Those who hanker for a transparent world where everybody knows each other's business are now on a roll.
Having browbeaten the House of Commons into enacting a statute seeking to impose public ultimate beneficial ownership (UBO) registers on the UK's overseas territories, such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI), there are moves afoot to legally fortify this legislative decision by declaring it under the heading of national security.
The recent release of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee report Moscow's Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK is a case in point. The document opens with reference to the March 2018 nerve agent attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury.
Russia continues to exert influence over the world stage. She does so in many ways, including clandestine cyber-attacks and not-so-clandestine military interventions in Crimea, Syria and elsewhere. Those who rule the Russian state have grown rich via an ongoing process of kleptocracy, with the resultant wealth invariably finding its surreptitious way to the four corners of the globe; the UK included.
The net result of all this attention has been a decision to increase economic sanctions on Russia, including individuals whose assets are already secreted away in the UK. However, the effectiveness of those sanctions has been questioned and described as 'business as usual' for the oligarchs, who have continued to launder their ill-gotten gains via London. In other words, the UK has failed to put its own house in order.
The Moscow's Gold report goes further. Not only does it criticise the government's lax response, it drags in the highly emotive and not-so-subliminal message that the UK's national security is at risk from Russian money laundering. Nobody can fail to understand the gravitas of the prevailing economic skullduggery being employed by the Russians – notwithstanding all the other nationalities currently taking advantage of the City of London's historical willingness to jump into bed with the highest bidder.
And indeed, Russia and its oligarchs are not alone in their kleptomaniac, money-laundering endeavours. That is why a sudden shift towards declaring the situation as dangerous to national security should be seen for what it is: a self-evidently cynical and emotively-grounded attempt to claim that 'we are all doomed' if we do not introduce public UBO ('ultimate beneficial owner') company ownership identification registers, or 'open registers'. The idea being that we can, suddenly and miraculously, identify the 'hidden' owners behind companies and shell constructs.
Why is it that suddenly Russian money is so dangerous? This money laundering process has been going on for since the days of the communist Soviet Union, years before Putin came to power. The negativity surrounding Russia is being acquired for an ulterior motive (even if that motive is at its base well intentioned).
As one reads the publication's summary, it invariably moves on to draw into the equation Britain's Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. The wording of the summary is disingenuous in that it states: "We therefore welcome the Government's commitment to assist the Overseas Territories in establishing publicly accessible registers of beneficial ownership."
This makes the process sound benign and voluntary as opposed to what it is: a root-and-branch enforcement of an imperialistic ultimatum from what little is left of 19th century Victorian colonialism. The connection being made is that money from overseas finds its way to London, therefore a public register of beneficial owners will prevent this from happening.
The naivety of those making these calls is astonishing. Do they really believe that Russian crooks will sign up to these registers in their own name? That they will transfer funds to London in their own name? That the recipient bank account in the capital will be in their own name?
Committee Chairman and Tory MP Tom Tugendhat stated in The Sunday Times that the UK's "lethargic response is being taken as proof that we don't dare stop them... London's markets are enabling the Kremlin's efforts." I wholeheartedly concur with this appraisal – what I don't get is that somehow the failings of London equate to the need to impose unnecessary and unintentionally harmful regulatory change on the overseas territories?
Those who put the report together chose not to include the security minister Ben Wallace in the process. He simply observed that as he had not been called to give evidence before the Committee: "I fear such an omission weakens the foundation of the report."
In effect, the Committee chose not to include the minister with responsibility for the financial security of the UK in the process. Why? Probably because he was of the opinion that the new information exchange systems the overseas territories had already put in place were acceptable and appeared earlier this month to be working well.
The Parliamentary publication reads like a wish-list that has been put together by serial do-gooders with little or no grasp on reality. They have singled out Russian money and chose to ignore all the other dirty cash flowing through London simply because Russia is currently newsworthy. The language used is flowery and typical of the rose-tinted transparency perspective. They are abusing the term 'national security' in an attempt to trump the overseas territories' right to autonomy over local affairs under their respective constitutions.
The one crumb of hope for the overseas territories is in the form of a 'carrot and stick' incentive that states:
"... the UK Government should also recognise the potential impact that the creation of publicly accessible beneficial ownership registers could have on the economies of the Overseas Territories, particularly for those continuing to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Irma. The UK should share the burden of reconstruction, just as they are sharing the burden of keeping our financial systems clean."
This reads that if the overseas territories bow to power, then the UK will assist in rebuilding post-hurricane.
This is a final all-out assault designed by the transparency brigade to strike whilst the iron is hot. It is also an important lesson for the UK government and for other governments across the globe. If you give these NGOs, campaigners and pressure groups an inch, they will invariably take a mile. Theirs is an ideology, not simply a political bias. They will never stop pushing the boundaries no matter how far governments seek to appease them.
A declaration that a new law is intended to address a matter of national security should be reserved for real and present threats to a nation. Its mis-use in the service of making what is arguably an unconstitutional abuse of power into a lawful one is reminiscent of President Trump's March 2018 declaration that Canadian and Brazilian steel imports were threats to the national security of the United States. The Trump Administration struggled to articulate a legal basis for threatening to impose trade tariffs on foreign steel imports from friendly nations like Canada and Brazil.
Now we have the UK using the very same false label in an attempt to justify an act of law-making aggression against its overseas territories. What happened to moderation and good sense in the exercise of power?
Martin Kenney is Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co., Solicitors, a specialist investigative and asset recovery practice based in the BVI and focused on multi-jurisdictional fraud and grand corruption cases www.martinkenney.com |@MKSolicitors. In 2014 he was the recipient of the ACFE's highest honour: the Cressey Award for life-time achievement in the detection and deterrence of fraud. He was selected as one of the Top Thought Leaders of the Legal Profession in 2018 by Who's Who Legal International and as the number one offshore lawyer for asset recovery in 2017.