The UK is a haven for dirty money; more than £90 billion is estimated to be laundered through the country per year. The size of the UK’s financial and professional services sector, its open economy and the attractiveness of the London property market to overseas investors all make it unusually exposed to international money laundering risks. As part of new measures to tackle asset recovery and money laundering, the UK government introduced Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) in January, which are being hailed as the cure to Britain’s dirty money problem.
What is an Unexplained Wealth Order?
UWOs require the owner of an asset worth more than £50,000 to explain how they were able to afford that asset. Introduced primarily to target Russian and Azerbaijan laundromats, UWOs have wide-ranging applications to all situations where the National Crime Agency (NCA) believes wealth was acquired illicitly, including tax evasion.
The game-changing nature of UWOs lies in the power they give UK law enforcement to prosecute. Formerly, little could be done to act on highly suspicious wealth unless there was a legal conviction in the country of origin. In cases where the origin country is in crisis or the individual holds power within a corrupt government, this is unlikely to be achieved. Where previously law enforcement agencies needed to prove in court that an asset was purchased with laundered funds, UWOs shift the burden of proof away from prosecutors and on to the asset’s owner.
Preventing Financial Crime with Unexplained Wealth Orders
The first successful use of a UWO since its implementation is the recent case of Zamira Hajiyeva, who owns millions of dollars in properties in London through offshore companies. Her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud and misappropriation of public funds, and authorities were able to identify a clear disparity between his income and the couple’s apparent wealth.
With corruption watchdog Transparency International estimating that £4 billion of UK property has been purchased with the proceeds of crime, it is hoped that this successful implementation of a UWO will herald a clampdown on overseas criminals laundering via the property market.
The success of this UWO has been fundamental in beginning to reduce the appeal of the UK as a destination for illicit income. In June, mortgage brokers were already reporting that Russian purchases of prime real estate in London had slowed as a result of both government pressure and a tightening of anti-money laundering rules.
There are, however, reasons to be wary of perceiving the introduction of UWOs as a cure-all for the UK’s money laundering problems. These court orders are ineffective as soon as a defendant can provide an explanation for the source of their wealth. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, they then win the argument. Legal difficulties and costs are other factors that can lead to delays in the UK’s fight against money laundering, while information obtained via a UWO cannot be used in criminal proceedings against the respondent. For UWOs to have credibility, authorities will need to ensure the first uses of them continue to be successful in order to serve as a useful deterrent going forward.
Further, money laundering covers a wide range of criminal activity and consequently can’t be solved by a single approach. Fragmented supervision and anonymous ownership of property in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are just two areas where Transparency International is still advocating for change to improve the UK’s asset recovery and anti-money laundering regime.
How Can We Continue to Fight Money Laundering?
It is clear that UWOs have the potential to act as powerful tools for law enforcement but are not yet being used frequently enough— more action is required if real change is to come. We need further action from the government to restrict property ownership and levy realistic local taxes.
With UWOs beginning to lead to the identification of criminals, questions will be asked of the financial institutions who facilitated the individual’s money management. To better equip themselves for the fight against money laundering, banks need to overhaul outdated AML systems to suit the complexity of the schemes perpetrated by criminals. They need to combat problems by employing entity resolution and network analysis techniques to understand vast data networks and identify hidden money.