Britain steps up battle against money laundering

By Huw Jones
Tourists stand in the snow outside Buckingham Palace, London, Britain, December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Huw Jones

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Monday it would create a new national economic crime center to crack down harder on money laundering by drug dealers and people traffickers who are expected to net 90 billion pounds ($120.3 billion) this year.

As a unit of the existing National Crime Agency (NCA), the center will be tasked with coordinating a national response among the agencies that tackle money laundering and fraud and with increasing the confiscation of crime proceeds.

Britain's interior minister, Amber Rudd, said the new initiative was part of a package of measures in response to a review of the country's economic crime agencies.

"The measures we have announced today will significantly improve our ability to tackle the most serious cases of economic crime by ensuring our agencies have the tools and investment they need to investigate, prosecute and confiscate criminal assets," Rudd said in a statement.

Britain's plan to exit the European Union in 2019 has raised fears of a "bonfire of regulation" that could occur thereafter and result in the City of London losing its top global financial center ranking.

Strengthening the integrity of Britain as a financial center will be a top priority under the package, which also includes proposed new laws.

These would allow the new center to directly task the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to investigate the worst offenders in a step that will buttress the SFO, whose future as a standalone entity has been in doubt.

SFO Director David Green is due to step down next year.

Separately on Monday, the Attorney General's Office, a government department, said the SFO would continue to act as an independent organization, supporting the multi-agency response led by the NCA.

"We will begin recruitment for the SFO's next director very soon," the AGO said in a statement.

The government estimates that financial fraud costs the country 6.8 billion pounds a year, or more than 100 pounds per person.

Rudd will chair a new economic crime strategic board to ensure the right resources are allocated across law enforcement agencies to tackle economic crime, the interior ministry statement said.

With only a modest portion of criminal proceeds confiscated, the package announced on Monday makes further commitments to seizing criminal assets through greater use of existing powers by the SFO, the NCA and tax authorities.

There will also be a review of existing rules on confiscating proceeds of crime in order to improve the process by which confiscation orders are made and applied.

($1 = 0.7479 pounds)

(Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)