The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Mr Laurence Robertson, Hannah Bardell, Julie Elliott, Sir Christopher Chope
† Anderson, Lee (Ashfield) (Con)
† Ansell, Caroline (Eastbourne) (Con)
† Byrne, Liam (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)
† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)
Daly, James (Bury North) (Con)
† Hodge, Dame Margaret (Barking) (Lab)
† Hollinrake, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
† Hughes, Eddie (Walsall North) (Con)
† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)
† Kinnock, Stephen (Aberavon) (Lab)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of His Majesty's Treasury)
† Morden, Jessica (Newport East) (Lab)
† Newlands, Gavin (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
† Stevenson, Jane (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)
† Thewliss, Alison (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
† Tugendhat, Tom (Minister for Security)
Kevin Maddison, Anne-Marie Griffiths, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 15 November 2022
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill
Good morning. I have a few preliminary announcements. Please switch all electronic devices to silent. No food or drink other than water is permitted during Committee sittings.
Fees: costs that may be taken into account
I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 89, page 68, line 33, at end insert—
“(aa) any function of a Northern Ireland department under or in connection with the Company Directors Disqualification (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 (S.I. 2002/3150 (N.I. 4));”
The amount of fees set under the Companies Act 2006 is determined in accordance with regulations. This amendment allows the regulations to reflect the costs or likely costs of a Northern Ireland department in discharging functions relating to directors disqualification.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 15 to 17.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. The Bill seeks to ensure that companies and other entities benefiting from incorporated status directly contribute to maintaining the integrity of the company register. We will do that by including investigation and enforcement costs in Companies House fees. We will debate those issues shortly, but first, I hope that Members will agree that it is right that the costs incurred through pursuing enforcement activity in Northern Ireland should also be included in the Secretary of State’s decision making when setting Companies House fees, which is the effect of these amendments.
Amendment 14 agreed to.
Amendments made: 15, in clause 89, page 68, line 36, at end insert—
“(ba) any function of a Northern Ireland department under or in connection with the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (S.I. 1989/2405 (N.I. 19)), so far as relating to bodies corporate or other firms;”.
The amount of fees set under the Companies Act 2006 is determined in accordance with regulations. This amendment allows the regulations to reflect costs or likely costs of a Northern Ireland department under the insolvency legislation.
Amendment 16, in clause 89, page 68, line 40, at end insert—
“(d) any function carried out by the Insolvency Service in Northern Ireland on behalf of a Northern Ireland department in connection with the detection, investigation or prosecution of offences, or the recovery of the proceeds of crime, so far as relating to bodies corporate or other firms.”.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)
The amount of fees set under the Companies Act 2006 is determined in accordance with regulations. This amendment allows the regulations to reflect costs or likely costs of the Insolvency Service in Northern Ireland in connection with enforcement.
I beg to move amendment 115, in clause 89, page 68, line 40, at end insert—
“(3B) Prior to making any changes to the level of fees payable to the registrar, the Secretary of State must—
(a) consult with the registrar on the proposed changes; and
(b) set out in writing what the basis is for the proposed changes, with reference to subsection (2) above.”.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 25—Fee for registering a company—
“(1) The Companies Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1063, after subsection (3), insert—
‘(3A) Regulations under this section must set a fee of at least £50 for the incorporation of a company.’”.
New clause 33—Fees—
“(1) Section 1063 (Fees payable to registrar) of the Companies Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) Before subsection (1) insert—
‘(A1) The registrar must charge a fee of £100 for the incorporation of a company.
(B1) The Secretary of State must once a year amend the fee in subsection (A1) to reflect inflation.
(3) In subsection (1)—
(a) after “fees” insert “other than the fee in subsection (A1)”
(b) in paragraph (a) after “functions” insert “other than the incorporation of a company’.
(4) In subsection (5), in paragraphs (a) and (b) after ‘regulations’ insert ‘or subsection (A1)’.”.
This new clause requires Companies House to charge a fee of £100 for the incorporation of a company. It gives the Secretary of State the power to amend this fee once a year to reflect inflation.
New clause 40—Retention of fees by Companies House—
“(1) The Secretary of State must report to Parliament on the case for incorporation fees for companies being retained by the registrar.
(2) The report must be laid before Parliament within three months of this Act being passed.”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I rise to introduce amendment 115. When considering any piece of legislation that creates new criminal offences, one of the most important questions we have to ask is how confident we can be that the offences will be adequately policed and enforced. The question is particularly relevant in our deliberations on this Bill, because there is such a wealth of evidence that the laws we already have on economic crime are not being enforced as rigorously as we would hope. The reason is clear: the chronic under-resourcing of the various law enforcement bodies in recent years—or, to put it another way, under this Government.
I am sure that the Minister needs no convincing on this point. In fact, some of the most compelling arguments for greater resourcing for economic crime enforcement have been made by the Minister himself. Just over four months ago, he joined my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking in leading a debate on this issue. The motion for that debate pointed out that
“law enforcement agencies are significantly under-resourced to deal with the scale of the problem”.
In speaking to the motion, the Minister pointed out:
“We know that roughly 40% of our crime is economic crime, yet only 0.8% of our resources in man hours are dedicated to tackling economic crime, so there is a huge disparity.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 1042.]
Those figures are striking, and it should alarm Committee members that the Bill is likely to widen that disparity even further. The reforms to Companies House set out in part 1 of the Bill represent
“its biggest upgrade in 170 years”.
Again, I am quoting the Government’s own words. It is still the case today that if someone goes to the official Companies House website to search the register, they find a disclaimer stating:
“Companies House does not verify the accuracy of the information filed”.
Of course, one of the most important goals of the Bill is to change that, through new requirements on Companies House to verify the accuracy of new filings, and to continuously monitor and update records; but despite that fundamental shift in the scale and scope of its responsibilities, there is nothing in the most recent corporate plan for Companies House, published in July this year, on increasing either its budget or workforce in the light of those changes.
Not only is there unlikely to be additional Treasury funding for Companies House, but it appears there may even be cuts. Given the repeated warnings from the Chancellor to expect “eye-watering” decisions on public spending in this week’s fiscal statement, it seems unlikely, to say the least, that Companies House can expect a financial settlement that is even remotely commensurate with its obligations under the Bill. If the Minister could provide any reassurance to the contrary, it would certainly be welcomed by the Opposition—but we are not holding our breath.
In the absence of more resources from the Treasury, we are left with just one option, which is for Companies House to generate more income from registration fees. The case for higher fees is compelling. Not only is there the increased workload that the Bill will create for Companies House, but it has been abundantly clear for some time that the fees charged for registration are ludicrously low. The Minister is aware that it is undeniably too cheap, quick and easy to form a new company in the UK; there is minimal to non-existent verification or oversight.
For evidence of what appears to be emerging cross-party consensus on the necessity for higher fees, we need look no further than the exceptionally thoughtful and balanced report on economic crime published by the Treasury Committee in February this year, which stated:
“The low costs of company formation, and of other Companies House fees (such as filing fees), present little barrier to those who wish to set up large numbers of companies for dubious purposes…The Government should…review…Companies House fees to bring them closer to international standards.”
As a member of the Treasury Committee at the time of the report’s publication, the Minister presumably agreed with that statement back in February. I see no good reason why the position would have changed since then.
It is striking that the Bill does not address the question of fees payable to Companies House until clause 89. Even then, the clause sets out what costs may be taken into account in setting future fees, but avoids the next logical question of what an appropriate fee might be. Like so many fundamental details of how the legislation will work when in force, that has been left up to regulations that will be made at some indeterminate point in the future. It does not seem unreasonable to expect, or at least hope for, more detailed provisions on the subject in the Bill.
Clause 89 refers to the need for future regulations setting new fee levels to reflect the expanded responsibilities of Companies House under the Bill and other recent legislation. That is welcome as far as it goes, but unfortunately it does not go far enough. Through amendment 115, the Opposition seek to fill some of the gaps left open by the Bill by introducing an explicit requirement for the Secretary of State to consult with the registrar before changing fees. It would also require the Secretary of State to set out explicitly in writing the justification for any changes to the functions and workload of Companies House.
The amendment would provide a stronger statement of the necessity of setting fees at a level commensurate with the actual day-to-day needs of Companies House in carrying out its responsibilities under this and other relevant legislation. It should go without saying that fees should not be set at such low rates that we become a magnet for dodgy business dealings by criminals in search of the weakest possible regulatory environment; but it is not by any means clear that we can trust the Government’s wisdom in determining appropriate fees. A clearer, stronger set of criteria for such decisions should be incorporated into the Bill. Amendment 115 provides what we hope is a useful way forward.
Turning to new clauses 25, 33 and 40, there are strong arguments in favour of setting a specific level of fee as a baseline for any future changes. We should all be in agreement by now that the current fee—it is just £12 to register a company—is far lower than it should be. Certainly, that was the message from the many expert witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee last month. I recall in particular the testimony of Nick Van Benschoten of UK Finance, who pointed out that the UK’s £12 fee puts it in closer alignment with countries such as Benin and Turkmenistan than with comparably well-developed economies in Europe and North America, where fees roughly in the range of £50 to £100 are the general rule.
New clause 25, tabled by Scottish National party Members, suggests a minimum fee of £50. That would certainly be a good start, but the Bill could and should go further. New clause 33, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, would require a fee of at least £100 to be charged for company formation, with annual increases based on inflation. On behalf of the official Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston and I are pleased to add our names to the proposed new clause, which we believe is a necessary and proportionate solution to the problem at hand.
It should be pointed out that the figure of £100 has not been plucked out of thin air. It is useful to return to the report that I mentioned by the Treasury Committee, of which the Minister was a member at the time. It concluded that a £100 fee for company formation would not deter genuine entrepreneurs, and would raise significant additional funding for Companies House and the fight against economic crime. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm whether that remains his view. If he has changed his mind, he may wish to say a little about the basis on which he has done so.
New clause 40, also tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, would add a further requirement on the Government to review and report on the case for measures to ensure that any future revenue from fees can be retained by Companies House for reinvestment in its work to police and enforce our laws against economic crime, under its remit as set out in the Bill and elsewhere. Again, this is a common-sense proposal that we should all welcome. It should not continue to be the default position that either all or a large part of any fees payable to Companies House go straight to the Treasury, with no guarantee that there will be any reinvestment into efforts to tackle economic crime. New clause 40 would make an important contribution by addressing that problem. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
New clause 25 is a probing amendment. I am minded to have a higher fee than £50, but what does the Minister think the baseline ought to be? Is it £100 or £50, or is he not prepared to put a number on the minimum price for registering a company? By way of contrast, a provisional driving licence fee application is £34, a passport is £75.50, and citizenship is £1,330 pounds. The Government are prepared to levy a whole range of fees for a whole range of privileges to do with living in this country; £12 to register a company seems miraculously low in comparison to all the other fees that the Government are willing to charge. In all those cases, I am sure that the Government would say that they are trying to recover costs, but they are not prepared to say how much it would cost to run Companies House in such a way that it can prevent economic crime, although that is pretty crucial to the whole endeavour.
I agree with everything the hon. Member for Aberavon has said, and I support the amendments from the right hon. Member for Barking, who is, I am sure, absolutely correct in everything she is about to say; I often agree with everything she says. I draw the Government’s attention again to the written evidence from UK Finance, which says:
“Clause 89 should be amended to ensure an initial increase in registration fees within six months of commencement, and to ensure annual reporting on planned investment, fee increases and scheduled implementation of new powers.”
If we set a minimum in legislation and do not update it, the problem is that often prices increase—mostly artificially, but also through factors such as the runaway inflation that we see in the UK at the moment. It is important to commit to an annual increase and annual reporting to ensure that fees keep pace with changes in a way that is considered reasonable.
Twelve pounds to register a company is really nothing in the grand scheme of things. I ask the Minister to consider how we can better ensure that the Companies House registration scheme forms part of the deterrent. Rather than allowing the bulk creation of lots of small companies at £12 a pop, we can ensure that people say, “This is a real company. There is a real financial commitment to it.” I do not think that any company will be deterred by a fee of £100 rather than £12.
We are coming to it later.
Thank you. New clause 29 is on a similar area of debate, so there might be a bit of repetition when we come to it. The new clauses we are discussing speak for themselves. The Minister knows full well that it is really important that we get a grip on economic crime, and that means resourcing our enforcement agencies. He often says—and I completely agree—that it is pointless passing legislation if we do not enforce it, and that means funding agencies properly. If we look at the record on enforcement, it is pretty abysmal right across the piece.
That particularly goes for Companies House. The first conviction it achieved was against Kevin Brewer, a man in his mid-60s who formed a company and stated that Vince Cable, then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, was a director and shareholder. He formed another company and put Baroness Neville-Rolfe and the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), now Foreign Secretary, down as directors. He did it to demonstrate that Companies House never checks the data. When he put that information in the public domain, Companies House’s response was to sue him, and he had to pay a hefty fine. I am sure that the Minister will agree that this was a case of a genuine whistleblower trying to demonstrate that the system was not working and being wrongly pursued by the authorities. It should never have happened. That is the record of Companies House to date. We hope the reforms we are discussing and debating will improve the matter.
The current position is absurd. Everybody has used figures, but the figure that I like to use is the £12 it costs to form a company against the £1,220 it costs to get a visa for a skilled worker. Our perspective is just wrong. Everybody wants to make it easy to create new companies, but any business worth its salt would not find a greater sum an inhibiter to creating a new business. We just have this completely wrong, and that is what the Opposition are trying to put right in a way that does not burden the taxpayer.
The fees paid will not come out of taxation. As the Minister knows, fees can be employed by the organisation to fund its activities without any rules being broken; with fines, which we may come to later, there is a greater problem around the definition of public expenditure. We are trying to do something that does not burden the taxpayer at a time of great challenge to our public finances. That ought to be welcomed by the Minister.
I am sure the Minister will say—I will challenge him if and when he does—that he accepts that Companies House must be well funded, but that that should be a matter for him, as the Minister. I think it is a matter for the House: not just for the Government, but for the legislature. That is why we are putting these amendments on the agenda. We should be debating the issue here; it should not just be decided by Ministers.
Furthermore, we are attempting to put in place a sustainable funding mechanism, so that we do not have a row every year, whatever happens with inflation, on whether the sum should be increased. It is difficult to select a figure; in the end, we went for £100. The Minister will argue that we have to find out the cost first, but I would simply say that we will use that £100 really well in enforcement. If it is not used by Companies House, it could go to the Nation Crime Agency, which obtained fewer than five prosecutions a year for economic crime in the past five years. It could also go to support the Serious Fraud Office, which has seen its prosecutions cut by a third, although it had an incredibly successful prosecution, on which we should congratulate it, just last week, on Glencore, where it secured £280 million—a lot of money—for the Exchequer. I think that some of that should have gone to enforcement.
Enforcement can do it, but it needs to be properly resourced. We must take enforcement out of the politics of budget-making and set it in a firm, sustainable manner. That is why we are suggesting the figure of £100, which is also the figure that the Treasury Committee—of which the Minister was a member—came to. Locking it to inflation is also important so that we do not have the annual row.
Looking at other jurisdictions, the US has increased its expenditure on enforcement against economic crime by 30% in Biden’s latest Budget because they see it as a security threat. The UK’s response, in the last comprehensive spending review, was to cut the FCA by 4%. We know, as other Members have said, that fraud is now the biggest crime. I had a meeting just yesterday with the City of London police, who really cannot do anything when less than 1% of police resources are allocated towards fighting economic crime. However hard they proselytise the issue with their colleagues across the country, they get absolutely nowhere with it.
We have the economic crime levy, which is a contribution from the private sector. That is welcome, but it is pretty shameful, I must say, that the Government are putting in only about £32 million a year—it is £100 million over the three-year spending review period, so it comes to about £32 million a year—as their contribution towards economic crime.
I know it is, but most of that comes from the economic crime levy. The £300 million comes from the economic crime levy; £100 million comes from the Government’s coffers. Correct me if I am wrong, but that is my understanding of it, so a third of that—£32 million or £33 million—is the Government’s annual contribution out of taxation. That is where I got the figure from. If I am wrong, I stand to be corrected, but that is my understanding.
Looking across the world, even the British Virgin Islands, our favourite secrecy jurisdiction, charges £1,000 to people who wish to create a company there; I cannot think that that has put anyone off using the BVI if they want a secrecy jurisdiction to support them. Australia charges £247; in the USA, in California, it is £150; in Delaware, another secrecy jurisdiction, it is £590; in New York, £570; Italy, £2,000; and Germany, £383. Even with our new clause, we would still be a cheap place in which to do business.
That is all I need to say at this point. We brought in new clause 40 because we think that should also be embedded. The Minister may tell me that it happens, but we think it should be embedded in legislation so that no future Government are ever tempted to take the money they earn from fees and put it towards other purposes. I hope that the Minister will accept that.
Again, correct me if I am wrong, but I have not seen anything in legislation that ensures that money raised in fees goes directly to enforcement. The Minister may want to do that, but his successors may not feel the same. The issue is never a high political priority so it is important that we get sustainability for the issue over time. That is the reason for the new clause.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. It is fantastic for the Minister to be able to kick off today with this debate—surely there has never been a Minister as lucky as this one is in taking this Bill through Committee. Here we have an entire Opposition side of the Committee united in wanting to give the Minister the tools to do the job—the job for which he has argued for years and years in this House.
We want to send the Minister into the spending review, with his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his hands bound. We want to ensure that he goes into those conversations with the law of the land changed, so that he is required to put up the fees for Companies House and actually has the money he needs to do the job. We know that that is not going to damage the business investment environment in this country. How? Because it could not get any worse than it is today.
The business investment level in this country over the last 12 years has now been the worst in the G7, so it is unlikely to get any worse if fees at Companies House are put up a little bit: it is already spectacularly bad. That underlines a simple point: that the level of economic crime in this country is now so infamous around the world that it could be damaging the level of business investment here. If we are known around the world—certainly, in Washington and in European capitals—as a global epicentre of dirty money, how does that help us become a great, global hub of business investment in years to come? Obviously, it does not. There is a competitive advantage to be had by becoming one of the great capitals of clean trade. Here we are, an Opposition united in wanting to help the Minister achieve that ambition and make sure that he has the resources to do the job.
In the public evidence sessions, we heard a clear set of arguments as to why these amendments need to be made. We heard that our country has now become the centre of the Russian laundromat, the Troika laundromat and the Azerbaijan laundromat. Indeed, the Security Minister and I were on the Foreign Affairs Committee together when we heard the most appalling evidence that some of the biggest money-laundering scandals have involved UK corporate structures more than anything else; I think I am right that about 40% of the billions laundered through Danske Bank came through UK corporate structures. That is truly a mark of shame, and why Bill Browder was absolutely right when said in evidence to this Committee that it is appalling—a matter of shame—that there has been only one prosecution for money-laundering around economic crime in this country. That truly is an appalling record of law enforcement.
Worse than that, we also heard from the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation that the situation is not simply bad news for economic crime, but a national security issue. When the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation tells the Committee that it is a matter of national security that we clean up the dark mass of economic crime in this country, we as Members of Parliament ought to listen and do something about it. Then we heard from a range of police specialists who said, first, that they thought the problem was getting much worse quite quickly, and secondly, that they did not have the resources they needed to enforce the law in this area.
All that evidence points in one direction: Companies House needs more money. When we took evidence from representatives of Companies House, we heard, startlingly, that they have not even discussed their budget with the Treasury for the next financial year, which is due to start in only a few months’ time. They mooted the idea of asking for cash for an extra 100 people, which the dogs in the street know is not going to be enough to enforce the measures in the Bill.
With all his native cunning and wit, the Minister needs to find a way to make the concessions the Opposition are asking for and to agree to the amendment, so that he can be the great, historic, legendary, reforming Minister who took the bull by the horns once and for all and helped make sure that this country is once more renowned around the world as a capital of clean trade—all because of the efforts, cunning and wisdom of the Minister in accepting the amendment before him today.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and other Members for the amendments and their contributions. I would never take credit for all the progress we are making on economic crime. In fact, I would hark back to the words of Ronald Reagan, who said something like, “There is no limit to what you can achieve in life, as long as you don’t mind who takes the credit.” I am happy to share the credit with anybody on this Committee or the many people who have campaigned on the issue over the years.
One thing I do agree with the Opposition about—it is a point on which we all agree—is that Companies House and the other enforcement agencies should have enough money to do the job. That is what we are trying to get to and what I think we will get to. I also agree that, in the past and currently, enforcement agencies have been and are under-resourced, so we need to do something about that. I also have to agree with myself on the statements I made about the proportion of spending on law enforcement for economic crime and in respect of the Treasury Committee report’s conclusion that Companies House fees should be raised. My position on that absolutely stands.
I disagree on a number of points, the first being that this situation is somehow just the current Government’s fault—that somehow, Companies House fees have been reduced to £12 over recent years. That is not the case; it has been the case for years, including when Opposition Members were in charge of setting those fees. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill was in the Treasury at the time when fees were at £12. The reason for that is that Companies House has always had the principle that its fees are levied to the extent it needs to do the job that it is set to do.
We are just getting warmed up. The Minister is absolutely right to flag that point. The fee level was always set in relation to the perception of the crime environment at the time, which was very different in 2009-10 from what it is today. As we have heard in the evidence, the crime environment is much worse and is multiplying exponentially each year, which is why the fees have to go up so dramatically. Hopefully, that is the point he is going to make.
Again, we are all in agreement. Changing the environment is what this Bill—this very substantial document—is all about. There is no doubt that the situation has been hastened by what we have seen in Ukraine and other matters. It is absolutely high time to do this; I agree.
The shadow Minister suggested that somehow the fees to Companies House are going to face cuts in the future—that is the opposite of what is happening. I think he said the disparity would widen and there would be an absence of additional funding. That is absolutely the wrong way to look at the situation. The right hon. Member for Barking said that somehow these matters would be subject to cuts, and we would have to go to the Treasury as part of the comprehensive spending review to get funding for Companies House. That is exactly what is not happening—what is happening is that Companies House will collect the fees that it needs to do the job.
The position we take is that we do not put the cart before the horse. Companies House needs to set out exactly what resources, staffing and IT implementation it will need to do the job. It will present that to the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and say, “Right, this is what we need to do”. Fees will then be set on a commensurate basis and ringfenced to the job, not stolen by the Treasury. They are set in accordance with the rules and the oversight that they need, including enforcement. As we know, Companies House is moving from that dumb register to being a proactive body, in terms of overseeing the integrity of the register.
It is under the affirmative resolution. Different Members have suggested different figures, from £50 to £100. The right hon. Member for Barking said £1,000, as if to say, “We charge that in the BVI, therefore why not charge it in the UK?” That was the implication. What she said was that the people who look to use those jurisdictions to hide their money would be quite happy to pay £1,000, but that is exactly the point. On 99.9% of occasions, we are not just dealing with companies that indulge in nefarious activities; we are talking about not deterring bona fide businesses by setting the fee level at a fair level that does not deter business activity but does mean that Companies House has the right enforcement capability. That is what we want to get to, and we want to ensure that Companies House is able to do that.
I will touch on a couple of the points made about the SFO case last week, which I think we all welcome. It was not actually about resourcing; changing legislation made that possible. It was about corporate criminal liability and failure to prevent, which was successfully enforced in that case. That is a lesson for us all. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said that there has been only one case ever of a successful economic crime prosecution in the UK, and that Bill Browder had said that. Mr Browder did not say that; there have been many prosecutions of economic crime. To clarify, he was talking about it in connection to the money that came out of Russia.
Companies House is funded by the fees that it charges. If the Secretary of State considered changing those fees, there would of necessity be an appraisal of the resourcing needs of Companies House before that could take place. Fees can be charged only to cover the costs of the activities that they are intended to fund, including enforcement.
In order to arrive at an appropriate level of fee, my Department would have to work directly with Companies House to determine the funding requirements. Of course, there has to be Government oversight of that, because that is what we are elected to do. It is right that the Secretary of State would oversee that and then present it to Parliament for scrutiny. I agree that companies will justifiably want to understand how and why a particular level of fee has been arrived at, but the mechanism for that already exists. Fees will continue to be set by regulations, and the basis for any changes will be included in the accompanying analysis and explanatory memorandum that are published and presented to Parliament for scrutiny.
New clauses 25 and 33, introduced by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central and the right hon. Member for Barking, will shortly set out intentions on the level of fees to be charged. We do not intend to enshrine a level of fee in primary legislation, as doing so would restrict flexibility that may be required at a future date. We will commit to reviewing the fees on a regular basis to ensure that they provide the funding that Companies House needs.
I cannot imagine that in his many years as a Minister the right hon. Gentleman would have ever set out a date, but it will be shortly.
Finally, I turn to proposed new clause 45 and the points made by the right hon. Member for Barking. The Bill amends the fee-raising power within the Companies Act 2006, in order to enable costs associated with investigation and enforcement to be included when setting the level of fees. Companies House is able to retain incorporated fee income under current arrangements between the Treasury and Companies House, with the arrangement reviewed periodically. Legislation does not set the level of fees, but rather the level of fees is set by our regulations. I have to say to the right hon. Member for Barking that that is under the negative resolution procedure and therefore receives parliamentary scrutiny.
If it is under the negative resolution procedure, the Minister well knows that it will not receive the parliamentary scrutiny it deserves. The advantage of the way we framed our new clauses is that the fee would automatically rise with inflation rather than any other mechanism being needed. I would have thought the Minister would welcome that because it would ensure consistent resourcing.
I do not accept that the two things—inflation and the resources needed by Companies House—necessarily correlate. Salaries do not rise automatically on that basis. As the right hon. Lady will know, Companies House reports annually and I am keen to ensure that there is the right level of scrutiny around this type of activity in terms of resourcing, as I have said to her before. Therefore I do not think an automatic inflationary increase is right, but I absolutely believe in parliamentary scrutiny and it is something that perhaps we can discuss.
That may be something that the right hon. Lady wants to table, but this is a significant commitment, both in terms of legislation and resourcing. I cannot imagine a situation where Companies House comes to the Secretary of State or to me, as I will have some oversight over it, and say, “We need this level of resourcing, which will impact on fees in this way,” and we respond by saying, “Actually, that is too much.” It depends what they say, of course, and it is right that we have scrutiny over that, but I am sure there will be many mechanisms the right hon. Lady can use to ensure we have that level right.
Does Stephen Kinnock wish to respond?
No. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: 17, in clause 89, page 69, line 5, at end insert—
“(b) the reference in subsection (3A)(d) to functions carried out by the Insolvency Service in Northern Ireland on behalf of a Northern Ireland department, so long as the functions referred to are functions of a Northern Ireland department that are of a similar nature.”—(Kevin Hollinrake.)
The amendment allows the reference to functions carried out by the Insolvency Service in Northern Ireland on behalf of a Northern Ireland department to be amended in the event that, in future, the functions are exercised otherwise than by the Insolvency Service in Northern Ireland.
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
As I have just set out to the Committee, clause 89, as amended, will enable Companies House fees to be used to fund enforcement and prosecution action against companies and other entities. As we increase the powers of the registrar and expand the role that Companies House and the Insolvency Service play in tackling economic crime, we need to make sure that they are appropriately resourced to carry out that activity. The clause is therefore vital in ensuring that Companies House can do that.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 89, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Disclosure of information
I beg to move amendment 105, in clause 90, page 69, line 24, at end insert
(c) to an insolvency practitioner appointed over a corporate who has requested information not publicly available on the register about to a corporate over which they have been appointed, or any other corporates linked to that of the entity to which they have been appointed, from the Registrar.”
This amendment would enable the Registrar to share non-public information on the register upon request by insolvency practitioners, in relation to the corporate over which they have been appointed, or any other corporates linked to that of the entity to which they have been appointed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. Clause 90 amends the Companies Act 2006, inserting proposed new sections that allow any person and the registrar to disclose information to each other, and help the registrar to perform its functions. It is an important clause that effectively widens disclosure provisions, allowing the registrar to disclose any information held, and to do so proactively where that disclosure enables the exercise of the registrar’s functions. I am concerned that it perhaps does not go far enough. We heard in evidence about the importance of clarity around information sharing, what is and is not permitted, and what can be disclosed.
It is in this light that I speak to amendment 105, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, which would enable the registrar to share non-public information on the register on request by insolvency practitioners in relation to a corporate over which they have been appointed, or any other corporates linked to the entity to which they have been appointed. In short, the amendment would ensure that, where the registrar holds non-public information that could aid insolvency practitioners in carrying out their duties in investigating a corporate that they have been appointed to investigate, the registrar can, on request, share that information with the insolvency practitioners.
As R3, the insolvency practitioners group, laid out in its evidence to the Committee, insolvency practitioners, when appointed over corporate entities, are required by law
“to investigate a company’s affairs and director conduct…in order to discharge their duties.”
The group recommends
“that insolvency practitioners be able to request access to Companies House’s non-public information pertaining to any other corporates linked to that of the entity to which they have been appointed.”
This is a simple but quite important amendment, which would ensure that, where economic crime could have taken place in a dissolved company, insolvency practitioners can proactively request all the non-public information held by the registrar on the register that would help in either preventing or detecting the possible economic crime. It is not about a fishing expedition, or anything like that: it is about giving, in specific circumstances, insolvency practitioners the further tools that they have said are important to help them to do their incredibly important job.
I ask the Minister to give the amendment serious consideration. We are not necessarily planning to press it to a vote, because this is an area where he will probably see the merits of the argument. He may want to come back to it later, perhaps with a Government proposal, or we may pick it up again. It seems to plug an important gap in a part of the legislation that concerns the disclosure of information. The legislation is proactive, from the point of view of the registrar being able to share information; if, however, the registrar does not know where it might be needed, insolvency practitioners, who have duties under the law, should have the opportunity to request information that can provide evidence for economic crime or give insight into a company, so that potential economic crimes do not go undetected and unpunished.
I thank the hon. Members for the amendment.. The registrar is already permitted to share information with insolvency practitioners for purposes connected with her own functions—clearly now expanded, given this legislation. However, we acknowledge that there may be other specific circumstances in which she wishes to share information, so I sympathise with the tabling of the amendment.
As drafted, the amendment is too wide, in our view. It would allow the registrar to share any information about a corporate over which an insolvency practitioner has been appointed for any purpose, regardless of what that purpose is. I ask the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston to withdraw the amendment, but I agree that we should consider this issue further to see what might be done to help insolvency practitioners access information, perhaps in a narrower set of circumstances.
I thank the Minister for his remarks. That is a constructive step forward. I would be very happy to meet the Minister, whether before Committee stage concludes or soon after at Report stage. It feels quite an important space. We would be prepared to look at rewording the amendment or to work with the Government on one to see if it needs to be narrower but still serve the purpose. That makes for better legislation and we would be very happy to look at it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.
Clause 91 to 93 stand part.
New clause 36—Disclosure of PSC information to local authorities—
‘(1) The Companies Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 790ZH (inserted by section 92 of this Act) insert—
790Z1 Disclosure of PSC information to local authorities
‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision to facilitate the release of information held by companies on people of significant control to any relevant local authority which may request such information for the purposes of—
(a) tackling economic crime; and
(b) recovering a relevant unpaid debt;
(2) For the purposes of subsection (4A)(a) above, “tackling economic crime” includes any reasonable steps which the local authority may see fit to take as part of an investigation into a company which the authority has reasonable grounds to suspect may be involved in the commission of a relevant offence.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (4B) above, a “relevant offence” includes an offence under—
(a) the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002; and
(b) the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017, as amended.
(5) For the purposes of subsection (4A)(b) above, a “relevant unpaid debt” includes unpaid business rates subject to recovery by the local authority under the Local Government Finance Act 1988.’
This new clause makes specific provision for relevant information to be disclosed, upon request, to a relevant local authority in connection with any effort by such an authority to investigate suspected economic crime, or to collect outstanding debts from companies which have not paid business rates.
Currently, the registrar is restricted in what information she can share, which can be done only on a reactive basis. Clause 90 enhances the data sharing powers of the registrar so that she can proactively share information. Sharing will be allowed for the purposes of the registrar’s own functions or where she is sharing with a public authority for the purposes of their function.
Schedule 3 makes consequential amendments to the Companies Act 2006 and the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2002 resulting from clause 90. Clauses 91 to 93 make further amendments to the Companies Act to improve the registrar’s information sharing capabilities, ensure that the necessary safeguards are in place and improve the integrity of the register. Clause 91 closes a gap by making it an offence for a company to use or disclose protected information in contravention of section 241 of the Companies Act.
Clause 92 confers a power on the registrar on application to make an order requiring a company not to use or disclose relevant people with significant control particulars. Currently, the registrar can use directors’ residential addresses only for the purpose of communicating with the director. Clause 93 will remove the restriction on the use of protected information, specifically directors’ residential addresses. That means that the registrar will be able to use residential address information for alternative purposes such as cross-checking the accuracy of information on the register. That will help to improve the integrity of the register.
I thank hon. Members for new clause 36. Its effect would be to give the Secretary of State a power to make regulations to facilitate the release of people of significant control information from companies to local authorities for the purposes of tackling economic crime and recovering a relevant unpaid debt. We do not believe that the amendment is necessary. Clause 92 already provides a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations that specify the circumstances in which a company may disclose relevant PSC particulars.
Furthermore, the Government consider that it would be more appropriate for the registrar to have the power to disclose such information to local authorities, rather than the company, given the closeness of the relationship between a company and its people of significant control, and the risk of tipping off. A company may have only one director, person of significant control and shareholder. Such person could, in effect, be disclosing self-incriminating information about themselves.
Committee members can rest assured that under the new powers given to the registrar in clause 90, they can disclose information to a public authority for purposes connected with that public authority’s functions. That includes local authorities. The registrar may also disclose information to any persons for purposes connected with its own functions, such as for the purposes of crime prevention and detection. Clause 90 already provides a route for local authorities to access PSC information for the purposes of tackling crime and recovering relevant unpaid debt. I hope that provides reassurance to hon. Members.
It is a pleasure to speak in this stand part debate. I will defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon to speak to new clause 36.
I have referenced some points on clause 90 and its importance. I will make a couple of other remarks on that more generally. It widens disclosure provisions, and the registrar will proactively disclose information held where that disclosure enables the exercise of her functions. I have a question for the Minister on subsections (5) and (6), where offences and defences are set out. That is obviously important, but I have a concern about the disclosure or data sharing provisions.
The fear of being on the wrong side of the law can sometimes deter the use of those powers. It is a question about whether there has been any discussion with the registrar, for example, about the interpretation of the wording; being as clear as possible about what is permissible within the law and where the offences might be, and the possible defence for a person who could be charged with an offence under subsection (5). So often we say, “There are powers to do X” or “The police have a power”, but there are concerns about the use of that power and how someone could be accused of not using that power within the law, so we might end up having a challenge. Someone could go through a process to clear their name or to say that their actions were within the scope of the law. We just need to be clear to reduce the challenges that can come later.
Perhaps the Minister will respond today or clarify in discussions with the registrar on this very important clause that it is as clearly worded as it could be, with less room to be challenged where that power is used as intended by Parliament.
Schedule 3 makes consequential amendments to clause 90 and amends the Companies Act to enable the registrar to disclose usual residential addresses. It states that where additional trust information is protected from disclosure to the public, regulations made under section 25 may not require the registrar to refrain from disclosing that information under proposed new section 1110E. Will the Minister explain that aspect a little further? Broadly, we welcome the schedule as a necessary provision in expanding the information sharing aspect.
Clause 91 highlights an offence that can be committed by a company and every officer who is in default. Clause 92 confers a power on the Secretary of State, on application, to make regulations requiring the registrar to make an order requiring a company not to use or disclose relevant information regarding persons of significant control. The Minister has spoken to this point briefly, but could he expand a little more on the introduction of this clause, and can he provide any examples of instances in which—as per clause 92—the Secretary of State might require a company not to disclose PSC information? We would welcome that clarity.
I have no further comments on clause 93, which restricts the registrar from using directors’ residential addresses for anything other than communicating with the director. I would welcome the Minister’s clarification of the points I have raised.
I rise to speak in support of new clause 36. In considering the Bill’s provisions on information sharing, we should ask ourselves two main questions. First, do the clauses strike the right balance between protecting individuals’ privacy on the one hand, and making as much information as possible available to members of the public on the other? Secondly, does the Bill make adequate provision for information to be shared between organisations in order to facilitate the robust enforcement of these laws? It is the second of those questions that new clause 36 seeks to address.
On a number of issues, the Committee has been able to find an encouraging degree of cross-party consensus on the actions we need to take against economic crime. I think we can all agree that the existing frameworks for law enforcement are not currently up to the task. It has been widely acknowledged for some time now that the diffuse nature of enforcement responsibilities across so many different government agencies, police forces and private sector institutions often acts as a hindrance to efforts to achieve a comprehensive, strategic approach across all sectors involved. Alongside the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, which came into force earlier this year, the Bill seeks to reduce barriers to information sharing in order to facilitate more timely and effective enforcement action where it is needed. However, the information-sharing provisions that we are currently discussing leave some important issues unresolved.
With new clause 36 we have sought to address one of the most troubling gaps in the Bill as currently drafted: the absence of any specific measures to facilitate information sharing with local authorities. That is a serious weakness that, if left unaddressed, could pose a serious challenge to efforts to ensure a strong, unified, cross-government approach to law enforcement, in terms not only of Whitehall but the vertical relationship between national Government and local government. Many local authorities, particularly in London, are at the coalface when it comes to dealing with some of the most pernicious effects of money laundering and other forms of economic crime. It is disappointing that the Committee was not able to hear from any local government representatives during our evidence sessions. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out what steps, if any, the Government took to consult local authorities during the process of drafting the Bill.
In the meantime, I would like to share some of the points raised with me recently by members and officers from Westminster City Council. It should come as no surprise to Committee members that the effects of money laundering and other criminal activity, particularly in relation to property ownership, can be seen more acutely in Westminster than probably anywhere else in the country. As we should have the opportunity to discuss issues related to property ownership when we debate part 3 of the Bill, at this point I want to provide an example that illustrates the need for measures that specifically address the need for more information sharing with local authorities.
In Westminster, the council is trying to deal with a range of problems caused by the huge and growing presence of so-called American-style candy stores and souvenir shops across central London, with 21 such stores in the Oxford Street area alone. Extensive investigations by council officers, together with raids that have led to the seizure of more than £650,000-worth of counterfeit goods, provide an important evidence base that indicates the scale of the problem. Among the goods seized in those raids were thousands of disposable vapes that are in breach of UK standards on nicotine levels. That suggests that these stores may pose risks to public health, in addition to their apparent role in illicit financial activity. In Westminster alone, unpaid business rates from the stores amount to some £8 million.
Better information sharing is surely a prerequisite for more effective enforcement against economic crime. The intelligence gathered by councils in Westminster and elsewhere could play a vital role in supporting enforcement action at a national level, while information held by Companies House, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and others would undoubtedly make a huge difference to councils’ efforts to deal with such problems as the phoenixing of companies in local communities. As things stand, there does not appear to be an adequate framework for a joined-up approach to economic crime across central and local government. New clause 36 would be an important step toward addressing this challenge.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Aberavon. As a former local government councillor, I can confirm that there definitely needs to be an interface between central Government and local government and it needs to look at economic crime. I was curious about previous discussions we have had about fit and proper persons. The fit and proper person test applies to parts of licensing within local government, but there is not necessarily any way of linking that with Companies House information.
The point about phoenixing is also important. Local businesses often come to local government for support, particularly during the pandemic or other times of crisis, and quite rightly so. Councils may hold information about the legitimacy of companies that have perhaps phoenixed many times—they applied for Government grants but the previous directors of the company dissolved it when business rates were due. Local government will have information, but there is not necessarily a place for it to reside. The Government need to think about how that information goes between the two levels of government.
With companies involved in property or homes of multiple occupation, there may be concerns about the fit and proper persons test and how that interacts with the companies engaged in housing provision. There needs to be some thought as to how those bits interact. We very much encourage the Minister to look at how the Government can be involved in that, and we support the Opposition new clause.
I shall respond briefly to the queries raised. All the information must be handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018. The way the Bill operates is consistent with similar legislation that deals with data sharing.
The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston raised the issue of the protection of information. The provision applies in a situation of risk of harm or serious risk of violence or intimidation—for example, in respect of domestic abuse victims.
Data sharing was raised by both shadow Ministers—the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston and for Aberavon. It is permitted to assist public authorities when they exercise public functions, such as confirming the accuracy of data or providing intelligence to law enforcement agencies.
There needs to be one speaker at a time.
Data sharing is permitted to assist public authorities when they exercise their public functions. For example, they could ask the registrar to confirm the accuracy of data that is held, which may lead to information being shared for intelligence purposes with enforcement agencies.
Local authorities are a subset of public authorities.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 90 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Disclosure of information: consequential amendments
Amendment made: 49, in schedule 3, page 162, line 5, leave out paragraphs 5 to 7.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)
This amendment is consequential on NC17 and NC18.
Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to.
Clauses 91 to 93 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
General false statement Offences
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to consider clause 95 stand part.
Clause 94 amends the general false statement offence in section 1112 of the Companies Act 2006 to create two separate offences: a basic offence and an aggravated offence. The Bill also amends section 32 of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 to make a mirror-image, two-tier approach. The existing false statement offence under the Companies Act requires a document or a false, misleading or deceptive statement to have been delivered or caused to be delivered knowingly or recklessly to the registrar. Clause 94 substitutes that existing offence for two new offences with commensurate penalties.
The basic offence is committed when the false statement is made without reasonable excuse. The aggravated offence is committed when the false statement is knowingly made. It is worth noting that that refines the amendments made by the Government during the passage of the 2022 Act in response to parliamentary scrutiny. When either offence is committed by a firm, every officer of the firm that is in default also commits the offence. The structure of the new sections maintains consistency with amendments to the 2022 Act, the Limited Partnerships Act 1907 and the Reports on Payments to Governments Regulations 2014, as amended by the Bill.
On clause 95, we have already discussed many of the new powers that we are providing to the registrar and how they are intended to work. In exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary for the Secretary of State to allow material that would otherwise be treated as false, misleading or deceptive to be deliberately provided to the registrar to protect our nation’s interests or to assist in the prevention or detection of serious crime. The clause ensures that when such action is taken, the Secretary of State can issue a certificate that ensures that the person to whom it is issued is not liable for the commission of acts that might otherwise amount to a false filing offence.
Clearly, the work of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be able to be carried out without fear of prosecution when they are acting in our interests. The certificate that may be issued provides an exemption for those purposes. The Secretary of State must be satisfied about the reason why a certificate has been sought and may issue one only if to do so is in the interest of national security or for the prevention or detection of serious crime. The certificate can be revoked at any time.
To further limit the circumstances in which a certificate can be issued, serious crime is defined in the clause, providing further assurance about the need for such a certificate. The definition of serious crime aligns with that used in section 18 of the 2022 Act, which allows the Secretary of State to exempt a person from the requirements of the register of overseas entities for the same reasons. The Government listened to the concerns expressed about such exceptions and exemptions during the expedited passage of the 2022 Act; the clause is therefore carefully constructed so as to be as narrow as possible.
One of the key problems the Bill seeks to address is the difficulty that arises when enforcing laws for which the burden of proof is exceptionally high. In that regard, the Opposition welcome the changes set out in clause 94. The current requirement to prove that somebody who has delivered false or misleading information or documents to Companies House did so knowingly and recklessly seems to set the bar so high as to act, in effect, as a hindrance to successful prosecution. It is a sensible change to replace the current requirement with language that enables a defence on grounds of a reasonable excuse, especially in the context of the related provision in the clause to prosecute those who can be shown deliberately to have provided false information for an aggravated offence that is subject to imprisonment for up to two years.
Clause 95, however, raises some questions that I hope the Minister will clarify. It will amend the Companies Act to allow the Secretary of State to issue any individual with a certificate that, it would seem, could provide blanket immunity from prosecution for any offence related to the delivery to the registrar or the making of a statement that is misleading, false or deceptive. This power is potentially very broad and, beyond a couple of lines stating that a certificate could be issued for reasons of national security or to assist in the prevention or detection of serious crime, there is little clarity as to how it might be used. I am sure the Committee would be grateful if the Minister could provide any further detail on how frequently and in what kinds of circumstances the power might be used. Perhaps the Minister could also set out in a bit more detail what safeguards, if any, might be put into place to ensure that the power is used only in cases in which there is a compelling need to do so.
I am glad that an aggravated offence is included in clause 94, on general false statement offences, because quite clearly there are some people who are absolutely taking the piss in terms of their company registration.
The false filing bit leads me to the topic of enforcement, which is the other side of the puzzle. Out of interest, I tabled a written parliamentary question to the Minister to ask
“how many fines have been levied in each of the past ten years for the offence of false filing to companies house, and what estimate he has made of the value of those fines.”
His response was quite interesting. In 2012, the number of fines levied was nil, as it was in 2013. In 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 it was also nil. In 2018, things got slightly better, because one fine of £1,602 was levied. In 2019, there was a much better £15,000 fine for false filing. In 2020 and 2021, the number of fines was nil, and up to 31 October 2022 there was one fine of £500.
I guess there have been far more instances of false filing to Companies House in the past 10 years than those fines suggest. I do not believe that there have been only three cases of false filing to Companies House, because all the evidence suggests that it is absolutely rife. Will the Minister tell us more about how, in looking at the false statement offences, the aggravated offences and the fines that will be levied for non-compliance, he intends to pursue those who file false statements? Currently, they are not being pursued at all.
I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon, had two main queries. On the type of circumstance in which a certificate would be issued, it is impossible to predict other than to say that it would be when it is in the interests of national security or in the case of a serious crime, which is defined in the clause. The actual circumstances around that are incredibly difficult to predict. It is fair to say that we expect such a certificate to be issued on extremely rare occasions, but we cannot rule out the possibility of our needing to do so. Ultimately, it has to be a judgment for the Secretary of State.
On false filing, I well remember responding to the written question from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. It was a very fair question. That is why we are in this Committee Room: it is about not just legislation but implementation. There have to be the proper resources for Companies House to do that job and I absolutely want to make sure that it has not just the powers but the resources to interrogate the database, make sure it is accurate and share the data information, because it is critical to look at the context. A number of things align in this respect: it is about the powers, the resources, the data-sharing capability and, for the first time, the sanctions of up to two years in prison on individuals who file falsely.
We absolutely want to ensure that the figures improve. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that there will be many more cases of false filing than those that have been identified, but to be fair to Companies House, without the resources to do it, which it has never been given before, that is a pretty difficult job for it to do. Companies House does publicly report annually, and I would very much like to see that kind of accountability in future reports, in terms of its efficacy in this area.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 94 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 95 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
I beg to move amendment 84, in clause 96, page 75, line 23, leave out “the Consolidated Fund” and insert
“a fund established by the Secretary of State for the purposes of tackling economic crime (see section 1132B)”.
This amendment requires penalties paid to the registrar to be paid into a fund for the purposes of tackling economic crime, rather than the consolidated fund.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 80, in clause 96, page 75, line 26, at end insert—
“1132B Fund for the purposes of tackling economic crime
(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations establish a fund for the purposes of tackling economic crime.
(2) Penalties received by the registrar under section 1132A must contribute to the fund.
(3) The regulations must specify the purposes for which the fund may be used including funding the activities of law enforcement agencies in tackling economic crime.
(a) funding the activities of law enforcement agencies in tackling economic crime;”
This amendment provides for a fund to be established for the purposes of tackling economic crime.
New clause 29—Report into the merits of a fund for tackling economic crime—
“(1) The Secretary of State must produce a report into the merits of a fund for tackling economic crime.
(2) The report must consider the case for penalties paid to the registrar to be ringfenced and used solely for the purposes of tackling economic crime.
(3) The report must be laid before Parliament within six months of this Act being passed.”
This new clause requires a report into the merits of a fund for tackling economic crime to be laid before Parliament.
Let us see where we get with this one—I will have another go. This is a vital amendment and I hope that the Government will listen carefully, because it would go a long way to ensuring that our enforcement capabilities, which we have been talking about all morning, really are fit for purpose and properly funded, without burdening the taxpayer—that is really important. If we tried to get competition between funding enforcement and funding other Government priorities, we would get nowhere in trying to ensure properly funded enforcement agencies.
The UK’s record is abysmal. I am going to put this on the record. The NCA has had five prosecutions each year for the last five years. That is hopeless. Money laundering prosecutions are down 35% over the last five years, at a time of exponential growth in money laundering. Less than 1% of the billions of pounds laundered annually is ever restored to us. And the number of criminal fraud cases by the SFO has halved in the last three years, although again I welcome the Glencore case, and I agree with the Minister that it shows the importance of introducing the offence of failure to prevent economic crime.
This is not a criticism of the agencies; it is a criticism of us and our failure to fund this work properly, which is what we are trying to do here. If we look at the totality of the UK’s expenditure on enforcement, we see that it is pathetic. It is 0.042% of GDP, whereas we know that the cost to the UK economy of economic crime is 14.5%, so there is an absurd relationship between our need to detect and prevent crime and our capability to do so. The FBI is 15 times larger than the NCA. We have already said that the police spend less than 1% on fraud, even though it represents 40% of crime—and that is just reported crime. And we have already said that the Americans have increased their budget, because they see this as a security threat, whereas we have reduced one.
I would welcome a comment from the Minister on this matter. My understanding is that the Government contribution to the fight against economic crime is £100 million. Out of the totality of £400 million in the budget, £300 million comes from the economic crime levy and only £100 million, over the comprehensive spending review period, comes from the taxpayer, so that is a mere £32 million or £33 million a year.
The Minister knows that that is not necessarily to fight economic crime, but to fight other crimes. I was talking about the economic crime levy and those are the figures that I have.
It is irritating but understandable that the enforcement agencies prioritise other crimes in their day-to-day work; they do not prioritise economic crime. Despite the lack of funding, a lot of money is brought in by the enforcement agencies. Between 2018 and 2021, £3.9 billion was brought in in fines, confiscation and forfeiture. If all of that had been reinvested, all of the agencies would have had an extra £748 million to fight economic crime over that period. That would have had a fantastic impact on our ability to fight, detect and prevent economic crime.
It has been said in previous debates that money from fines cannot be hypothecated in that way, but I draw the Minister’s attention to three precedents that negate that claim. In June 2022, the Information Commissioner announced a new arrangement allowing the office to keep some of the proceeds of its civil penalties to fund its work with the big tech companies. In 2019, Ofwat kept the proceeds of penalties it had raised on Southern Water to pay out to and reimburse customers. The Gambling Commission can also require payments rather than penalties to compensate victims or make payments to charities. Those are three precedents on which the Minister could build the argument that it would be perfectly appropriate for the proceeds of fines to be kept in order to resource the fight against economic crime.
I also draw the Minister’s attention to a report on fraud published by the House of Lords last week, which states:
“To support the forthcoming fraud strategy”,
which is only a part of addressing economic crime,
“with adequate resources, the Government must commit to a long-term funding strategy with an increased offer for law enforcement agencies”—
and this is the important bit—
“focussed primarily on recycling revenue collected by law enforcement agencies back into law enforcement activity.”
The House of Lords has, therefore, come to the same conclusion as we have in tabling this amendment.
The UK’s asset recovery incentivisation scheme ensures that some assets are recycled. Most of them go to the Treasury. Of the £354 million recovered in 2021-22 from confiscation orders, forfeiture orders and civil recovery orders, only 40% went back into fighting crime. If we compare ourselves with the Americans, we will see that all of their forfeiture proceeds go back into enforcement.
Under our proposal, money would be ring-fenced and it would be a cross-Government fund to finance enforcement against fraud and dirty money. The Minister knows that if the UK is to tackle economic crime effectively, far greater ambition is needed on the scale of public investment, and establishing an economic crime fund is the radical response that we need.
I would like to add some comments to the eloquent remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking.
In clause 96, the Government provide a framework for the registrar, within parameters to be set out by the Secretary of State in regulations, to impose direct financial penalties for many offences without the need for lengthy and often costly court proceedings. That is surely a welcome development, at least in so far as it should enable the registrar to take swifter action to deal with any offences involving false representations made to Companies House.
Of course, we will need to look closely at the details of how that will work in practice. In that respect, it is right that the Bill provides for parliamentary scrutiny of the relevant regulations via the affirmative resolution procedure. If the Minister could give a rough indication of when we can expect those regulations to be published, I am sure that the Committee would be grateful.
One thing that clause 96 makes clear is that any civil penalties imposed by the registrar will not exceed £10,000. I would be grateful for an explanation from the Minister about how that figure was arrived at, and whether he is confident that the power to impose a fine at that level will act as a deterrent to would-be offenders. Given the profit margins involved in some of the most serious crimes, we must ensure that the threat of civil penalties is both real and sufficient in terms of its potential to take a meaningful chunk out of criminals’ assets. I am not entirely convinced that the threat of a £10,000 fine will be taken all that seriously by some of the intended targets, but if the Minister is aware of any convincing evidence to the contrary, I would be glad to hear it.
Even if we assume that the Government make rapid progress with the regulations enabling the registrar to impose civil penalties, we must then address—not for the first time in Committee—what happens to any funds raised from civil penalties. In amendments 84 and 80 and new clause 29, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has once again provided the Committee with an eminently reasonable and sensible answer to that question. Taken together, these amendments would require any fines paid to the registrar to be specifically designated and ring-fenced for the purposes of tackling economic crime.
The asset recovery incentivisation scheme, introduced by the previous Labour Government, provides a template of sorts, but given the scale of the threat that we now face from economic crime, we need to go further. It is surely a no-brainer that any fees paid to the registrar, together with penalties for those who break the rules, should be reinvested in broader cross-Government efforts to tackle economic crime. That would provide a stronger incentive for tougher enforcement and a more sustainable long-term funding model for Companies House and other enforcement bodies at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Opposition Front Benchers therefore fully support these amendments. We hope that Members on the Government Benches will do the same.
I am very sympathetic to the points raised by contributors to this debate, and I am fully signed up to making sure that our law enforcement agencies have a long-term funding solution. As the right hon. Member for Barking knows, I am very sympathetic to the need to properly resource enforcement agencies, and, indeed, to the need for clarity on what funding is in place, right across the piece. We could have various different debates about what level that should be and on whether it should be £30 million a year. It is an awful lot more than that, but I accept that there should be more clarity. Wherever we can, we should seek to raise the moneys that the enforcement agencies need to do their job properly.
We are developing a new funding model for Companies House, which demonstrates our commitment to tackling economic crime. The combination of last year’s spending review settlement and private sector contributions through the new economic crime levy will provide funding of £400 million over the spending review period. That applies to the AML regulated sector and will fund new or uplifted activity to tackle money laundering, starting from 2023-24. There will be a wide-ranging review three years later to provide transparency on how the levy is performing against its original purpose, including how the money is being spent.
In addition, as the right hon. Member for Barking set out, a proportion of assets recovered under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 are already reinvested in economic crime capability under the asset recovery incentivisation scheme. The figures that she quotes are interesting, because according to my note here, the receipts paid should be split 50:50 between the Home Office and the Treasury and operational partners, which should be the enforcement agencies. It should be an equal split. I do not know about the numbers that she gives regarding the situation in the US, but I am happy to look at that in further detail. I am very keen to make sure that resources are made available.
There is probably a difference here in relation to fines. The right hon. Lady acknowledges that POCA offences have been subject to the oversight of our courts. In terms of fines and civil penalties, however, there are strict guidelines on how that money can be spent. It is interesting to look at the examples she quotes, but I think that two of them concern reimbursement of victims rather than further resourcing of the relevant agencies. I also slightly worry about the unintended consequences of allowing the regulator to simply issue fines and keep them. Many of those fines may be issued not because of transgressions related to economic crime; they may be related to other offences and other things.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon, raised the issue of whether the level of £10,000 was appropriate. It is quite a lot of money, of course. The vast majority of businesses registered with Companies House are smaller companies. For a smaller company, £10,000 is an awful lot of money. It is, of course, an option. It is not that the registrar cannot refer this to law enforcement agencies. She can determine whether to impose a civil penalty or refer the matter to a law enforcement agency if it is serious enough. We felt that £10,000 was a reasonable compromise. On that basis, I hope that the right hon. Member for Barking will withdraw the amendment.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 97 and 98 stand part.
At present, most obligations relating to the functions of the registrar are enforced through the criminal justice system. Clause 96 inserts new section 1132A into the Companies Act 2006, which gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations to enable
“the registrar to impose a financial penalty on a person if satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, that the person has engaged in conduct amounting to a relevant offence under this Act.”
The registrar will have the discretion to choose to either pursue a financial penalty or pass a case on to law enforcement to consider criminal prosecution. Clause 96 contains a delegated power regarding the level of financial penalty. That is because in order to best support enforcement agencies in their fight against economic crime, there is likely to be a need to review and refine the enforcement procedures and processes.
I think that is a very sensible suggestion and I am happy to take that away. I would like to see a number of things in that report that are currently not there. If we look at the most recent report, we see a number of references to this particular legislation. It welcomes this legislation, and I think it is important that the body reports publicly and to Parliament, as would be the case with the measures that the right hon. Lady mentions.
Similarly, there may be reason to review the appropriate financial penalty amount, and interest or late payment amount, to deter misconduct against the register as effectively as possible. The regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, which will provide the appropriate amount of parliamentary scrutiny of any proposed further changes.
Clause 97 will strengthen the link between civil sanctions and director disqualification by amending section 3 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, which states that the court may make
“a disqualification order against a person where it appears to it that he has been persistently in default in relation to provisions of the companies legislation”,
“the fact that a person has been persistently in default…may…be conclusively proved by showing that”,
in the previous five years,
“he has been adjudged guilty…of three or more defaults”.
Under proposed new section 1132A of the Companies Act 2006, the registrar will be able to impose a financial penalty on a person, if she is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person has engaged in conduct amounting to an offence.
Section 3 of the CDDA will be amended so that the imposition of a financial penalty can count as a default. That will provide a greater deterrent to those who seek to circumvent legislative requirements. Not only will individuals face the risk of a financial penalty but the risk of being disqualified will become more likely when a financial penalty has been imposed. Clause 98 mirrors the provisions in clause 97 so that they apply in Northern Ireland, amending the current provision in article 6 of the Company Directors Disqualification (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.
We are disappointed that clause 96 will go forward unamended, because we feel that there are real risks in not directly linking the moneys raised with reinvestment specifically into economic crime. It is important to put that disappointment on the record.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. The amendments were trying to require any fines paid to the registrar to be specifically designated and ringfenced for the purposes of tackling economic crime. It is the lack of a specific designation and ringfencing that is disappointing, but we are where we are, and we move forward.
I will comment briefly on the final two clauses in the group. They are largely supplementary to the provisions that we have already discussed, but are nevertheless important. I particularly welcome the clarification in clause 97 that individuals subject to civil penalties under the preceding clauses will be treated in a similar way to those with a criminal conviction for the purposes of determining whether they meet the criteria for disqualification from serving as company directors. Making it clear that the same standards of conduct apply to those with a record of civil or criminal penalties should buttress the new system for civil enforcement fines, and will hopefully increase compliance.
The provisions of clause 97 that apply within Britain would be extended to Northern Ireland under clause 98. As I have said before, ensuring that a common set of rules and regulations is applied across the UK as a whole can only be a good thing.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 96 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 97 and 98 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Meaning of “limited partnership”
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
This is a very simple measure. The Government are seeking to tackle the misuse of limited partnerships while modernising the law governing them. The clause clarifies the meaning of the term “limited partnership”. The revised wording removes ambiguity and sets out that it is possible to be a limited partnership only by virtue of being registered as a limited partnership under the Limited Partnerships Act 1907. Furthermore, the Companies Act 2006 provision relating to the index of company names is amended to refer to limited partnerships registered under the Limited Partnerships Act. That allows the registrar to remove firms from the index of company names if they are dissolved, cease to be registered under the Limited Partnerships Act, or both.
The clause inserts the definition of limited partnership into the Bill and makes clear that the registrar is obliged to maintain only those limited partnerships registered under the 1907 Act within the registrar’s index of names.
Limited partnerships are a specific type of business structure in UK law that confer limited liability on some partners and therefore have to be registered with Companies House in line with the Limited Partnerships Act 1907 and the Partnership Act 1890, but numerous reports and consultations by the Government have identified the risk of economic crime through limited partnerships and Scottish limited partnerships. As I know the Minister will be well aware, the consultation in 2018 also emphasised the apparent attractiveness of such partnerships as vehicles for organised crime, and I am sure we will come back to that when we consider amendments to this part of the Bill. The consultation noted specifically that the National Crime Agency reported a high volume of suspected criminal activity involving Scottish limited partnerships. It also referred to claims made in an investigation that 113 SLPs were involved in a much larger money laundering scheme that transferred more than $20 billion out of Russia between 2010 and 2014.
Limited partnerships and Scottish limited partnerships have been identified by the Government for some time as high-risk corporate structures when it comes to facilitating and enabling economic crime. It is positive that we have reached this point, but it is disappointing how long it has taken. The clause is important, as it ensures that the registrar is obliged to maintain those limited partnerships that are registered as such, thereby ensuring that the registrar is not under any obligation to maintain names of defunct limited partnerships.
My views on the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships are on the record, and the Minister is well aware of them. Anything that will help to tighten up protection against that abuse is welcome, but again, a lot of this goes to enforcement. It is not good enough just to legislate. There has to be enforcement, and the current enforcement has been absolutely woeful, with just one fine for failing to register a person with significant control. When the legislation started in January 2018, 7,078 people were not registered as they should have been as persons with significant control. That now stands at 201, but 201 is still too many, and the Government are still not issuing any fines for not complying with the obligations under that law. As with all the measures within this part of the Bill, my concern is about enforcement and making sure that everything is absolutely watertight, because if there is no consequence—at the moment, there is no consequence for non-compliance—people will continue to abuse the systems.
I caution the Minister also that when the rules around Scottish limited partnerships were tightened, people just moved to the next structure, and the next structure was limited partnerships in Ireland. Ireland has seen a huge surge in people abusing its corporate structures, which are similar to ours for historical reasons, but nobody warned the Irish that this was coming. I would be interested to know how the Government intend to monitor the tightening up of this legislation so that we are not just pushing down the bubble in the wallpaper for it to come up somewhere else.
Those who are abusing these structures are pretty good at it. They know what they are doing and are looking for the next thing. Whether that is trusts or some other company structure, the Government need to keep aware and not just assume that because there is awareness it means, “Job done,” because it will not be job done. People are seeking to use those very lucrative structures for nefarious means, and will continue to do so. Whatever the next thing is, the Government need to be aware of it.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central knows, the new provisions apply to Scottish limited partnerships, as well as limited partnerships. She is absolutely right to say that it is about not just the powers but the resources. I fully concur with that, as we have said previously. I will not reiterate those points.
The hon. Lady make her points on displacement—people will stop doing it here or in Scotland and go to Delaware, Ireland, or wherever else—well, of course. But we can do precious little about that, other than work on international co-operation through organisations such as the Financial Action Task Force, as we do internationally, to put pressure on all those jurisdictions. My view on the suggestion that has been raised many times that people will simply go somewhere else is that if all we can do is ensure they do not carry on their nefarious activities here, that is at least something. However, we certainly must work internationally with others on what happens globally.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 99 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Required information about partners
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
That schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.
Clause 101 stand part.
Clause 102 stand part.
New clause 56—Limited partnerships: registration of persons of significant control—
“(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision about the registration of persons of significant control in relation to limited partnerships.
(2) For the purposes of regulations under this section, ‘persons of significant control’ may include persons with a right to—
(a) 25% or more of the surplus assets on winding up,
(b) a voting share of 25% or more,
(c) appoint or remove the majority of managers,
(d) exercise significant influence or control over the business, or
(e) exercise significant influence or control over a firm which would be a person of significant control if it were an individual.
(3) No regulations to which this section applies may be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the regulations (whether or not together with other provisions) has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
Clause 100 and schedule 4 significantly increase the amount of information that must be provided about a new limited partnership and its prospective partners, and, subsequently, when they make their annual confirmation statements or deliver notifications that report changes. Schedule 4 sets out what information must be provided, including date of birth, nationality and the usual residential address when the partner is an individual.
Clause 101 is intended to ensure that existing limited partnerships registered prior to the commencement of the Bill are equally required to deliver the relevant information set out in schedule 4. The general partners of limited partnerships will be required to provide the registrar with the required information of each person who is a partner in the limited partnership, or who became a partner on registration within a six-month transitional period.
Failure to comply with those requirements may give the registrar reasonable cause to consider that the limited partnership is no longer operating and is dissolved. That will mean that the registrar may exercise her confirmation of dissolution power, which we will debate later on. If the registrar goes through the confirmation of dissolution process, she may deregister the dissolved firm.
Clause 102 provides that the Secretary of State may, by regulations, designate a standard system for classifying the business of a limited partnership. That will make it easier to collate and sort information about a limited partnership’s activities and it aligns with the position for companies. I thank the right hon. Member for Barking for her new clause 56. Perhaps she should speak about that now, and I will respond to her points.
I am grateful to the Minister and I agree with him that what we are all attempting to do here is trying to clean up the act in the UK. Some of our amendments are pragmatic, and I just hope that the Minister will listen and take them on board.
I want to go back to first principles, from when I started working in this area almost a decade ago. It was absolutely clear that transparency is a powerful tool in preventing and detecting economic crime. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. David Cameron used that phrase when he introduced the register of beneficial ownership, saying that we had a “gold standard”. It did not quite turn out that way, but that was what he wanted. To go back to the days of 2018, the Financial Action Task Force said that Britain was
“a global leader in promoting corporate transparency”.
We should hang on to that.
In 2014, the Cameron Government said it was “particularly important” that plans to force companies to name their ultimate owners should include English limited partnerships, in order to ensure that there were no loopholes or unintended consequences. That was completely right, yet two months later, in an inexplicable move, English limited partnerships were dropped. I do not know if the Minister has an explanation—I am happy to give way if he has—but that is what happened.
New clause 56 would introduce transparency into the system. I recognise that it is not a perfect answer, but it is a huge improvement on the status quo. We want to use the mechanism of the persons of significant control register. We propose that all limited partnerships, whether they are Northern Irish, English or Welsh, would have to register a person of significant control. All limited partnerships would therefore be treated in the same way.
As the Minister knows, limited partnerships have been used time and again by criminals to move and hide dirty money. I will give just one egregious example. In 2014, the US imposed sanctions on the Rotenberg brothers, Boris and Arkady, who are known as close friends of Putin, in response to the annexation of Crimea. A later investigation by the UK Senate found that the two brothers had used an English limited partnership, Sinara Company, to pay a front figure in the art industry, a man called Gregory Baltser, a huge amount of money to get around the sanctions, buying and selling paintings worth up to $18 million. Paintings by Magritte, Chagall and Braque were sold through this intermediary, Baltser. It was all done through an English limited partnership.
When the Government tightened up on Scottish limited partnerships, criminals moved to other forms, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said. I quote to the Minister a Russian-language newsletter that was circulated to clients by a formation agency called LAS, which said, after the UK tightened up on Scottish limited partnerships, that there is always a way out:
“As a substitute for Scottish partnerships, we offer the registration of English, Welsh and Irish LP partnerships, which have an identical legal form and similar benefits…At the moment, the privileges of this type of partnership are that they do not fall and will not fall under the laws on the disclosure of information about controlling persons.”
Transparency International’s report, which the Minister has quoted previously in our debates, shows how the structures are open to abuse by bad actors. It analysed 1,628 limited liability partnerships used in various corruption and money laundering schemes over a 12-year period between 2004 and 2016 for the nationality of the person of significant control. Russians were the most frequent nationality, at 17%; UK nationals were 16%; and Ukrainians, 15%. Nationals from the combined former Soviet states constituted half of those in the disclosures. That is a good red flag. The benefit of the persons of significant control register is that it would provide that red flag if it was extended elsewhere.
Limited partnerships are used by formation agencies, over whom there is also a red flag. Finance Uncovered and the BBC found that the five busiest formation agencies in 2017 created 28% of all English limited partnerships created that year.
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.