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Main Question put and agreed to.

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Resolved ,




Motion made, and Question proposed,

Amendment made: in line 3, at end add

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.

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Modernisation of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed,

5.13 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I understand that the motion is debatable, as we have reached it before 6 pm. Is the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) willing to address the House, to tell us why he wishes to be a member of the Modernisation Committee?

5.14 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I had not intended to speak, but I shall say a few words. The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is because I believe, as many other hon. Members said in the previous debate, that the House needs far more modernisation, and that we need a much stronger House of Commons. The House of Commons should be able to determine its own agenda, and we should be able to hold the Executive to account. All Back Benchers should be able to play a more effective role. That is my commitment. On the basis of that very short manifesto, I hope that I can be elected to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, even if I am not standing for other posts.

Question put and agreed to.



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Office of Foreign Assets Control List

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]

5.14 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I am very grateful to have the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent Mr. Ricks and the operation of the OFAC list. It may be that, during the course of my remarks, the Minister will wonder why I have not decided that this is a Treasury issue, but in fact I believe that the only action that can now be taken to assist my constituent has to be through the Foreign Office and the American embassy. At the end of my remarks, I shall also ask the Minister to widen this matter beyond Mr. Ricks and to consider the position in general of British nationals on the OFAC list.

In May 2007, Mr. Ricks, a constituent of mine, decided to do what millions of people do every year—sell his house and downsize. There was nothing particularly unusual in such a decision, and he sold his house, realising the sum of £800,000. He was not yet ready to buy the house into which he wished to downsize, so he very sensibly did what millions of people do when they have money that they are not going to use immediately, and decided to put this very considerable sum on deposit in order that it should earn him money until such time as he came to use it to buy a house. There is nothing at all unusual in that; as I say, millions of British citizens will be doing the same thing in any given year.

Mr. Ricks looked around for the best deals. His own bank was the National Westminster, where the £800,000 was held at that time. He decided that Abbey had the best deal, so he wanted to transfer his money from the National Westminster to Abbey. Again, most people would say, “So what?” Such a transfer is also something that millions of people do every year. They switch money between one financial institution and another in order to get a better deal.

In May 2007—I repeat that this took place in May—Mr. Ricks authorised the National Westminster to transfer to Abbey £800,000. That was done through a method called a CHAPS—clearing house automated payment system—transfer, which he was assured was the most secure method. The money never arrived at Abbey. Seemingly, it had disappeared into the ether. I ask how people would feel if all their money—our houses are where most of us have our money—which is their security in retirement and their only means of equipping themselves with another house, disappeared into the ether.

Much worse was to follow. Mr. Ricks assumed, as I, and I think the Minister too, would have done if it had happened to us, that there had been a mistake and the money had been lost in transfer, that it was okay and that either NatWest or Abbey would find it, and it would come back. That is a perfectly reasonable attitude for him to take, but in fact he could not find out what had happened to his money. The transfer was completed on 15 May, but nobody could explain where the money had gone. Abbey could not, and I have to say that I consider that it treated Mr. Ricks rather poorly, because it more or less shrugged and said that it
25 Oct 2007 : Column 507
could not explain it; the money had never arrived, and it could not say what had happened.

However, it transpired—under some pressure—that the money could not be transferred directly from the National Westminster into Abbey, as my constituent had quite reasonably assumed and as I would have assumed; Abbey did not have the necessary clearing arrangements to deal with the CHAPS transfer, so Citibank dealt with it. Again, one might think that there is nothing very odd about that; it was just that a third financial institution had become involved. Naturally, representations were made to Citibank—where was the money?

Eventually, Abbey told my constituent the not-wholly-correct information that the money was being held by Citibank—that much was true—and that it was being checked for evidence of money laundering because it was such a large sum. At that stage, I intervened with the chairman of Abbey and discovered that the money was being held by Citibank because Mr. Ricks was on the OFAC list. OFAC has no legal force in this country, only in the United States, but because Citibank is US-owned, it froze a transfer of money within Britain from one British bank to another and it took many weeks for my constituent even to find out why it had done that. To be fair to Citibank, when it told the NatWest in May that it could not process the money, it said why, but that information was not passed to my constituent.

So at that point, the money is arbitrarily frozen by Citibank. My constituent employs a solicitor and goes to the ombudsman. After 10 weeks, the ombudsman says that he cannot help; a barrister contests that, and it goes back to the ombudsman, who again insists that he cannot help. Meanwhile, what is happening to my constituent? He has no money; it has been arbitrarily taken from him. He is homeless—well, he is in a bedsit.

Why did Citibank take his assets? It was because 20 years ago—not last year or the year before—my constituent had had business dealings in Iraq. I have supplied the Minister confidentially with the details of that involvement, which certainly had nothing to do with helping Iraq, but a lot to do with helping the British Government at the time. Be that as it may, he has not had involvement in Iraq for a long time.

By July, we got the first instruction, which was that an application to be removed from the OFAC list should be completed by my constituent. He did that right away, as one would imagine. Here we are in October, and my constituent has still not been taken off the OFAC list and still does not have his money—let alone the interest that should have accrued while he held it at Abbey. On 18 September, I received what I regard as a not terribly helpful, if not dismissive, letter from a Treasury Minister telling me that this was a matter for the US embassy. I had already managed to work that out; I had written to that embassy on 3 August. No reply was ever received. I have to say that on the not very many occasions—although there have been some—when I have had to deal with the US embassy, its reaction has been characterised by, to say the very least, a failure of alacrity; I hope that the Minister was listening to that.

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