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 The Times

Economic crime task force will be no more than a talking shop

Robust laws are already in place to tackle corruption and dirty money – what we need is a greater willingness to enforce them, Khawar Qureshi writes

Ministers can be forgiven for wanting to change the subject from the dreaded “B” word. So it is tempting to view the announcement earlier this month of a task force to tackle economic crime – jointly chaired by the home secretary and chancellor – as simply a welcome distraction.

The “economic crime strategic board” will meet twice a year, “set priorities, direct resources and scrutinise performance against the economic crime threat”. The board will apparently include representatives from banking institutions and professional regulatory bodies such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

In December 2017, the then-home secretary Amber Rudd announced the creation of a national economic crime centre to institute a “hostile environment” for fraud, money laundering and corruption matters. The centre, which sits within the National Crime Authority, opened last October with about 55 staff and an annual budget of £6 million.

Why, then, is yet another structure needed? Does the government recognise and accept that contrary to what the chancellor said recently the UK is not leading the world in the fight against corruption and dirty money?

Indeed, some critics suggest that London has in fact been a haven for dirty money for decades, with thousands of prime real estate properties being held through opaque offshore structures. The Serious Fraud Office is all too often blamed, but it must be properly resourced and supported, as from my own experience as Treasury counsel representing the fraud investigators and the Home Office fraud and corruption investigations will generally be resisted intensively.

The existence and scope of legal professional and litigation privilege and the potential for its abuse to enable concealment of improper activity is viewed with alarm by some. There is also a growing concern that ethical standards in parts of the legal profession and other connected sectors have given way to pursuit of profit.

As if to indicate the scale of the problem, about half a million suspicious transaction reports were received by the National Crime Agency last year, and it is doubtful that many could be scrutinised properly within the statutory time limit.

Moreover, the Bribery Act 2010 came into force in 2011. Since then, there has been a handful of high-profile deferred prosecution agreements by which several businesses have avoided criminal prosecution for bribery and corruption in foreign markets.

It is unlikely that the new board will achieve any impact beyond being a talking shop. We have robust laws, but it seems much more needs to be done to strengthen the will to obey and enforce them.

Khawar Qureshi, QC, is a tenant at Serle Court in Lincoln’s Inn

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