The UK government is working through a “hit list” of Russian oligarchs with links to President Vladimir Putin as it seeks to impose sanctions on them, foreign secretary Liz Truss said on Monday.
Ministers want to target oligarchs’ assets and investments in the UK, as they also consider potential action against advisers who work for the tycoons.
Truss disclosed the process as the government unveiled a much-delayed economic crime bill in draft form that is designed to crack down on “dirty money” in the UK.
The legislation has been criticized for lacking an overhaul of Companies House, the UK registry for businesses that has been under attack by transparency campaigners.
Ministers are targeting oligarchs following Putin’s decision last week to order his armed forces to invade Ukraine.
Eight oligarchs have been hit with UK sanctions but Truss told the House of Commons: “We have a very large team of people working through our hit list of oligarchs – and we are also looking at their properties, their ownerships of yachts. We have already grounded their private jets. ”
She also said the government wanted to ensure oligarchs could not gain access to their funds and that “their trade cannot flow”.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader, asked Truss to use the economic crime bill to introduce a criminal offense applicable to people who work for oligarchs under sanctions – such as lawyers and estate agents – if they fail to give up information on their clients ‘deals.
Truss said Duncan Smith made a “very good point”, adding: “We are absolutely looking at what we can do to target the families of oligarchs, the people that work for them, the people that support them, and the people that enable them because, ultimately, all of these people are supporting the Putin regime. ”
Ben Bradshaw, a Labor MP who was present at a briefing with Truss on Friday, said she had stated that “oligarchs’ lawyers in London are very litigious” and “she had already had several warning letters from them”.
Downing Street suggested on Monday that law firms representing oligarchs could face penalties. “We will certainly keep all options under review,” it said.
Meanwhile, the government outlined its economic crime bill, which includes provisions for a register of overseas entities that control property and land in the UK.
Ministers want to ensure anonymous foreign owners of UK property reveal their identities to ensure that criminals cannot hide behind secretive chains of shell companies.
“Oligarchs and kleptocrats from Russia and elsewhere have used the veneer of legitimacy provided by UK-registered companies and partnerships, and they have also used the high-end property to help launder proceeds of corruption,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary.
Ministers also published a white paper setting out medium-term plans for the reform of Companies House, to ensure that applicants provide more details of their identity when setting up companies.
There was criticism that these plans were not yet law, given a government consultation into reform was carried out more than a year ago.
“We don’t need a white paper, we need legislation,” said Dame Margaret Hodge, a Labor MP. “I am dismayed.”
Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative minister, said MPs had for years been calling for measures outlined in the economic crime bill.
The bill includes measures to strengthen the UK system of “unexplained wealth orders”, through which authorities can order people to disclose the source of their wealth, which is liable to be forfeited if they cannot prove it has gained legitimately.
Susan Hawley, executive director at Spotlight on Corruption, the campaign group, said the government must commit itself to a second economic crime bill later this year, including Companies House reform.