The head of an influential group of MPs has called on ministers and top civil servants to ask what the Government should and can do in the wake of a major leak which showed that UK companies feature heavily in suspicious transactions.
Mel Stride, who chairs the Treasury Select Committee in the Commons, wrote to officials at the Financial Conduct Authority, HM Revenue and Customs and two ministers with questions to clarify the Government’s position on the so-called FinCEN Files that were published on Sunday.
Thousands of Suspicious Activity Reports, which were leaked to BuzzFeed News and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, named UK companies more than those in any other jurisdiction.
The reports are filed with US authorities by banks who have noticed suspicious behaviour including telltale signs of money laundering. Their existence is not proof of wrongdoing, however it often indicates that further inquiry is needed.
In total, 622 organisations mentioned in the SARs were based in the UK. It puts the country far ahead of the US on 435, and infamous offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, on 423 and Cyprus with 328 organisations.
“Some of the information coming from the release of the FinCEN papers is deeply troubling. The Treasury committee wants to know whether ministers, HMRC and the FCA are on top of this,” Mr Stride said in a statement.
“With various roles to play in combating economic crime, it’s vital that the appropriate parts of the system are ready to act, if required.”
In a letter to minister for state James Brokenshire, Mr Stride highlighted a leaked US Treasury paper that identified the UK as a “higher-risk” jurisdiction.
“Have you had similar comments from US authorities, and would such an identification concern you?” he asked Mr Brokenshire.
He also asked if the minister is confident that new suggested reforms to Companies House are swift and full enough to ensure the registrar cannot be an aid to economic crime.
Last week, the Government published its long-awaited response to a consultation on new proposals that it hoped will improve corporate transparency.
The timing, just before the release of the FinCEN leak, made some speculate that the Government was prompted into action by the impending publication.
“The cynic in me thinks that it’s not surprising this finally got launched after 14 months on the eve of the FinCEN leaks,” said Helena Wood, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
She was echoed by Mr Stride, who said: “The Government recently published its response to the consultation on corporate transparency and register reform. That consultation ended in August 2019. Why does it appear to have taken the release of the FinCen papers to stimulate further reform?”
Campaigners argue that the UK needs to reform its company registration if it wants to continue to be seen as a good place to do business.
“You can open a company in your pyjamas in 24 hours for £12 without showing any ID,” Ms Wood said.
She added: “It is impacting on the UK’s reputation as a place to do business. Never has that been more important than as we approach a financial crisis and Brexit.”