South African Money Laundering and Corruption

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My Lords, it is a real privilege to follow the noble Baroness. I have been in the House for less than two years, but she has always struck me as a real star. I have marvelled at the way in which she has managed to make the Government’s case on Europe vaguely plausible, which shows expertise and charm. I have also noticed that the noble Baroness has always spoken and answered questions from the Front Bench, including from myself, with great courtesy, even giving the impression in her answers that she has listened to the questions. Her colleagues may well want to bear that in mind. I note that the casualty rate in the post that she has just left seems to be quite high. I wish her all the best in the future, and I am sure that the whole House does as well.

The noble Baroness made the case for sanctions against South Sudan and elsewhere compellingly. I do not refer to her specifically, but I remember the way in which this House opposed sanctions against the apartheid regime. If she had been in the Conservative Government at the time, perhaps that might have changed.

There have been no criminal prosecutions for money laundering of financial institutions, and very few of other “enablers” such as lawyers and accountants. There have been regulatory fines, but it is not clear that these are enough to deter banks and other financial players from making their anti-money laundering compliance regimes a tick-box exercise rather than a meaningful one. This Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill enables the Government to introduce regulations that would create new civil penalties and criminal offences for money laundering, but the threshold for the latter is low—a maximum three-month sentence for a criminal conviction.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, mentioned, using such powers to enable the Government to introduce criminal offences by regulation is against parliamentary convention. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, also referred to this matter with his expertise. Surely it would be better for the Government to accept or introduce an amendment to the Bill to introduce a “failure to prevent” money laundering offence, like that in the Bribery Act and as there now is for tax evasion, which would ensure that such an offence was introduced by primary legislation.

As I said, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, made moving points about South Sudan and elsewhere from her experience. However, my main focus today is whether the Bill will deal effectively with the massive money laundering organised from the very top of the Government in South Africa, the presidency itself—the subject of my Oral Question on 19 October in your Lordships’ House and my letter to the Chancellor of 25 September. I beg some indulgence in speaking at greater length than the noble Baroness on this to spell it out. It is serious.

Corruption within and money laundering from a monopoly capital elite around the President’s family in South Africa and their close associates the Gupta brothers—which is painful for me to witness, having been active along with my brave parents in the anti-apartheid struggle—show that winning the war against financial crime will require co-ordination, influence, action and accountability between multi-jurisdictional law enforcement agencies. Money laundering is a key enabler of organised crime, allowing criminals to transmit multi-billion pound illicit funds into the legitimate economy, undermining its integrity and public trust. However, confronting it is difficult, partly due to the fragmented information-sharing arrangements across borders and between banks and law enforcement agencies. It is all very well to develop better protection for our own country, as this Bill purports to do, but, without simultaneously enhancing cross-border co-operation, we will not win the war against financial crime.

On regular visits to South Africa—most recently last month—I have been stunned by the systemic transnational financial crime network facilitated by an Indian-South African family, the Guptas, and the presidential family, the Zumas. If there had been more proactive and genuine co-operation between the multi-jurisdictional law enforcement agencies, and within and between the banks, which have been moving money for the Gupta/Zuma laundering network, the devastation wrought on South Africa could have been significantly reduced, and perhaps the financial institutions involved would have been able to better mitigate their exposure.

I had delivered by hand last night to the Chancellor printouts of transactions and named the British bank concerned, and I asked that he again refer these to the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency and the Financial Conduct Authority for investigation. This information shows illegal transfers of funds from South Africa made by the Gupta family over the last few years from their South African accounts to accounts held in Dubai and Hong Kong. The last columns of each sheet, now in the Treasury, show the relevant banks involved, and the records show all account numbers used. Many of the transactions are legitimate, but many certainly are not.

The latter illicit transactions were flagged internally in the bank concerned as suspicious, but I am reliably informed that it was told by the UK headquarters to ignore it. That is an iniquitous breach of legal banking practice in the UK, which I trust Ministers would never countenance, and it is also an incitement to money laundering, which has self-evidently occurred in this case, sanctioned by a British bank, as part of the flagrant robbery from South African taxpayers of many millions of pounds and many billions of their local currency, the rand.

Each originating transaction would start with one bank account and then be split into a number of accounts a couple of times to disguise the origin. Undoubtedly, hard questions will need to be asked of the facilitating banks, because they have aided and abetted the Gupta money laundering activities. Can the Chancellor please ensure that such evident money laundering and illegality is not tolerated and that the bank is investigated for possible criminal complicity in this matter? Urgent action is needed to close down this network of corruption.

Then let us consider an example of the devastation caused to South Africa by cross-border money laundering. The Free State, one of nine provinces in the country, is marked by miles of flat, rolling grassland and crop fields, and it is the country’s granary, responsible for 70% of total maize production. Britain played a defining part in the history of this province, as it marked one of the most contested spaces during the late 19th century/early 20th century South African wars involving the British imperialists, the Afrikaner nationalists and the Basotho people.

Today, the Free State is one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. Nearly one in two of the people are unemployed and nearly two-thirds live below what is called the “upper bound poverty line”. More than half of the people in that province survive on one meal a day, tens of thousands of children go to school hungry, if they are fortunate enough to be in school, and over half of the province’s children drop out of school before obtaining their matric—roughly equivalent to our A-levels—primarily because their daily focus is on survival.

Therefore, when in February 2013 the Free State Government announced that they would spend £18 million —approximately 340 million South African rand —to build, in a small Free State town called Vrede, a dairy farm which would be part-owned by 80 impoverished beneficiaries, the local community felt a sense of hope. Indeed, this kind of public/private partnership is a commendable and deeply necessary model of economic empowerment to redress the profound racial inequalities generated by the apartheid state, which continue to reverberate throughout South Africa.

What the people of Vrede did not know was that this project, and therefore their village, would become the scene of a transnational money laundering crime committed by collaborators from within the Free State Government on the one side and the now notorious Guptas on the other. In essence, this criminal network used these 80 people and their families as pawns in a swirl of international money laundering, which involved some British and other financial institutions.

The laundering operation went like this. Step 1: in May 2013, three months after the Free State Government announced the dairy farm project, a company called Estina—ostensibly the vehicle for the 80 beneficiaries but which was actually linked to the Guptas—was handed a farm to begin building the dairy. Estina’s sole director was an IT salesman with no farming experience. The project was not put out to public tender. Step 2: the Government almost immediately transferred about £6 million to Estina. Step 3: instead of investing this in the farm, Estina transferred most of the money to a Gupta company in the United Arab Emirates called Gateway Ltd. Gateway is registered in Ras al-Khaimah, RAK, which is one of seven emirates making up the UAE and a highly secretive offshore company jurisdiction. At the time, Gateway held its account with the British bank Standard Chartered, which the bank has subsequently closed.

Step 4: once the funds were in Dubai, the Guptas engaged in a classic laundering cycle, transforming illicit money into ostensibly legitimate assets. In arguably the most eye-watering example, they transferred over £2 million of the Estina dairy money in two separate tranches through two shell companies, ultimately consolidating it in their Standard Chartered account for another of their UAE-based companies, called Accurate Investments. The bank has since closed this account too. Step 5: they then transmitted this money into an entity called Linkway Trading, banked with the State Bank of India, back into South Africa.

Step 6: once in Linkway, the Guptas used these funds to pay for a lavish four-day family wedding where, among other extravagances, over £1,000 was spent on chocolate truffles, £120,000 on scarves for guests and £20,000 on fireworks. At about the same time that the Guptas were celebrating at the wedding, veterinarians in the town of Vrede were called to the dairy farm because of the reeking stench of dead animals. According to their report, they found at least 30 cows that had been buried in a ditch having died from,

“an unknown condition that could be caused by malnutrition”.

I have detailed the Vrede dairy example because many of us do not appreciate the destitution caused by money laundering. It almost always requires the complicity, whether witting or unwitting, of financial institutions. In this case, some of those are headquartered in Britain, such as Standard Chartered. I am grateful that the bank is now being investigated, along with HSBC and the Bank of Baroda, by the Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Conduct Authority and the National Crimes Agency following my Question in your Lordships’ House on 19 October and my request to the Chancellor.

The success of these criminal networks relies also on the action or inaction and co-operation or non-cooperation of the relevant law enforcement authorities. Always, it is the poorest who bear the brunt. In my letter to the Chancellor on 25 September requesting that he investigate UK bank exposure to the Gupta/Zuma network, I listed the 27 entities and individuals who were, among others, involved in the Vrede dairy farm tragedy. It is by no means the only example of the devastation wrought on South Africa by the Zuma/Gupta network.

The Vrede dairy criminal catastrophe proves that the laundering was effected through a transnational triangulation between South Africa, the UAE and British and other global banks. Therefore, the success of our law enforcement authorities in protecting our country from the proceeds of ill-gotten gains entering our financial system, as this Bill seeks to do, and by association protecting more vulnerable developing nations from falling victim to extractive criminal networks, depends on genuine and proactive co-operation and collaboration between the relevant law enforcement agencies in the concerned jurisdictions. Frankly, this Bill falls well short of what is required to do that.

Familiarising myself with the Vrede dairy farm tragedy—and taking some time in this House to explain it—what struck me time and again is why an internationally respected bank such as Standard Chartered would open bank accounts for shell entities registered in a free trade zone such as Ras al-Khaimah, whose primary attraction is as a highly secretive offshore jurisdiction. What was it doing this for? Shell companies, by virtue of their ownership anonymity, such as those used by the Guptas in the Vrede dairy tragedy, are generally classic vehicles for money laundering and other illicit financial activity. According to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, shell companies,

“typically have no physical presence other than a mailing address, employ no one, and produce little to no independent economic value”.

The Financial Action Task Force, established in July 1989 at the G7 Paris summit, has consistently warned that free zones could be used for illicit trade and money flows that fall below the radar of regulatory authorities. We know that free zones have become an increasingly popular mechanism for the UAE and other countries looking to lure international investment and boost foreign trade. However, the question for us is whether we are ensuring that our financial institutions are facilitating, inadvertently or not, the misuse by those interests attempting to move their illicit funds from one part of the world to another in order to facilitate money laundering, mafia crime, terrorist activity and financing, as the Minister said, and robbery from taxpayers, as in the South African case.

There are disturbing questions around both the complicity, witting or unwitting, of UK global financial institutions in the Gupta/Zuma transnational criminal network, and also about these institutions’ wilful blindness to the reality that the laundering process most often necessitates financial systems with lax regulation and controls. Unless we urgently find ways to leverage our respective capabilities to co-ordinate and influence action between the law enforcement and banking sectors—domestically here in the UK and globally—we cannot win this battle.

I have received new information, which is still being corroborated, that the Gupta/Zuma network may be using the global metal recycling sector—some of the company names I have received have a UK presence—to launder the proceeds of their corruption. Indeed, this preliminary information suggests that, as South African banks, including British headquartered ones there, have shut down Gupta accounts in response to the financial crime risk they pose, so the family has simply shifted its laundering machine into the metal recycling sector, using intermediaries within these companies in South Africa, the Middle East, possibly the UK and Hong Kong, to move their funds for them.

My question, therefore, to British-based financial institutions and to the Government is: are their compliance departments applying the necessary forensic eye to this secondary-layer threat—as primary accounts are shutdown, so the illicit funds must find alternative channels—and are law enforcement agencies and their regulators applying their minds, sharing information and, in so far as they can, acting on it?

My latest information, supplied as before by South African whistleblowers deep inside the system and disgusted by the corruption at the heart of the state, suggests metal recycling is the latest conduit. However, there may be other sectors these criminal networks are penetrating and I ask the Minister to investigate this.

Unless we use the opportunity before us to crack down meaningfully on these criminals, they will always be one step ahead. Over the past few months, several multinational companies have either fallen or been massively contaminated as a result of their complicity in the Gupta scandal, including Bell Pottinger, McKinsey, KPMG and SAP. The US Justice Department and the US Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating German multinational SAP after it apologised the other week—“wholeheartedly and unreservedly”—to the people of South Africa for paying over £6 million in kick-backs to Gupta companies as part of their network of corruption headed by President Zuma and his family.

I believe that it is a matter of time before financial institutions in South Africa, in the Middle East, in Hong Kong, here in the UK and in the US will be forced to answer hard questions about their own complicity, and they must. I am today sending a copy of this speech, together with my letter of 25 September to the Chancellor, to the US Ambassador to London formally asking the US regulatory authorities to intervene, as the FBI has already begun to do. I am also asking the Government—I would be grateful if the Minister could respond on this point—to press the financial authorities in Hong Kong and Dubai to cut all links with the Guptas and Zumas. My Labour MEP colleague Neena Gill is raising the matter in the European Parliament, and Commissioner Pierre Moscovici has agreed to her request to investigate European banks which may be involved. In parallel, I wrote to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, on 25 September asking him to act, but have not yet had a reply.

It is not only financial institutions and Governments which need to ensure that they are above reproach. A number of other global firms, whether legal, auditing, forensic or advisory in nature, have provided professional services to some of these complicit individuals, companies and institutions. These include UK-based firms such as Grant Thornton and Hogan Lovells, which have conducted forensic investigations at the South African Revenue Service under the brief of its Gupta-aligned head, Tom Moyane. Norton Rose Fulbright and Morrison & Foerster have assisted in the internal investigation at McKinsey into that company’s links to the Guptas. There are other examples. I am not suggesting that these firms are necessarily complicit in the corruption, because in most cases they have been employed by the complicit companies—for example, Norton Rose and Morrison & Foerster by McKinsey—to try and surface the corruption.

In conclusion, I am suggesting that it is absolutely critical that all professional firms cut their contacts entirely with any individuals or entities associated with the Gupta and Zuma families or their associates. At the very least, whatever pressure they may come under from their clients and whatever the cost is to their commission or fees, they must conduct themselves according to the highest professional standards, which most if not all have palpably failed to do so far, as we saw with KPMG, McKinsey and SAP. To its credit, the law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr recently upheld the highest professional values by boldly exposing corruption and dishonesty by senior executives at the country’s power utility, Eskom.

As I stand here today, the 80 individuals who were supposed to benefit from the Vrede dairy farm are destitute. The complicity of our financial institutions in this, as well as the responsibility of law enforcers and regulators in all the concerned jurisdictions, should make UK Government Ministers and UK parliamentarians hang their heads in shame. Just as they were complicit in sustaining apartheid, so today they are complicit in sustaining the corrupt power elite in South Africa which is now betraying the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle.

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