Oxford Street’s candy stores are evidence of London’s dirty money crisis

First as a local councillor, and now as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Cities of London and Westminster, I have seen the devastating impact of dirty money flowing into London.

Illicit finance has been given a free pass to manipulate our capital’s economy and property market, and it is hurting people and communities every day. Everywhere you look you find countless empty properties, worth billions, which are owned by oligarchs and kleptocrats. They have acquired these buildings for no other reason than to clean up their dirty money. London is also home to thousands of shell companies, which take advantage of our status as a trusted jurisdiction and our weak enforcement to facilitate economic crime. Yet at the same time, London has a housing crisis and its public services have been starved of much needed investment. Dirty money will never make London a fairer or more prosperous city.

Just walk along Oxford Street and you can see for yourself the influence of dirty money – dotted along this major high street are more than thirty American-style candy stores. These candy stores occupy large retail spaces, sell sweets at exorbitant prices, and are often empty. Yet, they continue to pop up and – according to numerous investigations – are facilitating money laundering, tax evasion, fraud and the flow of counterfeit goods. Many of these stores are owned by shell companies, meaning it is almost impossible to determine the ‘beneficial owners’ of these companies.

As things stand, these candy stores are able to register with our corporate register, Companies House, without declaring who the true owners are. Instead, phoney company directors are listed with Companies House when the shell company is first created. If the beneficial owners are ever tracked down, the company has usually long-since been dissolved and profits extracted without trace. This makes it almost impossible to stop the flow of dirty money and means law enforcement is always one step behind.

These candy stores and empty residential property are not honest businesses; and they certainly fail to contribute to the local economy or help fix London’s housing crisis. The very last thing we need is more shell companies and empty homes in our capital city.

After years of inaction under the Tories, Labour now runs Westminster city council and is doing a great job going after the candy stores on Oxford Street, and they want to combat the empty homes purchased with dirty money as well. But they simply do not have all the tools and powers they need, so we need change at a national level. The second economic crime bill, which is about to be scrutinised in the House of Lords, is our chance to finally shut down this racket.

With smart amendments to the bill, Companies House can be given resources to properly crack down on shell companies. Companies House must be granted powers to filter out phoney directors who hide behind layers of corporate ownership, so this type of egregious behaviour can be challenged and the true owners of every suspect company quickly identified. Equally, Companies House must become a proactive agent and root out shell companies crudely registered at a London address simply to lend it legitimacy to then launder dirty money.

It is now up to parliament to strengthen the economic crime bill. Talking to voters on the doorstep across Westminster, it is abundantly clear that everyone wants to end the influx of dirty money infecting our economy and fuelling the housing crisis. We must not forget that when dirty money is left unchecked, we may be unwittingly supporting human trafficking, drug smuggling and the flow of counterfeit goods. This is criminality we simply cannot ignore.

The economic crime bill is our best chance to take action right now. Going forward, I am making resolving London’s dirty money crisis one of my key pledges to voters in Cities of London and Westminster, as their Labour candidate for the next general election.

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