Minister refuses to say if bill to crack down on Russian dirty money has been dropped

Government warned it would be ‘as popular as cup of cold sick’ if legislation ditched

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 26 January 2022 14:39
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Related video: Tory minister resigns over government’s ‘lamentable’ record on fraud

A business minister has refused to confirm whether Boris Johnson’s government is ditching it plans for a new law aimed at cracking down on dirty money from Russia in the UK.

Tory peer Lord Agnew – who dramatically quit as Whitehall efficiency tsar earlier this week – claimed the government had rejected the chance to put forward anti-fraud legislation in the next parliamentary year, attacking the decision as “foolish”.

Business minister Paul Scully refused to “speculate on the content of any future Queen’s Speech” in answer to a question from Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake about reports the planned Economic Crime Bill would be scrapped.

Mr Scully claimed the government was committed to “tackling economic crime” – but then listed a series of actions the government had already taken rather than set out plans for legislation aiming at tackling Russian dirty money.

Tory MP John Penrose said the “well of excuses” has “run dry” after years of promising legislation on tackling the problem – warning that it would be “about as popular as a cup of cold sick” if the proposed bill is ditched or delayed.

The backbench MP said new legislation was “absolutely essential for the credibility of this country … particularly at a time when we have a crisis in Ukraine and all sorts of Russian oligarchs waiting to move money into this country if they possibly can”.

One Tuesday, Mr Johnson told Commons that the government would bring forward a “register of beneficial interest” as part of its efforts to “track down Russian money in this country”.

Mr Scully confirmed the draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill would be amended “in line with comments the prime minister made to this House just yesterday”.

But on a new anti-fraud bill, the minister refused to say whether it was something the government would pursue – adding only that there would be broader reforms to Companies House’s registration procedures “when parliamentary time allows”.

Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs select Committee, has warned that current UK support for Ukraine risks being “undermined” if the government failed to tackle “dirty Russian money flowing through our system”.

Robert Palmer, executive director of campaign group Tax Justice UK, criticised the government’s apparent decision to “kick anti-corruption legislation into the long grass yet again”.

Meanwhile, Mr Scully defended the government over the Covid loan scheme fraud scandal. Lord Agnew resigned on Monday over the “lamentable track record” of the government in tackling fraud from the bounce back loan scheme (BBLS).

Mr Scully said it had been media “inference” of HMRC figures, rather than HMRC itself, estimating that £4.3bn had been written off from the BBLS and other Covid scheme loans. He said the government “continues to work” to claw back money.

Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said the “sorry episode showed a government far too casual with wasting taxpayers’ money”.

On Wednesday chancellor Rishi Sunak denied opposition party claims that he had “written off” fraudulent loans too easily. “I’m not ignoring it, and I’m definitely not ‘writing it off’,” he tweeted.

Mr Sunak added: “Clearly criminals have sought to exploit our support schemes. We’re going to do everything we can to get that money back and go after those who took advantage of the pandemic.”

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