NatWest fined £264.8m after bin bags of cash laundered in branches
NatWest pleaded guilty at Westminster Magistrates Court on 7 October. It is the first time a financial institution has faced criminal prosecution by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) under anti-money laundering laws in the UK.
The charges covered NatWest’s failure to properly monitor the activity of a commercial customer, Fowler Oldfield, a jewellery business based in Bradford, between 8 November 2012 and 23 June 2016.
When taking on the customer, NatWest initially understood it would not handle cash from the Fowler Oldfield business. However, over the course of the customer relationship approximately £365m was deposited with the bank, of which around £264m was in cash.
Some of the bank’s employees, who were responsible for handling these cash deposits, reported their suspicions to bank staff responsible for investigating suspected money laundering, however no appropriate action was ever taken.
The ‘red flags’ that were reported included significant amounts of Scottish bank notes deposited throughout England, deposits of notes carrying a prominent musty smell, and individuals acting suspiciously when depositing cash in NatWest branches.
In addition, the bank’s automated transaction monitoring system incorrectly recognised some cash deposits as cheque deposits. As cheques carry a lower money laundering risk than cash, this was a significant gap in the bank’s monitoring of a large number of customers depositing cash, of which Fowler Oldfield was one.
Mrs Justice Cockerill, the sentencing judge at Southwark Crown Court, said: “It must be borne in mind that although in no way complicit in the money laundering which took place, the bank was functionally vital. Without the bank – and without the bank’s failures – the money could not be effectively laundered.’
A separate investigation by West Yorkshire Police has led to 11 people pleading guilty to charges relating to the cash deposits and three cash couriers being charged. A further 13 individuals are awaiting trial at Leeds Crown Court on 25 April 2022 in relation to the activities of Fowler Oldfield.
Mark Steward, executive director of enforcement and market oversight at the FCA, said: “NatWest is responsible for a catalogue of failures in the way it monitored and scrutinised transactions that were self-evidently suspicious. Combined with serious systems failures, like the treatment of cash deposits as cheques, these failures created an open door for money laundering.
“Anti-money laundering controls are a vital part of the fight against serious crime, like drug trafficking, and such failures are intolerable ones that let down the whole community, which, in this case, justified the FCA’s first criminal prosecution under the Money Laundering Regulations.”