Britain’s investigators now have a new weapon at their disposalby Oliver Bullough / February 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
The charge aimed at Britain is serious: we welcome corrupt foreign money, because we need their dirty cash to keep our economy afloat. There is enough truth in the accusation for it to sting, and enough sensation in it to make a dozen more McMafia-style television dramas.
The police officers tasked with investigating the source of corrupt fortunes know very well that dirty money pays for luxury houses throughout West London. They know too that the money was stolen and laundered. But they haven’t been able to prove any of it to a court’s satisfaction. They cannot convict someone of money laundering on a hunch. They have had to show the money was illegally obtained and that requires evidence from overseas, which is a problem.
Getting useful evidence out of a corrupt jurisdiction is all but impossible, and the property’s owners can employ the best lawyers in the world to discredit what little evidence is gathered. That has meant that, for years, even if we wanted to confiscate the illegally acquired property of these oligarchs, kleptocrats and crooks, we weren’t able to. Everyone enjoys the protection of the law, even those who systematically violate it.
Fortunately, Britain’s investigators now have a new weapon at their disposal—the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO). Claims that are made for new legal powers should often be regarded with some scepticism, but when it comes to the so-called UWO, it may be time to believe the hype. If UWOs work the way they’re supposed to, they will stop the UK being a safe haven for dirty money, and will cost corrupt officials the investments they’ve made here.
I am part of a team that runs “Kleptocracy Tours” around West London. We invite people onto a bus, then drive through the streets of Knightsbridge and Belgravia, pointing out the assets of the mega-rich and the infamous. Our ambition is limited only by the traffic. If we wanted, we could take the bus up into Highgate and Hampstead, down into Surrey, out to Henley-on-Thames, without running short of lavish properties owned by nasty crooks.
The UK has a very poor record of confiscating this property, and returning the money to the peoples of the countries from which it was stolen. Although the Cameron family name got caught up with off-shore wealth in the Panama papers, David Cameron actually wanted to change that.
His government brought in several reforms to increase transparency: opening up Companies House for free searches; forcing companies to declare their true owners; convening an anti-corruption summit. Although Theresa May has not shown the same energy in fighting corruption, the UWO regime continued to wend its way through parliament and passed.
The UWO process will begin when an enforcement body—HMRC, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office, for example—identifies property owned by someone whose lifestyle is out of proportion to their income. That person could be an organised criminal, or a corrupt foreign politician, but the property has to be worth more than £50,000. The agency will apply to the High Court, stating its suspicions and asking for the UWO.
If the court agrees, we will enter a new legal situation, in which the burden of proof is reversed. Previously, investigators had to prove money was dirty. Once a UWO has been issued, however, the property’s owner will have to prove their assets are clean. If they fail to reply, the property is liable for confiscation. If the reply is inadequate, the property is liable for confiscation. They can no longer hide behind their own country’s legal system, and win by default. Investigators will still have to go through the lengthy asset recovery process, but respondents will finally be forced to engage with them, and produce proof of the legality of their wealth.
The Home Office has predicted just 20 UWOs will be issued each year. That does not sound like a lot, but the effect of those cases could be enormous. Nigerian governors, Ukrainian officials, Angolan heiresses, Russian ministers, Middle Eastern princelings and more—as well as our own home-grown mobsters—hold billions of pounds-worth of property in London, because they know it is safe there. If that calculation changes, the money will move on, reducing our over-inflated house prices, returning life to the currently deserted parts of West London, and finally showing that Britain is no longer a haven for crooked cash.
We are years away from any property being confiscated, and we still don’t know how judges will respond to what is a very draconian power. How, for example, will courts interpret enforcement agencies’ obligation to show that the suspicious individual “holds” a property? If a Belgravia townhouse is owned by a Cook Islands Trust via a Panamanian shell company, does that count? But investigators are excited, and are determined to go for some big names early on.
Even if reality fails to match all of the hopes being pinned on UWOs, at least Britain will no longer be quite so open to the charge that it takes money from anyone. I for one hope that, in five years or so, we’ll be able to hold an ex-Kleptocracy Tour, in which we show off property that previously belonged to crooked officials, but which has been confiscated for the benefit of their victims, and the improvement of the UK.