Andy McSmith's Diary: Britain really is best when it comes to laundering money


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Indy Politics

We have seen the images of Viktor Yanukovych’s £180m home, his other house in Crimea, his private zoo, and his golf course, and we think this is corruption on a fabulous scale, and yet he is a “rank amateur” compared with some of Russia’s kleptocrats, according to the US fund manager Bill Browder.

Mr Browder has campaigned tirelessly for justice for the Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and tortured, and who died in prison, because he had exposed a £138m tax scam by corrupt Russian officials.

Mr Browder’s firm, Hermitage Capital Management, has painstakingly traced where the stolen money went, laundered through companies registered abroad. They also looked into the companies that own Yanukovych’s properties and – no surprise here – came upon the names of three directors involved in the tax scam that Magnitsky was investigating.

He believes there are rich, corrupt Russians who have seen the public anger generated by the exposure of Yanukovych’s greed, and fear for themselves. Speaking to Parliament’s all-party anti-corruption group, Mr Browder speculated: “I actually believe that the invasion of Ukraine is a total diversionary tactic to take everyone’s mind off the corruption.”

The US, Swiss, Cypriot, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Moldovan governments have all acted on information supplied by Browder’s firm, but its every approach to the UK authorities has drawn a blank. Even a direct approach to the Home Secretary got nowhere. “I have learnt definitively that the UK is the most porous, unrobust and weakest place for enforcing any kind of money-laundering law, bar none. If you are a money launderer, this is the place to be,” he said.

However, as the document accidentally shown to a camera in Downing Street revealed, the Government has decided that one thing it will not do is “close London’s financial centre to Russians”.

Top class, Mr Gove

All credit to Michael Gove and his journalist wife, Sarah Vine, whose daughter, Beatrice, has been awarded a place at Grey Coat Hospital, an academy school in the heart of Westminster. He will be the first Conservative Secretary of State for Education to have a child at a state secondary school.

A crafty Lib Dem coalition

It is a harsh rule of politics that political parties put a clear distance between themselves and anyone accused of a criminal offence, although in law that person is innocent unless and until proved guilty. Thus Patrick Rock, who has not been convicted of anything, is out of Downing Street.

In Dorset, the Liberal Democrats have different ideas. Ryan Hope was their youngest councillor when he was elected to Weymouth and Portland borough council in 2010, aged 20. Last September, he appeared in court facing seven charges, which he denies, including rape and sexual assault on a child. For four months, the local party acted as if nothing had happened. In January, there was a horrified reaction when someone at Lib Dem national headquarters found out, and Mr Hope’s party membership was promptly suspended.

He is now, therefore, an independent councillor, which would have affected his right to sit on council committees, where places are allocated by party groups – except that Weymouth’s Lib Dems have invented something called the “Coalition of Liberal Democrats and Allies” group, which Mr Hope has joined, so they can all carry on as before. The national party is looking into this.