The Pandora papers data leak has once again highlighted the predatory practices of the world’s political and financial elites – enriching themselves by looting the public purse, or exploiting laws which they themselves helped to establish.
About $3.6tn (£2.6tn) of the proceeds from bribery, embezzlement, money laundering, tax evasion and cronyism are laundered each year, undermining the social fabric of nations across the globe.
It is not the first time that tax avoidance, bribery, corruption, money-laundering and a lack of transparency have been exposed. The Panama papers, the Paradise papers, the HSBC leaks, the Jersey leaks, the FinCEN files, the Bahamas leaks and others have provided abundant evidence of dodgy financial dealings. The UK finance industry – aided by armies of accountants, lawyers and finance experts – is central to this trade, yet little has changed since those first revelations emerged.
The inertia is institutionalised because the political system is available for hire to people with fat wallets. Financial contributions to political parties create an atmosphere where scrutiny, and unwelcome laws, are discouraged. As Mohamed Amersi, who funded Boris Johnson’s campaign to become prime minister and whose financial dealings were revealed this week, puts it: “You get access, you get invitations, you get privileged relationships, if you are part of the setup.”
Further, parliament’s register of members’ financial interests shows that too many MPs and lords are on the payroll of corporations, including some engaged in illicit financial flows. The inevitable outcome is poor laws and a lack of regulation.
In 2018, the government launched the national economic crime centre to tackle high-level fraud and money laundering. The centre has yet to prosecute a single case – even though there is plenty of evidence of wrongdoing. In some cases, banks may even have forged customer signatures on court documents used to repossess homes and recover debts.
The 2017 Criminal Finances Act introduced the offence of failure to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion. No corporate body has been prosecuted. Little has been done to shackle the tax abuses industry dominated by big accounting firms even though, on some occasions, judges have declared their avoidance schemes to be unlawful. Despite the potential loss of huge amounts of tax revenues, no major firm has been investigated, fined or prosecuted. On the contrary, they continue to advise government departments, and sometimes receive lucrative government contracts.
The 2010 Bribery Act introduced the offence of “failure to prevent bribery”, to enable regulators to sue corporations for corrupt practices. The Crown Prosecution Service has secured just one conviction. The under-resourced Serious Fraud Office has secured just two convictions after the companies themselves pleaded guilty. Separately, Standard Bank, Rolls-Royce and seven other companies were effectively let off with a deferred prosecution agreement.
The UK political system excels at cover-ups and protects wrongdoers. In 2012, a US Senate committee documented HSBC’s involvement in money laundering. The bank admitted “criminal conduct” and was fined a record $1.9bn and signed a deferred prosecution agreement. Yet though HSBC was supervised by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, there was no UK investigation.
Later, a letter emerged from the then chancellor George Osborne, along with correspondence from the governor of the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, urging the US authorities to go easy on HSBC as it was too big to jail. There was no ministerial statement in the UK parliament to explain the cover-up.
The Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) was closed by the Bank of England in 1991. It was the biggest banking fraud of the 20th century, yet the then Conservative government did not order an independent investigation. Through US investigations I became aware of a secret document codenamed the Sandstorm Report. Using freedom of information laws I requested a copy: the government refused. After five and half years of litigation, judges ordered the UK government to release a copy to me. It shows that the government has been protecting individuals, including dead ones, connected with al-Qaida, Saudi intelligence, royal families in the Middle East, smuggling, murder, financial crimes and other nefarious practices.
I recently raised the HSBC and BCCI cover-ups in the House of Lords. The minister did not respond.
The UK remains a favourite destination for dirty money because the political and regulatory system is ineffective. An independent public inquiry into the finance industry is long overdue, but even if one were granted it would be hard to be optimistic: it seems our law enforcement agencies have been captured by corporations. The revelation that the City of London police fraud investigation unit is now funded by Lloyds Bank – an organisation severely criticised by the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking for its role in the unresolved frauds at HBOS – does not inspire any confidence. Will it take another financial crash to generate enough political pressure to change the system?
This article was amended on 7 October 2021. The figures provided for convictions secured and deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) entered into by the Serious Fraud Office were correct as of February 2021; they have now been updated. And one of those DPAs was in relation to Standard Bank, not Standard Chartered Bank as an earlier version said.
The Pandora papers
Join Guardian head of investigations, Paul Lewis, and guests in this special livestreamed event looking into the Pandora papers revelations on Monday 18 October, 8pm BST | 9pm CEST | 12am PDT | 3pm EDT. Book tickets here