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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March, 2005, 13:44 GMT
A conduit for corruption?
Analysis
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News business reporter

The report of the Africa Commission has called for rich countries, and particularly their financial services industry, to do more to fight corruption.

US dollars
The proceeds of corruption have to be hidden somewhere
Not only should they investigate and prosecute the givers of bribes and suborners of corruption, it says.

They should also avoid being used as conduits for the laundering of ill-gotten gains.

The UK in particular has been a magnet for this kind of abuse - but just how much has it been at fault?

Banking billions

Cases of corrupt funds flowing through the UK are not hard to find.

The most famous is that of the late Sani Abacha, the dictator who ran Nigeria from 1993 to 1998.

More than 1.5bn of his and other Nigerian leaders' ill-gotten gains has been found in British bank accounts - only a fraction of which has ever made it back to Nigeria.

In contrast, the super-secret Swiss have promised to return almost $500m.

And the use of the UK as a destination, or at least a transit point, for the proceeds of corruption continues.

Sani Abacha
Sani Abacha's money has been found in British banks

Almost 1m is currently frozen as a result of investigations into the governor of Nigeria's Plateau province, Joshua Dariye.

And corporate investigation firm Kroll Associates has been employed by the government of Kenya to trace money looted under the two-decade rule of former President Daniel Arap Moi.

It is believed to have traced more than $1bn in Europe - much of it in London - and frozen as much of it as it can.

Needle in a haystack

But why has London been such a magnet for the beneficiaries of corruption?

For one thing, the sheer size of London's financial services industry makes it a tempting target.

Including foreign-exchange transactions, trillions pass through the city's institutions every day.

On top of that, London has thousands of lawyers and accountants keen for all the work they can handle - as well as myriad firms offering to set up and run the shell companies and tax-efficient trusts on which much money-laundering relies.

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It is these agents who present one vulnerability, according to anti-corruption group Transparency International's UK chapter.

In a report published last October, it pointed to the low levels of regulation of trust and company formation agents as a key factor in London's money-laundering risk.

Most agents, it said, were entirely above-board; it was simply that there was little to stop the minority who were prepared to look the other way when corrupt or criminal money came their way.

You know who

There are regulatory protections in place - and by international standards they are strong.

The US State Department describes the UK as a "country of primary money-laundering concern" in its annual survey of world vulnerabilities - but on the basis of its importance as a financial centre, not its rules and defences.

The Financial Services Authority, the UK's regulator, stresses the work which has gone into making sure that banks and other institutions know who their customers are and what their money is doing.

Mercedes-Benz cars
Even luxury car dealers have to report suspicious transactions
This "know your customer" (KYC) rule means that if unexpected transfers or unusual transactions show up - for instance, the conversion of a personal account into a commercial account with thousands changing hands every day - investigators should be alerted.

Exposed?

And within the KYC system, particular attention is meant to be paid to what are termed "politically exposed persons" (PEPs) - government, judicial and military figures and officials of public companies, for example.

Any business transacted by a financial institution with a PEP has to be approved by senior management, and a close eye kept

But the problem is that not all PEPs are keen to advertise their presence.

They may hide behind nominees, or layers of shell companies, or simply present false identification.

No-one, the FSA acknowledges, can be 100% certain that they've got it right.

The rules are to be tightened by a European Union proposal called the Third Anti-Money Laundering Directive, currently under discussion in Brussels.

Former President Daniel Arap Moi
President Moi's associates are accused of embezzling millions

But the directive is really designed to combat terrorist finance and drug trafficking.

Anti-corruption campaigners such as Global Witness want it to include a full definition of corruption among the serious crimes on which it focuses EU states' attention.

Suspicions

Even if a PEP slips through the system, there are systems in place which are meant to spot when something goes awry.

For years, financial institutions have had to report when a transaction looks suspicious - but now that responsibility is extended not only to lawyers and accountants, but also to estate agents, casinos and other places dealing in high-value assets and deals.

But the expansion of the system of suspicious activity reports (SARs) is swamping the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the authority responsible for processing and analysing them and then passing them on to prosecutors and police.

More than 150,000 were thought to have been filed in 2004, a 50% increase on the previous year.

Institutions fearing prosecution remain unsure of what they should report - which may be leading to massive over-filing as a precaution.

Several major UK police forces are now lobbying to receive more SARs direct rather than via NCIS, claiming that the organisation is not passing them on fast enough.


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