his recent ire was spent on opposing the war in Ukraine, his longer term theme was in attacking the endemic corruption in his country.
What’s that got to do with us in Britain? The fact that, to the bafflement and anger of Nemtsov, and other anti-corruption campaigners in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, London has welcomed in the billions of dollars the corrupt siphon away from their often-impoverished citizens.
Our City law firms, accountants, bankers, property agents, private schools, stockbrokers have created an industry out of accepting money and business from dubious sources in the East. No questions asked.
The government may have you believe that the influx of Russians to the UK, and particularly London and Surrey, is due to the relative safety of our streets and the reliability of our legal and financial system.
That’s true, but the same could be said of Paris and Frankfurt, yet they have seen nothing like the influx that has come to the UK.
Why? The fact is, Britain’s deregulated financial system makes it far easier for “funny money” to move around here than in most other jurisdictions in Europe.
Companies House rules mean it is cheaper and easier here to register complex webs of anonymous companies, perfect for hiding and laundering cash. Find the right estate agent and solicitor and you can buy a £25m house through an offshore front company with scant paperwork. And, when your enemies come after the money you stole, you can take your pick of the best lawyers in the world to defend you in the London High Court.
Nemtsov was a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and the Anglo-Saxon capitalism she represented.
So it must have been all the more galling for him to have seen Britain, and particularly London, becoming a willing enabler of the corruption he deplored.
In fairness, the current government has done more than its predecessors to tighten up on the easy financial secrecy that so attracts the corrupt to our shores. But there remains much to be done, many more laws to be tightened.
Perhaps a “Nemtsov Act” might be a good place to begin.
Here are five rules for starters:
::Make it illegal to own property in the name of a foreign company, or at least make it compulsory to list the beneficial owners of those companies. Preferably, the list of owners should be free and open to the public to see. If this is seen as too much of an infringement on the liberty of billionaires, the list should at least be available to the police. Transparency International has a report out this week highlighting the extent of corrupt money flooding into UK property. It says any foreign company intending to held a property title in the UK should be held to the same standards of transparency as UK companies. Such moves should be enacted in a Nemtsov Act.
::Computerise Companies House so filings can be electronically cross-referenced in order to locate patterns and identities. Increase funding to Companies House to make it an organisation that checks and cross checks applications and filings.
::Enable quicker freezing of assets in the UK after revolutions or other political upheavals. Canada and Switzerland have such arrangements in place, and were nearly a fortnight quicker than the UK to freeze the assets of Ukrainian despot Viktor Yanukovich and his cronies after the revolution there.
::Create a law restraining assets held by foreign politicians and bureaucrats where they cannot explain a legitimate origin of the cash.
::Enshrine in law that all aspects of Companies House will be free for use in perpetuity, as well as the Land Registry, opening up access for anybody to scrutinise the money trail of suspect individuals and companies.