UK's Boris Johnson speeds up plans to tackle Russian ‘dirty money’

New legislation is intended to ensure criminals can't hide behind secretive webs of shell companies

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to MPs about the Ukraine situation on February 24. AFP
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The British government is fast-tracking plans to tackle “dirty money” and expose foreign oligarchs who launder their wealth through the UK’s property market after the Ukraine crisis.

After the package of sanctions announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week, ministers will table the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill — which had been expected later in the session — in Parliament on Tuesday.

The legislation will establish a new register of overseas entities requiring foreign owners of property in the UK to declare their true identity, in a move intended to ensure criminals cannot hide behind secretive webs of shell companies.

Those who fail to comply will have restrictions placed on selling the property, while those who are found to have broken the rules will face up to five years in prison.

The legislation will apply retrospectively to property bought by overseas owners up to 20 years ago in England and Wales, and since December 2014 in Scotland

The Bill will also strengthen and expand the system of unexplained wealth orders, which enable law enforcement agencies to seize assets without having to prove they were obtained through criminal activity.

Law enforcement will be given more time to review material provided in response to such an order and will be protected from substantial legal costs if they bring a reasonable case that is ultimately unsuccessful.

At the same time, the Treasury is strengthening its enforcement of economic sanctions with a "strict civil liability test" for imposing fines, rather than having to show that companies had knowledge or a "reasonable cause to suspect" that sanctions were being breached.

Ministers say this will make it easier for the Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation to impose significant fines, while organisations that are found to have breached sanctions but do not receive a fine may be named publicly for the first time.

Meanwhile, a new "kleptocracy" cell based in the National Crime Agency, announced last week by Mr Johnson in the House of Commons, will begin immediately to investigate sanctions evasion.

“There is no place for dirty money in the UK," he said. "We are going faster and harder to tear back the facade that those supporting Putin’s campaign of destruction have been hiding behind for so long.

“Those backing Putin have been put on notice: there will be nowhere to hide your ill-gotten gains.”

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The government is also publishing a detailed white paper before a second Economic Crime Bill, to be published in the coming months, setting out for reform of Companies House.

Under the proposals, anyone setting up, running, owning or controlling a company in the UK must verify their identity with Companies House.

Officials will be given the power to challenge any information that appears dubious, and will be empowered to inform security agencies of possible wrongdoing.

It will also contain measures intended to prevent company agents from overseas creating companies in the UK on behalf of foreign criminals or oligarchs.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 12:01 AM