Politics

Could refugees be housed in the seized mansions of Russian oligarchs? We asked a lawyer

Michael Gove has said there is a "high legal bar" to clear before the government can use multi-million-pound mansions for refugees - but a lawyer told The Big Issue it’s likely to be possible.

Ukraine

Police cordoned off the area outside the Belgravia property owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Image: Greg Barradale

The Westminster government should be able to clear the “high legal bar” they face to seize oligarchs’ mansions to house refugees from Ukraine, a lawyer has told The Big Issue.

So far, ministers have seized the assets of seven oligarchs which prevents any properties owned by the wealthy businessmen from being sold.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove is now exploring whether the properties can be used for “humanitarian and other purposes”. He told BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “There’s quite a high legal bar to cross and we’re not talking about permanent confiscation.”

But with the growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, where almost three million people have fled the country in search of safety, and the launch of the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme on Monday, the question of whether ministers can clear that bar remains unanswered.

The Big Issue asked Jonathan Compton, partner and group head of dispute resolution at city law firm DMH Stallard to explain whether seizing the assets to offer homes for refugees is within the law.

“My own view is that provided what you’re doing is reasonable – and it strikes me that sanctioning oligarchs is probably a reasonable thing if they have links to the murderous regime in the Kremlin – I think they’re on safe ground,” said Compton.

“And then the question is: is it reasonable and proportionate? Well, I think it probably is given what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment.”

Compton told The Big Issue the Sanctions and Anti-money Laundering Act 2018 allows the secretary of state to make sanction regulations in the “interests of national security, international peace and security and to promote the resolution of armed conflicts” among other scenarios.

This is the legislation that has allowed the government to take action against oligarchs, including the Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, to freeze assets.

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The next test to pass in terms of confiscating properties is in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, according to Compton.

The lawyer said that article six of the act – the right to a fair trial – and article eight – respect for private and family life and home – must then be considered.

“In terms of confiscation, there is nothing in my view that prevents it,” said Compton.

There has been no shortage of voices calling for the oligarchs’ assets to be seized to house Ukrainian refugees.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has repeatedly called for action. Analysis from London’s City Hall found tackling the issue could raise up to £370m a year and fund 2,500 council and affordable homes in the English capital.

Khan said: “For far too long ministers have turned a blind eye to the use of our capital’s homes as a safe harbour for oligarchs to park their cash, which is having a negative impact on both our international reputation and our local housing market. Now is the time to act.”

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael has also penned a letter to Priti Patel calling for seizures while the mayor of Ukrainian city Lviv Andriy Sadovyi and Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, also reiterated their support.

The UK government’s response to illicit wealth has been to bring forward the Economic Crime Bill which was given royal assent in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The bill aims at reforming property ownership transparency and strengthening asset recovery powers and sanctions by forcing owners to register their properties or face a financial penalty or a criminal sentence.

DLUHC minister Eddie Hughes said in an answer to a parliamentary question on Monday: “The government is already taking action against the billions of pounds worth of UK property accumulated by the Russian state-linked individuals and companies.

“We have frozen the assets of those individuals on the sanctions list and are taking further steps on land ownership transparency through the Economic Crime Bill. We will set out details in due course.

The legislation was originally announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2019 and was revived this week in the face of the Ukraine crisis.

Compton said the move shows that “English courts can move really, really quickly if there’s a need”.

But protesters who occupy mansions will not be protected by the law, he confirmed.

Eight activists who took charge of Oleg Deripaska’s London mansion were arrested on Monday after draping a Ukrainian flag on the front of the property and hanging a banner that read “Putin go fuck yourself” from the balcony on the front of the property.

Compton said: “It really is up to the state to enforce sanctions against either national or international actors. It is not for a private individual to do so.”  

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