This government has put banks in charge of tackling economic crime

We’d all be shocked if gangs of robbers were allowed to choose how they should be sentenced. But this government seems determined to pass on responsibility for dealing with economic crime to those who have been implicated in it.

Tax evasion, money laundering, fraud and terrorist financing are all forms of economic crime. Some of the big banks have recently been hammered for their involvement in major economic crime scandals. The failure of HBOS to report large-scale fraud has resulted in its current owner, Lloyds, being fined £46m, while Barclays was fined £72m for failing to deal properly with potentially risky financial transactions.

Way back in 2016, the government said it would look at extending the statute book so that those who ‘failed to prevent’ economic crime could be taken to task – and culpable companies prosecuted. The government initially claimed it would undertake a full consultation on corporate liability for economic crime. But this was quickly downgraded to just a ‘call for evidence’. This ‘call for evidence’ closed in January 2017 and we are still waiting, more than two years later, for the government to publish its conclusions. We’ve also been waiting for many months for the government to get on with producing an open register of foreign-owned property, which would aid the clampdown on illicit financial flows.

Even worse, this government seems determined to let banks and others mark their own homework when it comes to economic crime. On the surface, the creation of an ‘Economic Crime Strategy Board’ sounds great. Indeed, that board is meant to be considering a new Economic Crime Plan today, with the intention of setting out how the UK will tackle this scourge.

But it all gets a bit murky when you ask who sits on that board, as I have. Apparently, “representatives from government departments, law enforcement, regulators and the banking, legal, accountancy and real estate sectors” are involved. In actual fact, the CEOs of some of the UK’s biggest banks sit on the board (including those of Lloyds and Barclays), as well as senior officials from the banking and financial services representative body UK Finance. NGOs, investigative journalists and whistleblowers who have uncovered examples of economic crimes seem to be conspicuously absent. It is striking that the government has been so evasive about disclosing publicly who is on this board – when this area is in such need of transparency.

To allow the banks to dictate how they are regulated in this manner is perverse. It also ignores the evidence that while banks have in the past been the victims of economic crime, in some cases they have also facilitated it, as John McDonnell has pointed out.

Labour’s record has been very different. Last March, we sought to amend the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill – both to make organisations accountable if they failed to stop money laundering and to enable the disqualification of staff who failed to prevent money laundering. Our Tax Transparency and Enforcement Programme sets out a whole range of measures to clamp down on tax dodging, money laundering and fraud.

I am deeply concerned to see that, having stalled for over two years, the Conservatives are now turning to the banks to let them decide for themselves if and how they can be held accountable for facilitating financial crime. We will find out later this week what objectives have been set and where the board intends to channel resources. But it is clear that the process by which these policies have been developed is deeply flawed – and risks letting economic criminals off the hook.

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