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No 10 pressured me to drop anti-money laundering measures, says ex-minister

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A former Conservative minister, once at the heart of efforts to clamp down on money laundering in London, has revealed that during Theresa May’s premiership, No 10 “leant on him” when he tabled amendments to introduce a public register of overseas property owners.

Lord Faulks said he had first tried to put the register into the criminal finances bill in 2017 and then again into a government bill on money laundering in 2018. He had described the overseas ownership of “dirty money” in London as an obscenity.

Faulks, a distinguished barrister and now an independent peer, told the Guardian he was rung by Downing Street during May’s tenure and told to go to a meeting where he met civil servants from four government departments including the Foreign Office, business officials and the Home Office. They told him to drop the amendments – for which he had a voting majority in the Lords – because they assured him Whitehall had the issue in hand.

He told the Guardian: “I was obviously misled because nothing has subsequently happened. I can only think a deluded desire to protect the City of London has led to all these delays.

“It is a real irony that our reputation for protecting the rule of law is one of the things that attracts people who have very little regard for the rule of law themselves and come from countries which ignore it almost altogether.

“Quite frankly, I was leant on. I was leant on by No 10 Downing Street and summoned to a meeting of officials from all sorts of different departments, who told me it was very unfortunate that I was going to do this because the matter was in hand.”

He recalls that in return for dropping his amendments he was assured in May 2018 by the Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad that the legislation on a property register would be passed in 2019 in time for it to be functioning no later than early 2021. He was asked to chair a joint committee of both houses to scrutinise the government draft overseas entities bill, the measure that would bring in the register.

The Foreign Office has been approached for comment.

His joint committee duly reported in May 2019, stressing that time was of the essence, and proposed improvements including verification checks to ensure that trusts could not be used to disguise the ultimate owners of property. On publication of his report he was assured by ministers that they understood the urgency.

Faulks, who has just completed a government commissioned report on judicial review, said “over a period of five years successive ministers have offered me emollient promises that the issue was in hand. What has happened? Absolutely nothing. In the meantime, frankly, we look like a laughing stock. We are not responding to the threat of economic crime. Instead, we are giving away golden visas and the rest of the world must think we simply do not care”.

He branded unexplained wealth orders as pathetic, pointing out only four had been issued and said the issue of the resourcing of the National Crime Agency was critical. He pointed out that the idea of a register of overseas property owner had first been aired by David Cameron in 2015 and in a speech to an anti-corruption summit he had convened in 2016. He said perhaps “the climate is now changing because we all hate the Russians now”.

A growing number of Conservative MPs are seeking unequivocal assurances that an economic crime bill containing the register will be in the next Queen’s speech, regardless of whether Russia invades Ukraine.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, said the government had done “nothing” to stem the flow of illicit funds entering Britain from Russia and urged ministers to act in order to stand up to the Kremlin.

In a Twitter post, he accused Vladimir Putin of running a “mafia-like organisation” and said that ministers should stop turning a “blind eye” to dirty Russian money in Britain.

“Dirty money has been an issue for decades but its poison is seeping deeper into our system,” he said. “For decades, Russian companies have used our markets to raise money – equities and debt – to finance the Kremlin.”

His committee has reopened its investigation into the breadth of Russian finances in the UK financial system.

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