Oligarchs Out

In the 21st century, London has increasingly been a safety deposit box for the wealthy of the world – so many people with incomprehensible amounts of wealth, including (but not exclusively) the so-called Russian “oligarchs” (“one of a small group of powerful people who control a country or an industry”).

Just look at some of the properties we’re talking about: The London mansions owned by Russian oligarchs from ‘Billionaire’s Row’ pad to estate almost size of Buckingham Palace (MyLondon, 4 March 2022). See also this BBC piece this morning (5 March 2022): The mega-rich men facing global sanctions.

Obviously, if you come by your wealth legitimately so be it, but the sums these people apparently own would suggest at best that something is wrong with the very structure of capitalism, and at worst…well draw your own conclusions. And to what extent is this all assisting the evils of the Putin regime – and its equivalents briefly eclipsed in the news cycle?

The UK financial sanctions list (4 March 2022) currently identifies 196 Russian individuals, with the reason for each person being on the list.

For a good introduction to the complex and evolving world of sanctions, I found DAC Beachcroft’s 4 March 2022 briefing UK Sanctions – The Evolving Response to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine and what it means for UK businesses particularly useful:

Prior to 10 February 2022, the Regulations allowed the UK Government to ‘designate’ (that is, to impose sanctions on) a person who is or has been involved in ‘destabilising Ukraine or undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine’. Individuals and entities that are so ‘designated’ are listed on the UK Consolidated Sanctions List (“the UK Sanctions List”) along with confirmation of the reasons for designation.

Asset freeze” sanctions “seek to impose prohibitions or requirements for the purposes of:

1. freezing the funds or economic resources owned, held or controlled by certain individuals and entities;

2. preventing financial services being provided to or for the benefit of certain individuals or entities;

3. preventing funds or economic resources from being made available to or for the benefit of certain entities or individuals; or

4. preventing funds or economic resources from being received from certain individuals or entities.

On 10 February 2022, the UK Government expanded its power to designate entities and individuals from a wide variety of sectors as it gave itself the power to designate persons ‘involved in obtaining a benefit from or supporting the Government of Russia’, including:

1. Carrying on business as a Government of Russia affiliated entity

This will include any entity which is owned directly or indirectly by the Russian Government or in which the Government of Russia holds directly or indirectly a minority interest or which has received some form of financial or other material benefit from the Government of Russia.

2. Carrying on business of economic significance or in a sector of strategic significance to the Government of Russia

This includes the Russian, chemicals, construction, defence, electronics, energy, extractives, financial services, information and communications and transport sectors.

3. Owning or controlling directly or indirectly or working as a director or trustee of a Government of Russia affiliated entity or an entity falling within any of the other above categories.

As described in Commons Library briefing Countering Russian influence in the UK (25 February 2022), the so-called “golden visa” scheme has now been scrapped:

On 17 February, the Government announced the immediate closure of the Tier 1 (Investor) visa to new applicants. The visa offered up to five years’ permission to stay in the UK and a route to permanent residence, in return for a minimum £2m investment. A review of all investor visas granted between 2008 and April 2015 was announced in 2018. The Government has said results will be published “in due course”.

Russians are the second most common nationality granted investor visas since 2008, although they accounted for a much smaller proportion of applicants since 2015. Just over 2,500 investor visas have been issued to Russians since 2008 (roughly one fifth of all such visas issued). People granted investment visas before 2015 may have now completed the residence requirement for permanent residence (and possibly British citizenship).”

Events have of course prompted the Government belatedly to fast-track the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill. Its 2nd Reading will be on 7 March 2022. As set out in its explanatory notes, the Bill’s main objectives are to:

Prevent and combat the use of land in the UK for money laundering purposes by increasing the transparency of beneficial ownership information relating to overseas entities that own land in the UK. The Bill therefore creates a register of the beneficial owners of such entities. The register will be held by Companies House and made public.

Reform the UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) regime to enable law enforcement to investigate the origin of property and recover the proceeds of crime. The measures in the Bill aim to strengthen the UK’s fight against serious economic crime; to clarify the scope of UWO powers; and to increase and reinforce operational confidence in relation to UWO powers.

Amend financial sanctions legislation, including the monetary penalty legal test and information sharing powers to help deter and prevent breaches of financial sanctions.

However, is this going far enough? There have been pieces in the media reporting that the French government had “seized” a Russian oligarch’s yacht. There is no detail as to what the precise legal status of that action was – there would need of course to be a solid legal basis for confiscation (presumably without compensation) but it is interesting that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have been reported to be looking at the potential to bolster the Economic Crime Bill so as to facilitate the confiscation of UK property owned by Russian oligarchs (see for instance Michael Gove calling for UK to seize London homes of Russian oligarchs CityAM 27 February 2022 and Michael Gove considers options for seizing oligarchs’ property The Times 3 March 2022). Is this just tough talk and no action? I know you may not want to hear this but… any legislation, and individual decisions made under it, would need to be tightly framed to be consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights (and in a rule of law based, democratic, society that is surely right):

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” (Article 8).

Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.” (Article 1 of the First Protocol)

Of course, confiscation without compensation may be properly framed as necessary in the public interest but this will need care.

The London Mayor issued a press statement on 26 February 2022, Mayor demands seizure of property connected to oligarchs, supporting the confiscation of assets but going further in terms of measures to seek to minimise the number of empty homes in the capital (surely these measures are essential to ensure that we can look in the eye those who say that there is no need for additional new homes?) and to penalise foreign buyers more generally (jury out as far as I’m concerned – baby, bathwater etc):

“The Mayor has previously criticised the Government’s failure to deliver on the promise of a register of overseas property ownership and has now set out further measures to charge those who buy property in the UK with no intention of living here and leave them empty while London faces a housing crisis.

As well as the register of overseas ownership, the Mayor is calling for:

Seizure of property assets held by allies of President Putin

Raising the amount overseas owners have to pay for leaving their home empty by increasing the council tax ‘empty homes premium’

Raising capital gains tax on overseas buyers from 28 per cent to 40 per cent

Increasing the taxes paid by overseas companies investing in property by increasing the Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings

For further reading, there is this article in yesterday’s edition of the Economist: The rise and fall of Londongrad (behind pay wall, 5 March 2022).

Finally, there are some ways to support the people of Ukraine.

This week’s Clubhouse event will be at a slightly earlier time, at 5pm on Tuesday 8 March. Its theme is “BREAK THE BIAS – women in planning/law”, to mark this year’s International Women’s Day theme. We have various speakers including Meeta Kaur, Nikita Sellers, Caroline Daly, Nicola Gooch and Zenab Hearn. Link here.

Simon Ricketts, 5 March 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Liberty Leading The People (Delacroix)

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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