The UK’s Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve QC, confirmed yesterday that in relation to efforts to repatriate Egypt’s stolen assets the UK has opened domestic money laundering investigations into individuals with significant UK assets. In response to a question posed by Mark Menzies MP in the House of Commons about the steps the UK Government are taking to return stolen assets from emerging democracies in the Middle East and North Africa, Grieve responded that a number of priority cases had been identified by the Egyptian authorities, reminded the House that a taskforce had been created to speed up efforts with respect to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and that law enforcement secondments to Egypt were being organised.

Grieve also referred to the Arab Forum on asset recovery that the UK co-hosted in Marrakesh last year, and alluded to the need to remind countries awaiting the return of assets that due process of law needed to be followed in order for asset recovery to take place. The reality is that the present international and domestic legal framework for asset recovery means that the repatriation of stolen assets will take many years; this will necessarily cause great frustration amongst the victim countries particularly where the onus is placed on them to secure criminal convictions and obtain confiscation orders in very difficult or even hostile legal environments. The UK’s decision to launch standalone investigations here seems to recognise this potential barrier.

Philip Hollobone MP ended the short Commons debate with the $64,000 question (or should it be millions or even billions…): “Does the Attorney-General have any estimate of the amount of stolen assets that might be in this country?” The Attorney-General’s response was that it would be “foolish to engage in speculation about the precise figures” but he did concede that there were likely to be “substantial sums” in the UK.

We need to continue the debate about improving asset recovery mechanisms, as well as better data on the levels of corrupt flows in the UK and elsewhere. A paper we co-authored with Transparency International last year suggests some potential changes - whatever the solutions, they need to be drastic; relying on the present framework is likely to continue to mean that the UK (and other countries) repatriate only a small amount of the “substantial” corrupt assets that exist.

The House of Commons debate is available here.