INTERNATIONAL crime and criminals are increasingly looking to the United Kingdom as a safe haven to do their financial business.
This takes many forms, but one area of particular concern to me is the use of Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs) to hide from view the people involved and the sources of large sums of money gained through criminal means.
I was first alerted to the problem of SLPs by The Herald and a number of investigative articles by the newspaper’s chief reporter, David Leask. I was aware, too, of concern amongst Scottish Government ministers, although the 1907 legislation involved is reserved to Westminster and, thus, the hands of Scottish ministers are tied.
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I first sought to persuade the Westminster Government to take the issue seriously during the Finance Bill of 2016. My amendment seeking a review of SLPs was rejected by Treasury ministers. They seemed blind and deaf to the serious issues involved.
When the Criminal Finances Bill came along later in the year, it was time to try again. Surely, the Security Minister at the Home Office in charge of the bill would be onside on this?
But when the bill was published there was no mention of SLPs or of other forms of limited partnership also involved in hiding criminal assets. Unlike Treasury ministers, however, the Securities Minister Ben Wallace MP was much more open to discussions and we met, along with his officials, last October on the eve of the bill’s second reading.
When I raised the issue of SLPs you can imagine my surprise and concern when Mr Wallace and his officials said they didn’t know anything about them.
Subsequently, it was agreed to call on David Leask to give evidence during committee stage and, although my amendment was not accepted, it was taken seriously by the Government during debate. A clear signal was given that ministers would consider acting.
After the Christmas recess, the government at last announced a review: the beginnings of progress. However, just as I was thinking about putting out a message of appreciation, the Treasury decided it would be up to its legislative tricks.
Using a rarely used device called a legislative reform order (which is not supposed to be used in areas of controversy), Treasury minsters moved to use the regulatory reform select committee – which itself rarely meets – to create yet another form of limited partnership with even less transparency and controls than SLPs.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on the side of the argument on which you sit, I am the SNP’s only member of this select committee and have thus been all too aware of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings.
This now takes us neatly to next Tuesday, when the House of Commons will be debating the Criminal Finances Bill again, representing the final opportunity to have amendments made.
I have put down a new amendment calling on the Home Secretary to conduct a review of regulations surrounding any new type of limited partnership to ensure they act robustly as a barrier against criminal activity.
In general terms, I am not someone who believes in conspiracies so it must be by some extraordinary coincidence that the regulatory reform select committee has been called at short notice to meet late on Tuesday afternoon to consider the new type of limited partnership Treasury ministers want to create.
This is precisely at the same time the as Criminal Finance bill amendments will be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. At present I am seeking urgent advice on cloning to deal with this.
In truth, it seems very odd to me that any government committed to guaranteeing the reputation of the financial system and tackling criminality should be so slow to react to demands to clean up part of the system.
Furthermore, that it undermines its own review by seeking to create a new and even more vulnerable type of limited partnership is astonishing.
So the battle continues. Just as The Herald has been investigating this issue for more than a year, so too it looks as if we are in for a long struggle to secure meaningful change from Westminster.
But this issue is not going away and neither am I.
Roger Mullin is the SNP MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath