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House of Lords Hansard
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Companies (Miscellaneous Reporting) Regulations 2018
09 July 2018
Volume 792

Motion to Approve

Moved by

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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 11 June be approved.

Relevant document: 34th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

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My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Companies (Miscellaneous Reporting) Regulations 2018, which were laid before the House on 11 June, be approved.

The United Kingdom has an international reputation for the strength of its corporate governance framework. It is an important factor in making the United Kingdom an attractive place in which to invest and do business. One of the reasons we have maintained this reputation is that we have kept our corporate governance framework up to date.

In this spirit, the Government published a Green Paper on corporate governance reform in November 2016. The Green Paper focused on ways of improving shareholder scrutiny of executive pay and strengthening boardroom engagement with employees and other stakeholders. It also looked at the case for strengthening corporate governance in large, privately held businesses.

The backdrop to the Green Paper was public disquiet about high levels of executive pay and continuing concern about a disconnect between remuneration and performance. There were also concerns about boardrooms being remote, unrepresentative and disconnected from their employees. There was heightened interest, too, in standards of corporate governance in large private companies in the wake of the failure of BHS and some other large private companies.

The Government received 375 written responses to the Green Paper from a wide cross-section of business, professional and trade bodies, and wider society. They also had the benefit of the BEIS Committee’s report on corporate governance. The Government’s response, announced last August, set out a package of reforms combining new statutory reporting requirements, changes to the UK corporate governance code and industry-led measures.

The draft regulations being debated today will implement the new company reporting elements of the reform package. First, all large companies will be required to explain in their annual reports how their directors have complied with the requirements of Section 172 of the Companies Act, including the need to have regard to employee interests and relationships with customers and suppliers. This new information will make it easier for shareholders to hold companies to account and encourage directors to think more carefully about how they are taking account of these matters.

Secondly, very large private companies will need to make a statement about their corporate governance arrangements, including whether they follow a corporate governance code and if so, how. Thirdly, quoted companies with more than 250 UK employees will be required to publish pay ratios comparing the CEO’s remuneration to median employee pay and employee pay at the 25th and 75th quartiles. The ratios will need to be accompanied by an explanation, including the reasons for any change to the ratio from year to year and whether the median pay ratio is consistent with the pay, reward and progression policies for UK employees as a whole. This information will give shareholders new information to assess whether pay at the top is justified and consistent with pay and incentive arrangements in the rest of the workforce.

Finally, quoted companies will be required to illustrate for shareholders the impact of future share price growth on the value of share-based incentive plans. This will give shareholders a better understanding of how significant share price growth over a performance period can increase executive pay. It will also encourage remuneration committees to avoid mechanistic pay outcomes linked to share price growth. None of these reporting requirements will apply to small businesses. The measures are aimed at quoted, large and very large companies. The total costs for business arising from the new reporting requirements are expected to be £16.7 million in year one, and £9.8 million annually thereafter.

The reporting obligations complement and reinforce other elements of the corporate governance reform package. For example, the new requirement for large private companies to make a statement about their corporate governance arrangements is linked to work being undertaken by James Wates and a business and wider society coalition group to develop voluntary corporate governance principles for use by large private companies. These principles are currently being consulted on with a view to finalising them by the end of the year. Other links are with the Financial Reporting Council’s UK Corporate Governance Code. The new requirement on companies to state how they have had regard to the employee and other wider stakeholder issues in Section 172 of the Companies Act will help to underpin revisions to the code.

These changes include a new provision requiring boards, on a comply or explain basis, to establish at least one of three robust methods for gathering the views of the workforce: a director appointed from the workforce, a formal workforce advisory panel or a designated non-executive director. The FRC has been consulting on these changes and expects to publish the final revised code this month. In addition, the Investment Association, at the Government’s request, has launched a public register of companies encountering significant shareholder dissent of 20% or more to executive pay packages and other resolutions. This is shining a light on companies which are not listening to their shareholders, and in particular on companies that face significant opposition in successive years.

I refer briefly to the final part of the regulations which relates to reporting by community interest companies. The Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Act 2004 requires CICs to produce a community interest company report annually, including information about directors’ remuneration. The obligation covering small CICs was inadvertently removed when associated provisions regarding small companies were repealed in the course of implementing the accounting directive in 2015. This was not part of the corporate governance reform package, but these regulations represent a good opportunity to correct the earlier error. It is uncontroversial and does not involve any change in policy. Indeed, small CICs have continued to file the information. I commend these regulations to the House.

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My Lords, I welcome any attempt to raise the reputation of business and to increase the trust and confidence in business in the eyes of the public, so I very much welcome these regulations, but I wonder how effective they will be.

These regulations require public companies and large private companies to publish pay ratios and other data to show that the directors are taking into account the broader interest of customers, employees and communities, as the Minister has explained. These data are useful to provide more information to enable shareholders to question the directors and, if necessary, to vote at shareholder meetings. But who are the shareholders? Many shares are held by institutions, which are reluctant to act as long as the financial returns are as expected. Frequently they have a limited and sometimes short-term interest in the company. Also, much share trading is carried out by algorithms—and who knows on what formula they base their decisions? There are still many day traders active, and their trading, again, is based purely on numbers. As I understand it, this is the way the majority of shares now change hands.

I ask the Minister: even if the published data leads to naming and shaming, how effective will these regulations be in changing behaviour? I know there is a lot of concern about misleading comparisons between companies, but perhaps we should ask for other data to be published, such as benchmarking data on productivity so that shareholders can compare how well their company is doing in comparison with competitors.

Surely, there must also be concern about the reliability of the numbers. The big four accountancy firms almost exclusively audit for the large companies that are the subject of these regulations; they are also their financial advisers. In their role as financial advisers to these companies, I am sure that they will have lots of schemes to make the ratios look a lot more attractive. This joint relationship has come in for a lot of criticism recently. Is there any sign of any change so that these regulations will become more effective?

I welcome the rules applying to large privately held businesses. Most respondents in the consultation wanted to see more data about these companies and I hope that these regulations will produce it. Generally, I welcome these regulations, but would like to see them widened and made more effective.

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My Lords, I first apologise to the Minister for being caught out—

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Is it really appropriate that the noble Baroness speaks, given that she was not here for any of the Minister’s introduction of the statutory instrument at all?

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I apologise: I got caught out because I was advised of a rather different timescale. With the permission of the House, may I speak?

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Yes, I think you had better.

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Thank you. I notice that I am not the only one who had to run in. I declare my interests, as in the register, in particular as a non-executive director of London Stock Exchange plc. I welcome the provisions in these regulations and will speak mainly about the Section 172(1) report and stakeholder engagement.

Recent events surrounding BHS and Carillion have reminded us, yet again, that it is not just share- holders but the public purse, ordinary workers and pensioners that bear the brunt of corporate failures and misdemeanours. Incorporation and limited liability is a bargain with society, meant to encourage entrepreneurism and growth for the common good. The public-interest side of that bargain has to be upheld. That is the message from the Green Paper responses: 86% and 85% respectively of respondents agreed with steps to strengthen stakeholder voice and governance for private companies.

In fact, looking after the public interest has always been the majority view. I took the time a couple of years ago to go through the evidence in the Law Commission consultation leading up to the Companies Act 2006. It was a minority—a concerted one—who supported “one master, the shareholder”, which then became “enlightened shareholder value”. The majority wanted a more express public-interest requirement, but lost out as they were not co-ordinated around a single suggestion. So here we are again, just as with the creation of the strategic report, trying to fix it again.

I am not sure whether it counts as an interest, but I was the author of the Liberal Democrat response to the Government’s Green Paper, in which I put a long— 32 paragraph—section on interpretation and enforcement of Section 172 of the Companies Act 2006. It included a call for legislation to correct the distortion that has occurred in practice to the intentions of the so-called enlightened shareholder value and for the discharge of the duty in Section 172 to be susceptible to checking and challenge. That is a regulator’s job: they look after the public interest on behalf of the Government, and that matter needs some revision and upgrading for companies.

I doubt that all the deficiencies in Section 172 could be dealt with by secondary legislation, but these regulations are a decent attempt to remedy the fact that the “have regard to” formulation is weak, to the point of being non-existent. I sincerely hope that the 172(1) reporting proves, as I put it, “susceptible to checking and challenge”, and that the perfunctory statements which, in effect, say “we thought about it and dismissed it” are not left unchallenged. I say this also with regard to the requirements in paragraph 13 of Part 3 regarding engagement with employees, suppliers, customers and others. These clarify that there must be not only an explanation of the engagement with employees and wider stakeholders, but statements explaining how directors have performed the “have regard to” requirements and a summary of the effect of that regard on principal decisions. These statements must not be allowed to say “no effect” without substantive reasoning—no getting away with the sort of simplistic, “we take the best person for the job” explanations that have been prevalent on gender equality.

In paragraph 9.2 of the Explanatory Notes, it says that the FRC has agreed to include guidance on how companies should make a Section 172(1) statement. The forthcoming revised corporate governance code will have a “comply or explain” requirement concerning the mechanism of employee engagement, choosing from the three options of a designated non-executive director, a formal employee advisory council or a director from the workforce. I have no problem with having options, and suggest that again, this has to be a “comply or say what you are doing instead that is just as effective” type of comply or explain, not a “we didn’t think it suited our business” type of explanation. Indeed, a weak explanation would seem to offend against the employee involvement provisions in Part 3 of these regulations.

Guidance must be watched very closely, because the FRC has in the past issued guidance that has been far from helpful with regard to the intent of the strategic report, and that has undermined if not conflicted with company law. An example that I gave in my Green Paper response was restricting the strategic report to “only report on those matters of direct relevance to shareholders”. There is no such “direct relevance to shareholders” restriction in the prevailing requirement of the “success of the company”. Another poor showing I mentioned was encouraging companies to focus on the “application of materiality to disclosures”, which is a good way to make qualitative and subsidiary company issues disappear.

In the light of criticism, the FRC has recently made corrections, but let us make sure—from the start this time—that similar dilution does not happen and that there is appetite to monitor explanations for adequacy and act on complaints, remembering that whatever a code says, the law says something above that. The law—these regulations that are coming in—is not “comply or explain”.

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Too long!

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The time shown on the timer is not all mine.

With regard to employee engagement, I take this opportunity to suggest that it is worth looking at employee-owned businesses—that is, businesses where, alongside some share ownership, employees have a significant say through various different mechanisms. I commend to noble Lords the report The Ownership Dividend, launched at the end of July, which followed a year’s inquiry and, for the first time, substantial collection of UK data. I had the honour to chair the inquiry so I declare an interest. The inquiry showed that many governance problems are solved, including those around wider stakeholders, and that productivity increases when there is employee ownership. So embracing the formal involvement of employees is nothing to shy away from, even if it is not within a formal employee-owned structure.

I have spent some time on the Section 172 and stakeholder matters because they are key to culture. The fact that these regulations need more pages dedicated to executive pay than the other governance matters is itself a sad reflection on corporate and executive culture. I welcome the additional transparency and ratio comparisons; the truth needs to be told, and unfairness and mechanistic escalators exposed. Hopefully, some rebalancing will happen, whether that be through shareholders or shaming.

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My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, and as a director of companies over a number of years and as a chartered secretary. I will not delay the House, but I am doubtful of the value of some of these changes, which represent micromanagement and/or bureaucracy, and there is a decidedly mixed level of support for some of them, as can be seen on pages 49 to 51 of the impact assessment.

I am a huge supporter of good governance, but it should be geared towards long-term value creation, and in a responsible way. Good companies create value, and the tax-take from such companies—not only company taxes but all the taxes they collect: VAT, rates and income tax—finances our schools, hospitals and public services.

There is no sunset clause but perhaps the Minister can confirm that there will be a review of these arrangements in five years’ time. Further, does he agree that creating long-term value and companies’ contribution to our economy, including productivity, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, should form part of that review?

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My Lords, I am conscious that Members of the House want to move on to other business, so I shall concentrate on two issues in the regulations that I think warrant being brought out and receiving attention.

There is a cross-cutting concern that, in referring to directors’ reporting responsibilities in relation to engagement with and having regard to the interests of their employees, the regulations do not refer to their “workers”; they refer only to their “employees”. This is a weakness in the regulations, as they do not encompass the reality of modern employment practices and business models, explicitly referred to in the Taylor review and the impact assessment. Reporting on a company’s impact on employment should be reflective of the entire workforce and not just direct employees.

A significant minority of the UK’s workforce is now not covered by the term “employee” and there is a correlation between indirect employment and low pay and insecurity. Excluding indirectly employed workers, some of whom are the most vulnerable, from the scope of these regulations contradicts a key rationale for statutory intervention—promoting equality and fairness. It will mean that directors’ reports will present an incomplete picture of engagement with the people whose work contributes to companies’ output and value. Therefore, do the Government intend to review Section 172 of the Companies Act to allow reporting on directors’ duties to address the workforce as a whole and not restrict it to employees only?

Another element of the regulations concerns me. Regulations that require reporting on the pay ratios of CEOs’ remuneration to employees’ remuneration are to be welcomed, but there is a risk that these regulations will fall short of what is needed. Again, they refer to employees and not the whole workforce, and that could result in misleading evidence on those pay ratios. The public interest is in the gap between wider workforce pay and executive remuneration. There is a precedent: gender pay-gap reporting covers both workers and employees, not just employees.

If evidence on pay ratios is to contribute to restoring public trust in business, it is important that there is integrity around the data collected and reported. Clear audit requirements need to be put on these pay-ratio exercises, and the lessons learned from the reported gender pay gap, highlighted by the Financial Times analysis, should not be missed. The Financial Times revealed that one in 20 UK companies that has submitted gender pay-gap data to the Government has reported numbers that are statistically improbable and therefore almost certainly inaccurate. Therefore, when do the Government intend to extend pay-ratio reporting to cover both workers and employees, and how will they satisfy themselves about the quality of the data provided on these pay-ratio reports?

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My Lords, I am conscious that the House wants to move on but it would be wrong to pass over these regulations, because there are rather important points within them. My noble friend Lord Haskel raised a number of points about the overall shape of the Government’s response to company powers. He talked about the need to think again about the way that shareholders are always given priority and the missed opportunity to stress the importance of productivity. My noble friend Lady Drake raised a number of points about how the figures can be used in a positive way, and I want to come back to that, although I will not go through all the points in detail. In fact, a lot of them were covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, although I am afraid that she lost the House during her speech. It may be worth reading again what she said, because a lot of it was very relevant to what our future agenda needs to be.

First, I congratulate the team behind these regulations. The Explanatory Memorandum that accompanies them runs to 55 pages and is one of the best that I have seen, but I bet that very few people here have read it. They should do so because, even if they are not up to speed with the latest arithmetical terms, it will tell them about averages and means in a way that will bring home any questions that they might have had about why people use one term or another. If I may say so, it has chosen the wrong term, but has done so in a way that has allowed it to at least shine a spotlight on the difficulty of comparing, for instance, the pay of the top person in a company with the median or average or whatever other term you want to use. It points out more difficulties than it solves so it is worth reading.

Secondly, on the date of application of the regulations, some Members of the House will be aware that I have concerns about the fact that we are observing in its absence the common commencement dates for when new regulations are placed on companies and businesses. These regulations come in 21 days after they are passed and not on the common commencement dates, which are 6 April and 1 October. I am keeping a score of the Minister’s efforts in this matter. He will be delighted to know that, of the 13 regulations he has brought forward recently, his score is now 11:2, and even those two were almost cheating because one of them was done by exception and another was done a year late. Nevertheless, I appeal to him to try to up his game.

The key point is: why are the Government not doing more on Section 172(1) of the Companies Act 2006? This section requires directors to act in a way that they consider in good faith promotes the success of their company as a whole and to have regard to, among other things, the long-term consequences of their decisions and the interests of their employees. This needs to be looked at very seriously and rewritten for the 21st century. As part of that, the review should look at the issues that should be in place for all directors, whether in private or public companies, and should include matters such as late payment of suppliers, productivity and the use of powers to try to ensure that stakeholders of the company benefit from it.

Thirdly, the point has already been made that the threshold of 250 UK employees mirrors existing thresholds, but it does not make any sense for it to be limited to UK citizens only. The Government should make it clear that the intention of the legislation is for companies to report on their whole workforce. My noble friend Lady Drake asked why we are not including “workers” as well as “employees”. All employees are workers but not all workers are employees, and it is time that this was updated to reflect that. I think the Minister has already accepted that, in time, they will do that.

My final point is that, without some central registry of reports, this requirement will not be satisfactory. I hope that the Minister will take account of what I have said and perhaps write to us on the key points, in order that we might make progress today.

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My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I would like to make progress, and I suspect that the House would also—I am sure the Chamber is not as full as it is purely to listen to me wind up on this order.

I start by dealing with the noble Lord’s comments about common commencement dates; I know this is a matter of great concern to him, and I always try to comply. Wherever practical we like to follow them but, because we are proposing to introduce these significant new regulations designed to coincide with the start of the company reporting year, we felt that 1 January might be more suitable. I will allow him to continue to keep his scorecard and on those rare occasions that we diverge from the common commencement dates—although they are perhaps less rare than they might be—I will make it clear why we are doing so.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked whether we could have a review of some of the arrangements in five years, particularly in the light of her comments on pages 41 to 51 of the impact assessment. I give an assurance that we will do that. The success criteria include company executives focusing more on long- term performance, and the new Section 172 reporting requirement must include reporting on the impact of directors’ decision-making in the long term.

I appreciate that although the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, welcomed the regulations, he felt that they possibly should go further. He expressed concern about the reluctance, particularly of some institutional shareholders, to intervene. It is important to remember that increasing knowledge is always a benefit to any shareholders. I think that he recognised this and that shareholders were increasingly becoming more assertive in holding companies to account. They have, for example, strongly backed pay ratios and other rules introduced today. The Investment Association’s new public register of shareholder dissent, to which I referred in my opening remarks, is putting significant and welcome new pressure on companies to listen to their concerns.

The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, asked about the definitions of “employee” and whether they should also cover other workers. The regulations we are using are made under the Companies Act and, therefore, we will follow the definitions of “employee” in that Act—that is, someone employed under a contract of service with the company. Having said that, I recognise her more general concerns about the definitions of “employee”—we have discussed these matters on other occasions—given the changing nature of the workforce. The Taylor review has addressed this issue and the Government will need to respond further in the light of that and recent court decisions. However, for the moment, for these regulations it is necessary that we stick to the Companies Act definition.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, suggested, it would be right for me to write in greater detail on some of the questions put to me in the course of the debate. However, I have heard a general welcome for these regulations.

Motion agreed.