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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2019 > Wages of sin

Wages of sin

More than a trillion dollars are looted each year from poor countries, then stashed in rich ones—and Britain is at the heart of it. How did an ancient office of the Archbishop of Canterbury end up on the frontline in the battle against money laundering?
No 1 the Sanctuary: the surprising home of Britain’s first line of defence against money laundering

If you take Westminster Abbey’s Victoria Street exit and walk past the gift shop, you’ll find a golden-yellow, Gothic Revival block, with a steeply pitched roof rising from a row of battlements. This architectural confection is No 1 the Sanctuary, and a plaque by the door announces its tenant: The Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is the kind of curious appendix to the British constitution that might have amused Charles Dickens.

In 1533, when King Henry VIII broke with the Vatican because it refused to grant him a divorce, parliament gave the faculty office responsibility for the pope’s non-ecclesiastical duties, and it has retained them over the intervening centuries through bureaucratic inertia. The office is in charge of many things, including dishing out special licences allowing couples to marry in a church where they do not meet the normal requirements, but it is also responsible for the regulation of “notaries public,” an ancient and rather withered branch of the legal profession that specialises in authenticating documents.

“They don’t have a big market share,” conceded Neil Turpin, the faculty office’s open-faced and talkative chief clerk. There are now fewer than 800 notaries in England and Wales (compared to almost 150,000 practising solicitors) but, since they handle money, they must be supervised for anti-money laundering purposes. That is Turpin’s job, and it’s an important one.

Britain is home to a world-class financial services industry, but also—and not coincidentally—to a vast money laundering machine. The City of London is a key hub in the rampant kleptocracy, financial crime and tax evasion that is afflicting the world. Every year, more than US$1 trillion is stolen from the world’s poorest countries and stashed in the richest ones, according to research by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a think tank in Washington DC. This money should be paying for healthcare, security and infrastructure, but is instead being spent on mansions, superyachts and bling, with disastrous consequences for the world’s most vulnerable people, not to mention the affordability of housing in western capitals.

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