Oligarchs suspected of corruption are to be forced to explain their luxury lifestyles in Britain as part of a “full-spectrum” attack on organised crime.
Officials are preparing to use new orders, which came into effect this week, enabling them to seize suspicious assets until those under investigation can properly account for their acquisitions. Dozens of targets have been identified, with two test cases being readied.
Ben Wallace, the security minister, told The Times that he wanted the “full force of the government” to bear down on criminals and corrupt politicians using Britain as a playground and haven. “When we get to you we will come for you, for your assets and we will make the environment that you live in difficult,” he warned.
The government estimates that about £90 billion of illegal cash is laundered in Britain every year. Mr Wallace said that he wanted to harness public awareness of corruption created by the McMafia TV drama on BBC One, which highlights Russian organised crime in Britain.
“McMafia is one of those things where you realise that fact is ahead of fiction,” he said. “It’s a really good portrayal of sharp-suited wealthy individuals, but follow the money and it ends up with a young girl getting trafficked for sex.
“Beneath the gloss there is real nastiness. So far it’s very close to the truth, the international nature of organised crime and the impunity with which some of these people operate and the brutality of it, is absolutely correct.”
Asked about Russia’s involvement, Mr Wallace pointed to the so-called Laundromat case in which 21 ghost companies, many based in Britain, were used as part of a huge scam to wash dirty money from Russia through western banks. “What we know from the Laundromat exposé is that certainly there have been links to the [Russian] state. The government’s view is that we know what they are up to and we are not going to let it happen any more.”
Under previous rules, the British authorities had few powers to act on highly suspicious wealth unless the owner of the assets had a conviction in the country of origin.
Unexplained wealth orders (UWOs), created as part of the Criminal Finance Act, now allow the authorities to freeze and recover property if individuals are unable to explain how they acquired assets in excess of £50,000. The minister, who was recently given the additional responsibility of tackling economic crime, said that he wanted the police to use them to make life as uncomfortable as possible for criminals — including “iconic” figures.
“Unexplained wealth orders can be used against everyone from a local drug trafficker to an international oligarch or overseas criminal,” he said.
“If they are an MP in a country where they don’t receive a big salary but suddenly they have a nice Knightsbridge townhouse worth millions and they can’t prove how they paid for it, we will seize that asset, we will dispose of it and we will use the proceeds to fund our law enforcement.”
“I have put pressure on the law enforcement agencies to use them soon because too many government measures get passed but no one gets into the habit of using them and five years later people say, ‘What happened to that?’ We want to maintain momentum.”
Mr Wallace said that corruption and organised crime weakened Britain’s defences against terrorism. The intelligence agencies are helping to craft a “full-spectrum effect” against crime bosses. “We are going to go after these iconic individuals, whether they are known about in their local community or known about internationally,” he said.
Transparency International has campaigned for UWOs after saying that it had identified £4.4 billion of questionable property in Britain. The subject of the action must be linked to organised crime or be a “politically exposed person” (PEP). These are people, or their close family, who are susceptible to bribery or corruption because of their position.
Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at Transparency International UK, said she hoped that the measure would allow the authorities to “make a stand and say we are not going to allow the UK to launder the world’s dirty money”.
The National Crime Agency is examining two PEPs that it may use as test cases. Further cases are likely to be pursued if the first cases are successful.