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Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Fourteenth sitting)

Debated on Thursday 17 November 2022

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

Thursday 17 November 2022


[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Clause 136

False statement offences in connection with information notices

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to consider clauses 137 and clause 157 stand part.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher.

The clause amends section 15 of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 to align it with amendments made to section 32 during the passage of that Act and with amendments introduced by this Bill. The clause substitutes section 15 and adds proposed new sections 15A and 15B.

Proposed new section 15 restates and slightly amends the general false statement offence in section 32 of the ECTE Act to reflect changes made by the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022. Existing section 15 restricts the false statement offence to being committed when a person knowingly or recklessly makes a false statement in response to a notice. Proposed new sections 15A and 15B amend that offence to change the threshold to be met, by splitting it into two separate offences. That aligns with section 32 of the ECTE Act and amendments to that section introduced by the Bill.

Clause 137 amends section 32 of the ECTE Act on the general false statement offence. The effect of the amendment is that both the basic offence and the aggravated offence are expanded so that a false statement offence can be committed by a legal entity, and, where this is the case, by every officer of the entity in default. That maintains consistency with other legislation amended by the Bill. The penalty for committing the aggravated offence on summary conviction in England and Wales is also amended in line with the Judicial Review and Courts Act.

Clause 157 amends the Reports on Payments to Governments Regulations 2014. Those regulations require certain large businesses in the extractive industries to report annually their payments to overseas Governments associated with the extraction activities. The regulations were brought in to support accountability and to reduce space for corruption.

The Government are conducting a post-implementation review of the regulations to evaluate their impacts and effectiveness. However, in advance of that, the Government propose that the false statements offences and penalties in the regulations be updated to provide consistency with other offences, as previously outlined.

Clause 157 does not alter the requirement for any prosecutions for non-compliance with the 2014 regulations to be mounted or approved by the Attorney General or the Director of Public Prosecutions—or, in Northern Ireland, by the Secretary of State or the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions—to ensure that they are in the public interest.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. Compared with clause 135, clauses 136, 137 and 157 are more substantial. In drafting them, the Government appear to have accepted that the existing law in relation to false statement offences is too narrow to serve either as an effective deterrent or as a useful tool for law enforcement.

Clause 136 removes the requirement to prove that false information had been submitted knowingly and recklessly. That is a very high bar for prosecutors to clear, and the introduction of a broader set of criteria for these offences is therefore welcome. The changes will replace the existing false statement offence with a two-tier approach that will provide a range of options for dealing with overseas entities that either fail to provide information about beneficial ownership upon request or respond with false or misleading information.

The basic offence, which will not require evidence that a false statement had been made knowingly or recklessly, should provide a strong incentive for companies to be as rigorous as possible in ensuring that any information they provide is completely accurate. Of course, the financial penalties for such an offence will need to be set at a level sufficient to impose a significant cost on non-compliant companies. Will the Minister therefore comment on how he will ensure that penalties are set at a rate commensurate with achieving that objective?

Particularly welcome is the additional provision in clause 137 for an aggravated offence in cases where an intent to mislead can be proven, as is the extension of the changes to the reporting requirements in relation to payments to foreign Governments under clause 147. The threat of criminal convictions, with custodial sentences of up to two years, sends a strong message that fraudulent activities must not and cannot be tolerated.

Of course, in these clauses, as elsewhere in the Bill, the jury will be out on whether the changes will have any meaningful impact on economic crime until we can be sure that compliance with the law is robustly monitored and that non-compliance will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The Committee will be grateful for any reassurances that the Minister can provide, especially on what preparations are being made to ensure that offences are identified and prosecuted as swiftly as possible, because he has repeatedly said that legislation without robust implementation is not worth the paper it is written on.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. Does he have any broader assurances around enforcement and implementation? It would be useful to get a sense of what institutional or organisational capability he envisages, and of whether that is in line with what the Bill is trying to achieve.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, as we have discussed on many occasions and as I am on the record as saying, legislation without implementation is worthless. We need to ensure that offences are discovered and then prosecuted. Of course, we must ensure that the registrar, and the law enforcement agencies they work with, have sufficient capacity and resources to do the job. The Bill does not cover that directly, but I am certainly keen to ensure that happens.

I thank the Minister for those assurances. I have no further comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 136 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 137 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 138

Meaning of “service address”

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 138 will improve the effectiveness of the register of overseas entities by defining “service address” so that it has the same meaning as in the Companies Act 2006. That will help those registering as overseas entities to ensure that they understand what a service address is, and that they must provide an address that meets the definition.

Clause 138 is another relatively minor change to the definition of a company’s service address, and it brings the definition used for the purposes of the overseas entities register into line with the language in the Companies Act. That language, the Committee will recall, defines a service address as a place where documents may be served to someone. We have already debated the potential problems of relying on such a definition in the context of amendments in which the Opposition sought to restrict and clarify what counts as an appropriate address for a company to register.

While we will not go back on all that and re-litigate those lengthy arguments, and while we will not oppose the clause, I put on the record that the Opposition do not believe that the Bill goes as far as it could and should have to prevent the fraudulent or unauthorised use of addresses. I am sure that we will come back to that on Report.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 138 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 139

Meaning of “registered overseas entity” in land registration legislation

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The clause amends the Land Registration Act 2002, Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 and the Land Registration Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. It will improve the effectiveness of the register of overseas entities by punishing a registered overseas entity for failing to comply with the registrar’s new power—as inserted into the Companies Act by the Bill—to require information from the entity.

Currently, an overseas entity will lose its status as a registered overseas entity if it fails to provide an annual update to the registrar. The clause adds that an overseas entity will also lose its status as a registered overseas entity if it fails to respond to a notice from the registrar requesting information. Once it is no longer considered to be a registered overseas entity, the entity will be treated as non-compliant. A non-compliant entity will find it difficult to sell, lease or raise charges over its land and cannot therefore deal freely with it.

Upon submitting the requested information to the registrar, the overseas entity will once more be compliant. However, the compliance status is not retrospective. Any person dealing with the overseas entity in the non-compliance period will be unable to register any completed transaction with the land registries. I know that all Members will join me in wanting to ensure the robustness of the register and ensure that overseas entities comply with their duties, or face tough restrictions. The clause will help Companies House to do so.

The clause makes some relatively minor changes to the language on the requirement to provide information requested by the registrar. The effect is to extend the existing restrictions on the ability of an overseas entity to deal with property it owns, such as by selling it, in order to apply the restrictions to companies that fail to comply with the registrar’s requests for information. The change is sensible and pragmatic, and the Opposition support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 139 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 140

Power to apply Part 1 amendments to register of overseas entities

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government new clause 19—Resolving inconsistencies in the register.

Government new clause 20—Administrative removal of material from register.

Section 27 of the ECTE Act allows the registrar to require an overseas entity to resolve an inconsistency in information delivered to her where it appears to be inconsistent with other information on the register of overseas entities. New clause 19 amends section 27, so that the registrar may use any information she possesses, not only that published on the register, to require an overseas entity to resolve a suspected inconsistency. That will strengthen her ability to ensure that the register is accurate and reliable.

Government new clause 20 mirrors amendments made in the Bill to equivalent sections in the Companies Act 2006 to ensure consistency between the Act and this Bill when it becomes an Act, and to enhance the registrar’s power to remove material from the register, which is limited under section 28 of the ECTE Act. She can only remove from the register information where there was a power but no duty to include it, or where it no longer appears reasonably necessary for the purposes for which the material was delivered to the registrar.

Proposed new section 28 will ensure that material that is unnecessary or does not meet proper delivery requirements can be removed at the discretion of the registrar, either unilaterally or upon application. The Secretary of State will also have the power to specify what sort of material can be removed from the register upon application, so that the scope of material eligible for removal can be modified in line with future operational needs. Under proposed new section 28A, the Secretary of State must make regulations that set out what notice the registrar should give when unilaterally removing information, and the processes to be followed in determining applications for removal.

The clause strengthens the registrar’s powers and ensures that she has all the necessary tools at her disposal to clean up the register of overseas entities proactively. The clause also allows the Secretary of State to amend the ECTE Act to apply any changes that part 1 of the Bill may make to corresponding provisions in the Companies Act. The ECTE Act contains a number of provisions that correspond to those in the Companies Act. Given the number of changes that part 1 of the Bill makes to the Companies Act, the clause is necessary to ensure that accuracy and consistency are maintained between the ECTE Act and the Companies Act, and the respective registers of overseas entities and of UK companies.

The clause provides for certain changes to be made to the Companies Act via regulations using Henry VIII powers, where necessary, to bring the Act into line with the provisions in part 1 of the Bill. The Government’s use of Henry VIII powers to change primary legislation has generated some criticism in other contexts, but the provision that the Government have made in this clause for the relevant regulations to be subject to the affirmative procedure represents a welcome commitment to parliamentary scrutiny on their part.

Finally, the Government’s new clauses 19 and 20 have been tabled to ensure that the provisions on resolving inconsistencies in the register and on removing material from it are applied to overseas entities on the same basis as to other registered companies. Those are also sensible and pragmatic changes, which the Opposition are happy to support.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 140 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Scott Mann.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 22 November at twenty-five past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

ECCTB 19 Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC)

ECCTB 20 ICAEW (The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales)