Azerbaijan Laundromat shows UK is choice of crooks and despots, says Labour MP

10:50 • 20.10.17



By Luke Harding


Re-published from The Guardain


Former chair of public accounts committee tells MPs UK corporate rules and weak regulatory framework are ‘a gift to villains’


Britain is the “country of choice for every kleptocrat, crook and despot in the world”, a Labour MP has said following revelations by the Guardian and media partners of a massive money-laundering scheme run by the government of Azerbaijan.


Margaret Hodge said the UK thought itself to be a “country of integrity, respectability and trustworthiness”. However, recent money-laundering scandals featuring Azerbaijan, Russia and the offshore industry showed this self-belief to be “flawed”, she told parliament.


Hodge – a former chair of the public accounts committee and an outspoken critic of corporate tax avoidance – was speaking in an adjournment debate on Thursday. She told MPs that UK corporate structures were being used for a wide range of crimes, including tax evasion and bribery. 

This was happening because the government had failed to do anything about what she called a “persistent lack of transparency”.


She added: “We have become the safe haven for dirty money. We are allowing money laundering and tax avoidance to take place on an industrial scale. Our corporate rules and our weak regulatory framework are a gift to villains.” 

The latest money-laundering scandal – nicknamed the Azerbaijan Laundromat – was exposed last month by the Guardian, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and other European media. The scheme ran between 2012 and 2014. Some $2.9bn (£2.2bn) was sent from the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, via a Danish bank to accounts with four anonymously owned shell firms registered at Companies House in
London.


The cash was used “to curry influence and bribe European politicians, lobbyists and apologists”, Hodge said. It went on “lining the pockets” of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, his family, and “their cronies”, she added. Some of it was also spent on private school fees.

 

Payments were made to European politicians in Italy and Germany, as part of an influence operation designed to deflect criticism of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record. Several of them of voted against motions in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (Pace) censuring Azerbaijan.


The Azerbajian Laundromat followed similar revelations earlier this year of a $20bn scheme run out of Moscow – the Russian Laundromat – and the Panama Papers, a 2016 leak of 11.5m documents that revealed the central role played by UK overseas territories such as the British Virgin Islands in international crime and tax cheating.


“I feel deep shame and embarrassment that we in the UK are not just complicit, but central to the success of these despicable practices,” Hodge said. “At the moment it seems that Brexit has made us incapable of tackling any wrongdoing for fear of offending some other country in some other part of the world.”


The Labour MP Rupa Huq said that David Cameron had tried to clamp down on corruption and to introduce a UK property register revealing beneficial owners. But Downing Street had been using the “excuse of Brexit” to kick these initiatives “into the long grass”, she said.


The business minister Margot James said the government was considering reforms to stop criminals from exploiting UK companies. It had “serious concerns” about the way in which Scottish limited partnerships – two of which were used in the Azerbaijan Laundromat – were being abused, she said.

 





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