The U.K. government promised to step up efforts prevent the flow of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called “dirty money” this week, with fast-tracked measures introduced to Parliament, brought forward in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Johnson said that the rules, which have been in the works for several years, put supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin “on notice.”
“There will be nowhere to hide your ill-gotten gains,” Johnson said in a statement. The U.K.’s National Crime Agency estimates that money laundering costs the U.K. more than £100 billion ($133 billion) every year. The Times of London reported that Washington officials had expressed concerns about whether the U.K. could impose strict enough sanctions, due to the amount of Russian dirty money circulating in the U.K., and how that might affect international sanction efforts.
Johnson’s revamped economic crime bill, introduced Feb. 28, will require anonymous foreign owners of U.K. property and companies to reveal their identity, to ensure that kleptocrats cannot hide behind shell companies. The bill will also cap the legal costs that law enforcement would incur while trying to seize oligarchs’ assets.
President Joe Biden also spoke about U.S. plans to sanction Russian oligarchs in his first State of the Union address Tuesday. “We’re joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts and luxury apartments, their private jets,” he said. “We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
U.K. economic crime bill seen as too little, too late
Campaigners and experts say the U.K.’s reform is long overdue and doesn’t go far enough. Parliamentary bureaucracy could hold up progress for months—while Russian troops advance further into Ukraine within days. “There’s definitely a sense of too little too late,” says Thomas Mayne, a research fellow at the think-tank Chatham House, specializing in corruption studies. “Oligarchs feel their money is safe here.”
London’s position as a global financial hub, combined with a friendly regulatory environment and its proximity to Russia has made the city an appealing location for some Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats. Billionaires have been able to buy luxury properties and send their children to expensive private schools in the U.K., often with little scrutiny of their sources of wealth. Until last month, they were also able to access a so-called golden visa scheme, which allowed wealthy investors to enter a fast-tracked process to live in the U.K.
After facing ridicule for initially sanctioning just three Russian oligarchs and five banks, Johnson expanded the list to include 100 companies and individuals, eight of whom are oligarchs. He also canceled the golden visa system, which since its inception in 2008 has allowed wealthy foreign investors the option to settle in Britain if they have at least £2 million ($2.7 million) to invest in the U.K. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Monday that the government was working through a “hit list” of further oligarchs with links to the Kremlin.
Opposition lawmakers in the U.K. have said that only two people on the list of 35 oligarchs and others who enable the Putin regime, named by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, are on the U.K. sanctions register. Roman Abramovich, a billionaire, former Russian politician and owner of Chelsea Football Club, is one of the people named on Navalny’s list. Abramovich has denied having close ties to Putin or the Kremlin.
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Abramovich, who has not faced any government sanctions, said in a statement Wednesday he was putting Chelsea Football Club up for sale. He is also reportedly trying to sell his London properties. U.K. Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant said in Parliament Wednesday that Abramovich was “terrified of being sanctioned, which is why he’s already going to sell his home tomorrow and sell another flat as well.” Labour Party leader Keir Starmer also questioned the Prime Minister on Wednesday about why Abramovich was not facing sanctions.
A lack of transparency
Analysis by anti-corruption non-profit Transparency International UK has found at least £1.5 billion ($2 billion) worth of U.K. property owned by Russians accused of financial crime or with links to the Kremlin. Of that amount, £830 million ($1.1 billion) is owned by companies that are registered in the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies, the analysis found. The true figure is expected to be much higher, but the obscurity of the current system, which has few hurdles to setting up shell companies, means that information about the wealth of kleptocrats is often only obtained through public data leaks, such as the Pandora Papers published last year.
The lack of transparency in the British property market means that dirty money can move around the country undetected, says Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy for Transparency International UK. It also complicates the efficacy of sanctions. “You can’t actually freeze assets, if you don’t know where they are,” she says.
By analysisng electricity usage and electoral voting records, Transparency International UK has found evidence that many luxury developments in London lie uninhabited. “There are thousands and thousands of homes typically across London that are essentially empty safety deposit boxes,” says Davies Teka.
Theoretically, forcing foreign owners to register their identities when buying properties in the U.K. would make it harder for criminals to launder money or kleptocrats to hide their wealth using luxury developments. Yet, Transparency International UK points out that a loophole will allow companies that hold property to register themselves as having “no beneficial owner.” This allowance has reportedly already been used for money laundering and concealing assets on the U.K. business register, Companies House, according to Open Democracy. Moreover, the requirement for existing property owners to register their identity will not come into force until 18 months after the bill is passed, a delay that Starmer said is “far too long for the Ukrainian people.” In Parliament Wednesday, he asked Johnson, “Why are we giving Putin’s cronies 18 months to quietly launder their money out of the U.K. property market and into another safe haven?”
Transparency International UK said in a statement that the owners of at least 6,000 properties bought more than 20 years ago will not be required to register their ownership. The organization also told the Guardian that the U.K.’s £500 ($668)-per-day fine for non-compliance is “small change for those with deep pockets”.
Capping legal enforcement costs
The economic crime bill also addresses concerns that law enforcers were being deterred from seizing oligarchs’ assets by the risk of incurring extremely high legal costs—the current investigative powers, known as unexplained wealth orders, have reportedly only been used by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency four times since they were introduced in 2018. The bill includes a cap on these costs to encourage greater enforcement.
Matt Ingham, a lawyer specializing in unexplained wealth orders, says that prosecutors often struggle to prove their suspicions that an oligarch obtained their assets illegally because the individual’s home country can refute the claims. “British authorities still have a stumbling block in the form of uncooperative foreign regimes who may not wish to assist for political reasons,” he said.
Lawyers, accountants and bankers who advise oligarchs, criminals and dictators have also been criticized for enabling the flow of dirty money around the U.K. Regulated professionals are required to report suspicions of money laundering, but watchdog the National Crime Agency has said in the past that lawyers have failed to do so. Mayne and Davies Teka both argue that the self-regulatory nature of these professions means that so-called enablers often face no deterrent for handling illicit assets.
A combination of intense political focus on the Russian invasion, the strengthening of law enforcement’s resources, and companies’ increased focus on environmental, social and governance commitments may deter oligarchs’ usual network of enablers, says Timothy Ash, an economist focusing on emerging markets. Whether the shift in the U.K.’s stance on Russian-owned assets is enough to help Ukraine is another matter, observers like Mayne argue. “Several months or years down the line for change isn’t really good enough when we’re trying to crack down on Russian money now to prevent further incursions into Ukraine,” he says.
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