The ‘Magnitsky’ powers which are being proposed in Parliament next week aren’t just welcome; they’re essential in the wake of the Salisbury nerve-agent poisonings. We’ve clearly got to get a lot tougher with anyone – not just Russians – who tries to use the streets of Britain for ‘hybrid warfare’; state-sponsored crimes which stop short of full-on military attack, but still damage our country.
Expelling a few diplomats may send shockwaves through embassies and disrupt Russia’s spying in the UK, but what then? What else can we do?
Part of the answer is to hit them were it hurts most; in the wallet. If foreign oligarchs and kleptocrats who’ve committed crimes or abused human rights suddenly find they can’t buy property or stash their cash in the UK, it’s going to hurt. And if the ones who’ve already bought property and investments here have them frozen and confiscated, so much the better.Plus we should deny them visas, so neither they nor their families can get into Britain to enjoy life here, do business or send their children to our schools.
It’s simply not right that these people can trample on the rule of law and human rights in their own countries, and then come to the UK to enjoy the same freedom and safety which they’ve taken – often brutally – from people at home. That’s why the new ‘Magnitsky’ powers, named after Sergei Magnitsky who died alone in his Moscow jail cell after a savage beating, are so vital.
But will these proposed new powers go far enough? From a technical and strictly legal standpoint, and thanks to a really good campaign led by Dominic Raab MP last year, many of them are already in place. Our problem isn’t a shortage of legal muscles; it’s knowing whether we’re flexing them often enough, and strongly enough, to grab enough property and deny enough visas to make a difference. We may have passed the laws, but are we really using them in practice?
The thing which Putin and the cronies around him fear as much as legal sanctions is the glare of a public spotlight exposing what they’re really up to. If a previously-legitimate oligarch appears on a list of people who have had property confiscated or frozen, and visas refused, it matters. Formerly-willing business partners won’t sign contracts with someone they know they can’t trust. Banks will close their accounts and turn them away. Lawyers and accountants too. The law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers, Mossack Fonseca, has just gone bust because their name was so tainted.
So our new Magnitsky laws must shine a pitilessly-bright spotlight into these murky shadows. We’ve got to publish the names of people whose assets we’ve frozen, whose property we’ve confiscated, and whose visas we’ve refused. We already do it for suspected terrorists who are subject to financial sanctions, and for banned terrorist organisations too, so why should some of the nastiest human-rights-abusing criminals on the planet be any different?
If we won’t name names, the world will rightly ask if those oligarchs and kleptocrats are quivering in their boots, or happily planning their next shopping trip to Harrods. And we won’t have the answers.
Equally importantly, our new spotlight has to reveal precisely where the criminals and kleptocrats have stashed their cash. Because you can’t freeze or confiscate assets you can’t see. That’s why the new public registers of who owns what shares in British companies are so important, so oligarchs can’t hide behind dodgy, anonymous shell companies. And why the equivalent public register for real estate is so vital too; it’s due to start being implemented in 2021 but, until then, it will be hard to spot British homes or offices which have been bought with dirty money. Given what’s just happened in Salisbury, we need to look at getting this moving much sooner.
Taken together, these moves wouldn’t just punch the oligarchs and kleptocrats in the solar plexus; they would prove whether we’re using those legal powers strongly enough, and often enough too. Because, once it was published, Parliament would debate the list. Select Committees would launch enquiries about it. Journalists would investigate who was and wasn’t on it, uncovering the true scale of their crime and corruption for all to see. Everyone would know whether we’re being strong, or weak. Which is the best possible guarantee that we’d be strong, and that Britain would be safe, as well.