UK ministers resist calls to tighten Bill aimed at Russian oligarchs’ assets

Six months for anonymous property owners to reveal identities is too long, says Starmer

Ministers are resisting British Labour Party calls to force anonymous foreign owners of UK land and property to reveal their identities within 28 days, warning that “decent law-abiding citizens” could be caught up in a crackdown on oligarchs linked to the Kremlin.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, on Sunday urged the government to toughen up the long-awaited economic crime Bill, which will be voted on by MPs on Monday, as part of a drive to put more pressure on the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The legislation, brought forward on an emergency timetable following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, would give the owners of about 95,000 foreign-owned properties six months to reveal their identities.

Mr Starmer successfully lobbied ministers to shorten the originally proposed 18-month registration period arguing it gave Mr Putin’s cronies too much time to “launder their money out of the UK property market and into another safe haven”.

On Monday, Labour will argue that six months is still far too long and call for a 28-day registration period. After that time, if the ultimate owners of a property have not identified themselves, they would lose the right to sell the asset and face fines of £2,500 (€3,000) a day.

But business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng will insist the six-month registration period should remain to give individuals and companies enough time to digest the new rules and comply with them.

One ally of Mr Kwarteng said: "We think six months strikes the right balance between the intended purpose of the register – to go after kleptocrats and corrupt elites – and not hitting decent, law-abiding people."

‘Harder and faster’

Last week, UK prime minister Boris Johnson ordered a toughening of the economic crime Bill, arguing it would make it easier for the government to go "harder and faster" in placing individuals linked to Mr Putin under sanction. The UK has so far imposed sanctions on fewer Kremlin-linked oligarchs than the EU or US.

But ministers are being pressed to go further by some MPs. David Davis and Andrew Mitchell, two former Tory cabinet ministers, have tabled an amendment allowing the government to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs pending a decision on whether they will be placed under sanctions.

The amendment, which has cross-party support, would affect the assets of “a person being considered as a subject for sanctions” in such a way that he or she would be prohibited from “selling any assets” or “moving any of their funds out of the United Kingdom”.

Another amendment, tabled by Mr Davis and Labour MP Liam Byrne, would give courts the power to strike out so-called Slapps – strategic legal action against public participation – which have been used by the super-rich to stifle media criticism.

Mr Byrne has called them “a massive effort by the wealthy to silence journalists” with threats of huge legal costs.

Separately, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab warned that western powers must show "strategic stamina" in dealing with Moscow, adding that he expected the war in Ukraine to last "for months, if not years".

On Monday, Mr Johnson will host Justin Trudeau and Mark Rutte, his Canadian and Dutch counterparts respectively, at Downing Street for discussions about the war in Ukraine. On Tuesday he will host leaders of the "V4" group of central European nations – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – to discuss the crisis. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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