Money-laundering law will cover estate agents and accountants

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The Independent Online

Estate agents and high street lawyers and accountants are to be governed by new money-laundering laws designed to cut off the channels of finance used by terrorists.

According to figures from the National Criminal Intelligence Service, just 4 per cent of suspicious transaction reports last year came from solicitors and accountants, and the Government is concerned they are going unmentioned. An estimated £8bn of criminal money circulates in the UK each year.

Currently only accountants and lawyers carrying out investment business are obliged to report transactions they suspect are linked to terrorism. The Home Office and Treasury now want to extend this requirement to all lawyers and stretch its reach to professionals providing other services where large sums are handled, such as estate agents and those providing money transfer services.

The Government will register its concern both at the European level and through new domestic legislation. Gordon Brown will use this weekend's meeting of European finance ministers to press for the early adoption of the European directive on money laundering, which would force continental lawyers to report suspicious transactions for the first time. It would also oblige other professionals to inform police about such deals.

However, lawyers across the Continent are resisting the measure, citing client confidentiality. Heike Lorcher of the German Federal Bar said: "Only the UK has reporting obligations on solicitors. In a democratic society, clients talking to a lawyer need to be sure that the lawyer will not snitch to the police."

To get round this, the British Government is also considering last-minute amendments to the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which has been published in draft form by the Home Office, to bring all lawyers and other professionals under the obligation to report suspect transactions.

Louise Delahunty, a partner at Peters & Peters, a firm of solicitors, said: "There is an opportunity for the Government to look again at the Proceeds of Crime Bill and widen the net."

Other British moves against money laundering activities include an investigation of the Hawala underground banking system used by Middle Eastern and Asian people unofficially to move money around the world.

The Financial Services Authority, the City regulator, has told banks, stockbrokers and other financial companies to check their records for names of the suspects under investigation by the FBI in connection with the US attacks.