Clause 1: Determination in respect of certain non-domestic rating lists
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 20, at end insert—
“(7A) Before the first determination to which this section applies is made, the Valuation Office Agency must publish a statement outlining—(a) how many checks, challenges or appeals in relation to a material changes of circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic it has received and what the total monetary value of those checks, challenges or appeals is, and(b) its assessment of the impact of this section on the ability of the current system of business rates to—(i) provide an effective form of funding for local authorities; and(ii) support town centres and local high streets.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Valuation Office Agency to publish information on applications relating to a material changes of circumstances, and whether the changes introduced in this Act will support local authorities, town centres and high streets.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a member of Kirklees Council. I am speaking on Amendment 1 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Fox, and on Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake.
I and my colleagues support the principle of the proposals—as I have said at every occasion—in relation to the non-domestic rates element of the Bill. Businesses have faced challenging circumstances due to Covid, and these challenges remain. Understandably, businesses have reviewed their position, and some have decided to use the VOA check, challenge, appeal process to seek a reduction in their business rates. The VOA publishes quarterly statistics of the numbers of businesses using the process to appeal their rates. The statistics do indeed show a spike in both the check and challenge elements of the process. For example, there were around 80,000 checks requested in the March to June quarter of 2020 —this spike compares with an average of around 10,000. However, 70,000 of these checks were quickly resolved. There were around 22,000 challenges in the next quarter, but fewer than half seem to have been resolved. There is clearly a significant increase in the volume of claims being received by the VOA. However, the value of these claims, including the value of successful claims, is not revealed.
Throughout the course of the Bill, I have been concerned to establish the evidence base for its proposals, including, importantly, the total value of successful and potentially successful claims which would result in a loss of business rates income. A loss in business rates income has a direct and adverse impact on local government finances, which have already been squeezed dry. Responding in Committee to similar concerns that I raised, the Minister was unable to give a categoric assurance that there would be no loss of income for local government. The Minister stated then that
“central government will meet 75% of the costs of irrecoverable losses in business rates income for 2020-21.”—[Official Report, 10/11/21; col. GC 522.]
Can the Minister confirm that local government will not be paying for any losses in business rates due to Covid?
Further, it is widely accepted that the existing system of business rates is ineffective and woefully inadequate in ensuring that retail businesses that use online ordering are paying at the same rate as those on traditional high streets that the Government often profess to want to support but lamentably fail to.
Amendment 2, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, seeks a review of the impact of the changes and of whether business rates are fit for purpose. Any government review with recommendations to try to fix this broken system is welcome, and we support the sentiments in this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interests, particularly as a vice-president of the LGA. I will speak to Amendment 2, in my name, and to Amendment 1, as introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
As we begin Report, I remind the House that we are broadly supportive of the Bill and recognise that action needs to be taken swiftly. The measure in the Bill to rule out Covid-19-related material change of circumstances business rates appeals—that is quite a mouthful—coupled with the announcement of £1.5 billion in funding to provide additional targeted support to those businesses that have not already received rates relief, provides some certainty for local government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to the impact on the finances of local government, and that of course broadens out to the challenges of the whole pandemic period. In Committee, I was reminded that, only nine months ago, I was the leader of the second largest metropolitan authority in the country. The financial aspects around Covid back then were incredibly concerning, and they continue to be so.
I emphasise the real concern expressed across the local government sector about how that figure of £1.5 billion was arrived at. It sounds a significant amount of money—and indeed it is. The point I keep coming back to is whether it matches the need that it is there to cover. Is it sufficient to prevent businesses falling through the cracks? Will it address the Government’s long-term neglect of the UK’s high streets and local businesses?
I draw attention to the wider issue that remains: whether business rates are fair and effective. In October, the CBI, along with 40 trade associations—including the British Retail Consortium, UKHospitality and the SMMT—representing about 261,000 businesses, called for the reform of the current business rates system, stating that the
“existing, outdated and outmoded business rate regime acts as a drag on … a high wage, high productivity and high investment economy.”
Amendment 2 seeks to get to the heart of this issue for businesses up and down the country. It would ensure that a report is produced on whether further legislation is needed on factors which may or may not be taken into account in making a relevant determination in relation to business rates. Her Majesty’s Opposition would like a root-and-branch reform of the business rates system, to make it fair and to help bricks-and- mortar retailers compete with online tech giants. Such reform cannot come soon enough. Data from the ONS in October revealed that up to 332,000 businesses, employing over 800,000 people, are at risk across the country. We need to shift the burden of business taxes to create a level playing field, moving away from one that punishes investment, entrepreneurship and the high street.
I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister’s comments, particularly referring back to the discussions that we had in Committee. A significant number of concerns were expressed from all sides of the Chamber at the way that this legislation has been brought forward; we need to put a marker down around that. Having said that, given the critical situation facing businesses, and therefore local authorities, and therefore communities, we recognise the need to move forward with the legislation, but we need to recognise that there are some very serious questions still to be answered.
My Lords, I want to add my comments on Amendment 2. I remind the House of my interests: I advise SME businesses and am also a landlord.
Increasingly, a number of people that I talk to, specifically in the retail sector, are very concerned that the Government are not listening to their concerns in respect of rates. Over the last 18 months, a number of companies have gone through CVAs. As a result of those CVAs, they have entered into turnover-based rents with landlords, enabling them to carry on trading from particular locations. But the size of the rates has meant that, despite having turnover rents, they are not able to carry on trading from retail premises, specifically because of the rates; more importantly, they are not able to open new locations that would otherwise be economically viable because of turnover rents, specifically because of rates.
I do not expect my noble friend the Minister to answer these concerns in this debate on this amendment, but business, particularly the retail sector, would like it acknowledged that the Government are aware of, focused on and planning steps to address this issue.
I thank noble Lords for raising two important issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, asked whether we will have data to know whether the £1.5 billion is enough and that we are not short-changing local government in any way. The noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, wanted to know about the future of business rates reform, given that we are seeing the economy shift to online and that many bricks-and-mortar businesses are struggling to pay their rates bills. I will try to address those points in turn.
I can give the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, some assurance on the availability of VOA statistics, which tell us about the adequacy of the Government’s support. During 2022, the VOA will provide new data specifically marking out Covid-related MCCs but, even in the existing data sets, we can get an insight into the nature of these cases. I quote more recent figures from October: as of 30 September 2021, 63,780 challenges were outstanding in England, the vast majority of which are on hold pending this Bill. Far more challenges could come forward from ratepayers who have already made checks—a check being the first stage in appealing the rateable value of one’s property. In the period since April 2020, the VOA has received more than 400,000 checks. So, there is a wealth of statistical evidence out there and it will be enhanced next year. This evidence cautions against any suggestion that we should introduce a like-for-like compensation for Covid-related reductions in rateable value, which, on account of this Bill, will rightly not materialise. That was never the intention, and we should not seek to create an equivalence.
On the point made by my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, we recognise that particular industries have been hit very hard by the pandemic. We have statistics on the drop in gross value added by industry, and there is a wide range of reductions by sector. That comes to the question of how we divide the £1.5 billion, which I will return to in the debate on the next group of amendments.
Let me give the Government’s most up-to-date position. Following the conclusion of the business rates review, the Government will shortly consult on measures arising from that review and seek to bring forward legislation in due course. The consultation was published only yesterday and explicitly anticipates future legislation to deliver major reforms. These include three-yearly revaluations, a major ask of ratepayers, support for property improvements and support for green plant and machinery. So, noble Lords should have complete confidence that there will be an opportunity for them to consider, debate and scrutinise these measures and the Government’s overall business rates policy.
I should have declared my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register; I forgot to do that right at the beginning. I must underline that I have not been involved with any material change of circumstance approach, but I recognise that many businesses, including many small businesses, are waiting eagerly to hear how we will resolve this situation.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. We clearly had evidence of the volume of appeals by businesses. I am still concerned about the value of those and whether sufficient money is being made available to recompense businesses, but we will come to that in the next debate. Having said that, I thank the Minister for his reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
3: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Advice to local authorities
Before 1 March 2022, the Secretary of State must publish a statement containing advice to local authorities on the implementation of this Act.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State publishes advice to local authorities on the implementation of this Act.
In this group we also have Amendments 7 and 8, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
I move this amendment to seek confirmation
“that the Secretary of State publishes advice to local authorities on the implementation of this Act.”
Clearly, there has been some movement on this issue; there was widespread concern about this Act in Committee. From my experience, this message has been repeated not only in this area but throughout the whole pandemic. Given that local authorities were tasked with many responsibilities in helping businesses with the financial packages from government, which were welcome, it is important that whoever is in government has the full respect for local government that it needs and deserves. Timely, appropriate and full information is of paramount importance.
I am sure that I do not need to remind the House that local authorities face a dire situation, particularly regarding their finances. Many of them are about to publish their budget, which they will have to deliver in the early months of next year. The timing of this Bill brings into focus why local authorities are asking for clarity, and the sense of urgency that is being expressed.
We know that, since 2010, under the policy of austerity, Conservative Governments have variously come together to cut £15 billion from central government funding to local authorities. According to the Local Government Association, councils in England will face a funding gap of more than £5 billion by 2024 just to maintain services at their current levels. That is why we must ensure that they get the best advice from government on the implementation of this Bill. If we could have real clarification from the Minister on what advice they will receive and when, we would be grateful.
On the £1.5 billion in the funding announcement, I remember my noble friend Lord Hunt saying in Committee that there is a problem in that the guidance to local authorities on the distribution of money is still awaited. Many businesses do not know whether they will qualify for funding given that, as I understand it, the criteria have not yet been published. My noble friend was particularly concerned that whole areas have been missed out in the proceedings.
In Committee, the Minister stated:
“The funding will be available as soon as local authorities have established their own local release schemes; the Government will support them to do this as quickly as possible, including through new burdens funding.”—[Official Report, 10/11/21; col. GC 522.]
I would be grateful if the Minister could provide an update on how that work is going, and give a clear explanation of how the rationale running throughout this is being used to inform how decisions are made and how fairness and transparency will be assured. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendments 7 and 8 in my name pursue an issue I raised both at Second Reading and in Committee regarding the complete mystery surrounding the £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money that the Government propose to use as recompense for businesses in removing their rights to appeal their business rates.
This is all very unsatisfactory. The Bill is in its final stages and we do not know, first, the value of the real and estimated claims being made by businesses via material changes of circumstances based on the impact of Covid. The Minister may well claim that there is no information regarding the value of estimated claims, yet that is precisely what the Bill seeks to do. Secondly, we do not know at all whether £1.5 billion will in any way be sufficient to adequately and fairly compensate business for the removal of lawful claims made to the VOA.
Throughout the course of the Bill’s passage, the Minister has been unable to make a connection between removing the right to appeal the level of business rates using Covid as the reason and the sum of compensation specifically stated in the Bill. This simply will not do. The Minister has also so far been unable to explain how the £1.5 billion will be disbursed. Perhaps he will be able to provide some answers today.
What is the basis for the estimate of the need for £1.5 billion? Will it be sufficient to cover all legitimate claims? What criteria will be used to judge claims? Will criteria be set by government, or will there be local discretion? Will the funding be distributed to local authorities prior to claims being made and, if so, how will this be done? If the funding runs out and legitimate claims are still in process, will the Government be prepared to increase the funding available?
I know that is a lot of questions, but I have been asking them all right through the process of discussing the Bill. I hope the Minister will be able to provide full answers to them, as I am not prepared to support a Bill that leaves so many fundamental questions unanswered. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I intervene very briefly, as I did at the substitute Second Reading and in Committee. I am concerned only with Clause 1 of the Bill, and I declare again—as I have in the past—that I have from time to time over the last nearly 50 years given advice to the Machinery Users’ Association, which was established in 1884 to give advice on the rating of plant and industrial machinery. Many of its members are, of course, concerned, particularly with the questions the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, just raised.
I do not want to prolong the debate; it is clear that the Bill is going to go through your Lordships’ House without amendment. I just ask my noble friend to give as much information and as clear answers as he can to the wholly legitimate questions asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Blake of Leeds and Lady Pinnock. I await his replies with considerable interest.
My Lords, I will do my very best. I start by saying that local authorities are protected by what is known as the local tax income guarantee; I know the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, knows about that. Three critical questions have been raised, and I will take time in answering them to reassure noble Lords that this has been well thought through.
First, there is a false equivalence between the £1.5 billion and the material change in circumstances. We do not see the £1.5 billion as a like-for-like compensation for Covid-related MCC claims. The statistics show that it would have seen reductions applied indiscriminately to properties whether or not their occupiers needed support. The £1.5 billion relief we are introducing is not—and should not be—designed to mimic or replace the MCCs that were submitted. It is better than that: it is focused on those who submitted MCCs who genuinely needed support and may have had to wait years. They will be able to access it more quickly because the approach is more targeted, and industries that have received quite considerable support are excluded from that amount. That is why we are taking this important approach.
I think the critical question that the noble Baronesses, Lady Blake and Lady Pinnock, asked is how the £1.5 billion will be distributed. I have to say that I have taken quite a long time to understand that myself; I put that right on the table. I have had some help from the former chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, and I have had meetings with colleagues and Ministers in the Treasury about this. I think I broadly understand it. The marker that will be used at the national level is the ONS data around the gross value added reduction for those industries that have not had support. That is very robust information at the national level, but unfortunately we do not have very good data at the regional level for the last two years. So we will use the data we have at the local level around industries, because we know, broadly speaking, which businesses are at the local council level. Therefore, it is not something that is going to be gained. There is a clear proxy metric in GVA with the good data we have at the local level. I am satisfied that this is the best we can do in these circumstances and a sensible way in which to divide the cake.
The last question is around the timing of the guidance and implementation. I have spoken of the benefits of using locally administered business rates relief, rather than the appeals system, to funnel support where it is needed. One of these is pace, and since Parliament is agreed on the principle of the Government’s approach, we have a responsibility to avoid unnecessary delay. We need to move, and that is one of the real benefits of this course of action. The best course of action is to speed the Bill through to Royal Assent. On that basis, I hope noble Lords will not press their amendments.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for taking our concerns very seriously and for going away and having conversations with some very senior people. I am sure I speak for the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches when I say that we appreciate that. In Committee this concern was repeated from whichever Bench someone was speaking from. This is a very real concern, so I sincerely thank the Minister.
The question that will remain, of course, is how this is maintained and monitored and how we make sure that there will be recourse to additional funds if the £1.5 billion is not adequate. I am not sure that I have quite got that security of knowledge.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
4: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“Insolvency Service finances and resources
(1) Before 1 March 2022, the Secretary of State must make a statement on the impact of this Act on the financial situation of the Insolvency Service. (2) The statement must include an assessment as to whether the Insolvency Service is sufficiently resourced to meet its obligations under this Act.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to make a statement on the impact of this Act on the financial situation of the Insolvency Service and whether the Insolvency Service is sufficiently resourced to meet its obligations under this Act.
This amendment relates to part of the situation discussed in Committee: that this a hybrid Bill which has caused some conversation and comment over its different stages.
In moving Amendment 4 in my name, I will also reference Amendments 5 and 6. Amendment 4 would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to
“make a statement on the impact of this Act on the financial situation of the Insolvency Service”
“whether the Insolvency Service is sufficiently resourced to meet its obligations under this Act.”
As we know, the Bill removes the necessity for the Insolvency Service to apply to court to have dissolved companies restored before investigating said companies’ directors. In doing so, it makes it quicker and cheaper for the Insolvency Service to investigate the directors of dissolved companies.
Her Majesty’s Opposition are pleased at the closing of a legal loophole that for too long has allowed unscrupulous company directors to evade responsibility for their financial decisions. However, we remain concerned about whether the Insolvency Service has enough resources to carry out this extra work. We understand the concern caused by the behaviour of some directors in receipt of, for example, bounce-back loans and how the dissolution process might be being used inappropriately to shed liabilities. I should like to ask the Minister: do we have an assessment of the scale of the problem this is causing?
The Bill makes no mention of further funding for the Insolvency Service. Given that the Bill means that the service will be carrying out additional investigations, this is worrying and risks overstretching it. Can the Minister confirm that the service will be given the adequate funding to deal with this workload and ensure that all necessary investigations are carried out to a good standard? If the Minister argues against such a statement, as requested by Amendment 4, will he explain clearly how adequate resourcing for the service for these new powers will be included in its annual report? I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 5 and 6 in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley.
Amendment 5 seeks to add a new clause that would require the Secretary of State to report on the resources and the powers available to both the Secretary of State and the Insolvency Service in relation to the Bill. It covers similar territory to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. Despite the Minister’s comments in Committee that resources are always available for cases in the public interest, members of the insolvency and restructuring profession report that they often see cases involving significant breaches by directors that are not investigated and acted on. This would suggest that the Insolvency Service is currently resource-constrained.
That view is supported by looking at figures on the disqualification of directors of insolvent companies by the Insolvency Service. These show a roughly flat line of disqualifications made by the service over a number of years—a constant rate of disqualification, irrespective of economic conditions, trends or fluctuations in the number of corporate insolvencies. Again, that suggests a resourcing issue for the service.
That situation could get worse without a commitment to fund the additional cases that the Bill will create. We have therefore tabled our Amendment 5, which would require the Government to report six months after the Bill has been passed on whether the appropriate resources were available to undertake the additional investigations required as a result of the legislation.
I thank the Minister, who met me and the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, to discuss these amendments—I think very productively. It is clear that the Minister and the Insolvency Service grasp the point that the more resources that there are, the better the return, or likely return, to the taxpayer. We are looking for something from the Minister that indicates that Her Majesty’s Treasury shares this understanding. We of course do not want to upset delicate negotiations that may now be under way between the Minister’s department and the Treasury, but a clear indication that the resource issue is in hand would help negate the need for this amendment.
It would also be helpful if the Minister were able to comment on the nature of the cases that this legislation will enable. Our understanding is that the Bill gives the Insolvency Service the power to pursue recompense from the former directors of dissolved companies and that this can be done via compensation orders without the cost of reinstating the companies in question. The key issue for clarification is which creditors may benefit from these future compensation orders. Can he confirm that future beneficiaries will include all other creditors in addition to Her Majesty’s Treasury? The Minister has just nodded. Can he confirm that the Insolvency Service will include the plights of those other creditors in its calculation of the public interest when it decides which cases to pursue?
The second amendment, Amendment 6, would also add another clause. This time, it creates a requirement on the Secretary of State to report on the impact of the legislation on the investigations into the conduct of directors of dissolved companies. The principal purpose of this amendment is to weigh the success of the legislation by measuring and reporting its ability to claw back money from directors of dissolved companies. We know that the Insolvency Service already has a duty to report annually. However, at the moment, our reading is that the metric we propose here is not explicitly included in the list of requirements on which to report. Again, following discussions with the Minister, it seems reasonable for this “cash-back” criterion to be added to the Insolvency Service’s annual report agenda. We hope that his response to this amendment will do just that, rather than requiring primary legislation. I trust that he is able to make those undertakings.
My Lords, I have put my name to Amendments 5 and 6, although, with all credit to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, his team did most of the work in compiling the text. Given the hybrid nature of the Bill, I need to declare a completely different set of interests, which is that I am chairman of an AIM company, Manolete Partners plc, which is in the insolvency-related area.
The direction of travel from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and me is to ensure that regular creditors, in addition to Her Majesty’s Government and agencies such as HMRC, are looked after where companies have been dissolved. It is clear that some people are prepared to be struck off as directors and do not see that as much of an impediment to their business life. I am grateful to the insolvency trade association, R3, which has advised us that insolvency and restructuring professionals, who have extensive experience in tackling fraud, have noted that serious serial rogue directors do not see being disqualified as a significant deterrent, and will often go on to commit repeat frauds. Insolvency practitioners frequently see disqualified directors contributing to successive business failures or breaching the terms of their disqualification by working as shadow directors or “advisers” to these phoenix companies that are subsequently set up. In fact, R3 has given us specific examples of where that has taken place.
It is clear that the disqualification mechanism is not in itself deterring culpable directors, thereby putting the public at risk. For the policy to be effective, it is clear that investigations should lead to prosecutions. It is not clear to me how the prosecution of a director of a dissolved company—that is, a company that no longer exists—can legally take place without the company first being restored. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that. Does the Insolvency Service intend to restore every company when it is going for prosecutions? That is why we want to see how the Insolvency Service will do that and how successful it has been. That is why Amendment 5, particularly proposed new subsections (2) and (3), is required.
There is still the open question: is this the right route? For example, should we be looking at changing the law somehow to allow prosecution of directors of former companies, now dissolved, without returning them to the register? I would be keen to push the Insolvency Service to tell us, as proposed new subsection (2)(b) of Amendment 5 requires. But what the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and I are most concerned about is compensation. In that regard, I thank the Minister for his letter of 22 November setting out the position on the existing regime as far as Sections 15A and 15B of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 are concerned in respect of compensation orders.
As I understand it, using a compensation order means that many other frauds, not just the bounce-backs that prompted this legislation, can be carried out, whereby the directors simply will not get investigated or identified if the dissolved company is left alone. As I have mentioned, currently it is only by restoring these entities and putting them through an insolvency process that misplaced assets, other frauds, misfeasance and so on can be identified, leading to further action against these directors.
I genuinely think there is some confusion—certainly for me and possibly the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and others—in understanding whether or not a company needs to be restored before further action can be taken. If it is not restored, what are the mechanics of a compensation order in respect of a company that does not exist anymore? We would like to see the evidence of what the Insolvency Service is up to. With a dissolved company remaining dissolved, the normal creditors—non-government creditors—stand to gain nothing from the compensation order because the fraud concerned related primarily to bounce-back loan fraud. This is clearly very important where the Government are the victim and we all want to assist them, but that does not help the wider body of creditors who have suffered.
I appreciate we are straying into some technical areas, and we are going to have to rely on assurances that compensation orders will be used by the courts for the benefit of all creditors rather than just HMRC. We are also, frankly, just going to have to wait and see what definition will be used for public interest. I do not think there has been any offer of assistance in defining public interest. We are going to have to see how many cases are dealt with by the Insolvency Service. That is why we have tabled Amendment 6, so we can see what happens and—as is our usual style—then suggest some helpful further steps that might be taken.
I am aware that the Insolvency Service, as has been mentioned, publishes an annual report, which I have read carefully; it was updated a couple of weeks ago. That shows that the Insolvency Service is a big and important agency. I was surprised to learn that it spends some £625 million per year. By statute, it has to report on its activities, and I was pleased to see that it has an 84% customer satisfaction result, on which I congratulate it and the Minister. But it is not clear to me from reading this report that the specific items requested in Amendment 6, particularly subsection (2) of the proposed new clause, would be required to be disclosed as separate, specific issues. I welcome the Minister’s views on how we can best achieve some transparency, and how the Government are getting on with implementing this Bill and achieving the aims we all seek.
My Lords, Amendments 4, 5 and 6 seek to put reporting requirements into statute, and I am happy to comment on them. I am grateful to noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to talk both about the process of investigation and disqualification and the reporting work that the Insolvency Service already undertakes. I also put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and my noble friend Lord Leigh, for the very constructive and helpful meetings that we have had in the lead-up to this debate.
Before I talk specifically about resourcing and reporting of investigative outcomes, let me take some time to remind noble Lords of the process which leads to the disqualification of company directors, focusing on the situation where a company is subject to insolvency proceedings—which is different to the situation where a company is dissolved. The officeholder, whether they be an administrative receiver, a liquidator or an administrator, must report to the Secretary of State on the conduct of the directors of the company within three months of the company going into insolvent liquidation, administration or administrative receivership. Upon receipt of this conduct return, the Insolvency Service will assess the information provided to prioritise the case in terms of its public interest. Factors that could be considered—for the benefit of my noble friend Lord Leigh—might be the seriousness of the misconduct in terms of the damage caused, the previous behaviour of the director in question and the need for protection of the public from the actions of the director. This assessment is used to prioritise the most serious cases, which are then investigated using the powers in the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986.
Of course, not all investigations will lead to disqualification proceedings being brought. One outcome of the investigation might be that the director acted reasonably given the information that was available to them at the time, and if this became apparent then the investigation would be concluded. Where there is evidence of misconduct, though, and the Secretary of State is satisfied that public interest criteria are met, disqualification proceedings may be sought, either through an application to the court or through the director giving an undertaking not to act as such for a period of time, depending on the determined seriousness of the misconduct. An application for disqualification must not be made after three years from the start of the insolvency proceedings unless the court gives its permission. For unfit directors of insolvent companies, the period of disqualification can be between two and 15 years.
Following on from successful disqualification proceedings, if it can be identified that the director’s conduct caused losses to creditors, then the Secretary of State may seek payment from the director for their benefit by way of disqualification compensation. As with the disqualification proceedings, this may be dealt with by way of an application to a court or by an undertaking given by the director. Compensation may be paid to the Secretary of State for the benefit of a specific creditor or creditors, or a specific class or classes of creditors, or instead may be paid to the insolvency officeholder for the benefit of all creditors.
Compensation work is undertaken by investigators at the Insolvency Service, so as much of the money as possible may be returned to creditors. I confirm for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and my noble friend Lord Leigh, that no preference is given to any particular creditors or groups of creditors, other than that the compensation payments are for the benefit of those who have lost out as a result of the misconduct. It is important to note also that, if the insolvency officeholder had already used the various provisions in the Insolvency Act 1986 which allow them to seek recoveries for the benefit of creditors, such as the fraudulent or wrongful trading provisions, then compensation would very probably not be sought for the conduct which led to those claims so that the directors would not face double jeopardy.
Noble Lords will have seen that the Bill gives a similar standing to the new measures to investigate and disqualify former directors of dissolved companies as currently exists for insolvent companies and they use the same sections of the Company Directors Disqualification Act. Unlike insolvent companies, though, there will not be an officeholder in a dissolved company, so the investigation process will not start with a report on the director’s conduct. Instead, the Secretary of State will in most cases be alerted to potential misconduct through complaints received by members of the public. This will not mean that conduct reports provided by insolvency officeholders will be overlooked in favour of complaints received in dissolved companies. All will be assessed in terms of their relative seriousness and the level of public interest. A disqualification application must not be made after three years from the date of dissolution unless the court gives its permission.
This would perhaps be an appropriate point in my remarks to pay tribute to the excellent work of insolvency practitioners, who provide the conduct returns to the Insolvency Service, and who in many cases continue to assist with the investigative effort beyond that initial assessment.
Noble Lords may well recall that these measures were developed and consulted on back in 2018, before any of us had even heard of a disease called Covid-19 or a bounce-back loan. At the time, the Insolvency Service had been receiving a regular low level of complaints about the abuse of the process of company dissolution. Many of those complaints concerned its use in phoenix companies—where one company is dissolved only for another to spring up essentially doing the same thing but without the debts. Because of the dissolution, the Insolvency Service had been unable to take action against the directors responsible. The opinions of stakeholders on new powers to tackle this kind of misconduct were sought, and these were generally fairly positively received. Implementation of the measures has now become even more important and more urgent because of the risk of abuse of the dissolution process to avoid repayment of bounce-back loans.
This brings me to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. I can tell the noble Baroness that the Bounce Back Loan Scheme closed for new applicants on 31 March 2021. At the time of the scheme’s closure, £47.4 billion-worth of finance had been provided to some 1.5 million businesses. Given the levels of uncertainty around the economy and the virus, the anticipated fraud levels are very preliminary and speculative. They are not based on any repayment data because that did not even begin until May 2021.
I make a final point on the process for disqualification. I can confirm to my noble friend Lord Leigh that it would not be necessary for a company to be restored to the register for the conduct of its directors to be investigated, and the same applies if and when compensation is sought from a disqualified former director of a dissolved company. There will be no automatic restoration process, nor is there any need for one for the purposes of the investigation and disqualification. This way, the costs and administrative burden of restoration can be avoided.
I turn now, if I may, to the amendments seeking to establish a statutory reporting requirement for investigations and the resourcing of the Insolvency Service. I am pleased to confirm to noble Lords that, under an existing statutory requirement, Her Majesty’s Treasury directs the Insolvency Service to report annually on its work and finances. This is pursuant to a power in Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000. Its annual report and accounts include both an overview and an analysis of the agency’s performance over the course of the year. There are sections on how it makes use of resources available, including those used for enforcement activities and enforcement case studies, including disqualification and criminal prosecution. The report also includes information on how much money was returned to creditors during the year. Full accounts are provided, which are audited and signed off by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and the whole package is available to everyone online. Going forward, the annual reports and accounts will of course include relevant information on the new measures as part of the enforcement reporting package.
In response to a question from my noble friend Lord Leigh, specific information on money returned to creditors from compensation orders has not previously been published, as they are relatively new in this framework. However, I have asked the Insolvency Service to consider how this can best be achieved when such information becomes available. In addition, the Insolvency Service regularly makes available a large amount of insolvency and enforcement statistics and, again, these are readily available online.
Specifically regarding enforcement activities, the number of disqualification orders is published and updated monthly, and a breakdown of disqualification orders and undertakings obtained by the relevant section of the Company Directors Disqualification Act under which they were sought is provided. Other information provided on a monthly basis includes lengths of periods of disqualification. Furthermore, there is an annual report on the nature of misconduct in disqualification allegations. Future releases of statistical information will include the number of disqualified former directors of dissolved companies.
I note the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and my noble friend Lord Leigh about the reporting of how much money will be returned to creditors, and of course the Government are also concerned about getting money back for taxpayers. But I should emphasise that this measure expands the Secretary of State’s powers to investigate and disqualify culpable directors, and disqualification itself is not a process which is a mechanism for returning money to creditors. Instead, it is intended to protect creditors from future losses caused by those directors who, through their reckless or irresponsible behaviour, have shown themselves unfit to hold that position—and to deter others from behaving similarly.
The Secretary of State’s power to seek compensation from disqualified company directors was a welcome addition to the enforcement regime in 2015, which will obviously benefit from these new cases. Nevertheless, the purpose of the legislation is primarily as I described.
On the part of the amendment that requires a statutory review of the effectiveness of the mechanism for the new investigation and disqualification measures, I hope that noble Lords will be pleased to note that the Bill’s impact assessment gives an undertaking for a post-implementation review to take place within five years of commencement. As well as being in line with better regulation requirements, this will ensure that a proper assessment is undertaken of whether the use of the new powers has been effective.
Finally, I know that noble Lords, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, are keen to ensure that the Insolvency Service is sufficiently resourced to tackle wrongdoing and misconduct. Following the outcome of the spending review 2021, the Government are currently considering the resourcing level needed for the Insolvency Service to undertake its statutory functions, and that includes the additional proposed enforcement requirement contained in the Bill, should it be passed by the House. That process is ongoing, with budgets set to be finalised ahead of the next financial year.
I apologise for the length of my reply, but I hope that I have been able to satisfy noble Lords and reassure them that all the information they seek through their amendments will be published—some as part of an existing statutory requirement—and that the reviews that they look to secure are in fact already in place. Once again, while thanking all noble Lords for their contributions, their continued interest in this Bill and, of course, for their amendments, I hope I have been able to convince them not to press their amendments.
Before the Minister sits down, first I thank the Minister, who has largely been able to meet most of our concerns. On a point of clarification, he said something like, “There will be no automatic restoration process, nor is there a need for one” for the purposes of investigation and disqualification. Does that also mean that there would be no need for one for the purposes of pursuing a compensation order? Can the Minister confirm that there does not need to be reinstatement for the compensation order to be pursued?
I start by thanking the Minister for a very full response. Sometimes when I get a very full response, I wonder whether it is an attempt to overload the system, but actually it was very technical. I also thank him—I think on behalf of us all—for taking time to bring his officials together to talk us through it.
We established in Committee that the Bill does not have the capacity to deal with some of the serious concerns raised in our discussions. We will need to revisit some of the worst excesses and infringements of current legislation. Some of the personal testimonies to the levels of fraud and the fact that some directors were re-emerging and getting away with some unspeakable behaviour is still of huge concern to us all.
On reporting, would it be possible to have a conversation on how we can pull out the relevant information from the various reports to which the Minister referred? With the best will in the world, we will not all be able to sit down to go through a whole set of annual accounts. With the particular experience with Covid and the extent of concern about it, there is a real need for transparency. I hope that we can pick this up and take it forward.
My concern about resourcing is still very live, and I hope that after the reassurance on the spending review and the need to focus on this, the debate in this Chamber will help to inform the decisions that are made. Noble Lords will have heard several in-depth media reports on the concern about the levels of fraud that have been perpetrated over the past 18 months, and I think there is a lot more to come to light.
I thank the Minister for his reassurances, and we will keep scrutinising progress in this important area. I look forward to opportunities—perhaps through further legislation—to deal with some of the real problems that continue.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.
Clause 4: Extent, commencement and short title
Amendments 7 and 8 not moved.