Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Register of Overseas Entities (Delivery, Protection and Trust Services) Regulations 2022, which were laid before the House on 22 June 2022, be approved. These regulations are a particular delight for me because I promised the House that we would have them before the summer holidays, so I thank all those officials who worked so hard to deliver them. It shows what you get if you make rash promises—officials will work overtime to get them delivered for you.
These regulations form part of an essential tranche of secondary legislation needed to implement the Register of Overseas Entities, which I will refer to for ease as “the register”. It will be created—as noble Lords opposite me who took part in the debates will know—under Part 1 of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act, which gained Royal Assent earlier this year. I thank the House, and the Opposition in particular, for helping us to expedite that legislation.
The register will help to crack down on dirty Russian money, and any other kind of dirty money, in the UK, and other foreign corrupt elites abusing our open economy. The register will require overseas entities owning or buying property in the UK to give information about their beneficial owners and/or managing officers to Companies House. It will provide more information for law enforcement to help them to track down those using UK property as a money-laundering vehicle.
During the Act’s passage through Parliament, I undertook to deliver the register as soon as practicable. Subject to the approval of Parliament of this and two other instruments, the register will begin operating over the summer. The three UK land registries, together with Companies House, have been working at pace—I think “at pace” is probably an understatement—to build the systems and processes to ensure that we can get the register up and running as quickly as possible and that it works as intended.
The two other instruments I have just mentioned were laid before the House on 30 June and are subject to the negative resolution procedure. The subject of today’s debate is the only instrument subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. These regulations together will ensure that the register is ready to come into operation. It is worth saying that some further instruments necessary to underpin the register’s steady-state operation—and again this is subject to the hard work of officials over the summer—will be made in the autumn.
Overseas entities in scope that currently hold land in England, Scotland and Wales will have six months from the date that the register goes live to register their beneficial owners. We think the six-month transition period—and noble Lords will remember the debate we had—strikes a balance in allowing for the free enjoyment of property and helping to maintain the UK’s reputation as a stable investment environment while ensuring that property owners register their beneficial owners. It is worth saying that, if an overseas entity does not comply with these new obligations or submits false filings, the overseas entity and every officer in default can face tough criminal or civil penalties, and ultimately it will not be possible to sell the property in question.
These regulations being debated today must be in force when Part 1 of the Act is commenced in order for the register to operate effectively.
I turn to the details of these regulations, which are laid under the powers in the Act and two powers in the Companies Act 2006. They deal with three main elements. First, they require certain documents to be delivered to Companies House by electronic means. Secondly, they will set up a protection regime, which will allow individuals to apply to have their information made unavailable for public inspection. To apply, individuals must provide evidence that they are at serious risk of violence or intimidation if their link to the overseas entity is publicly disclosed. This mirrors an existing provision for the person of significant control of UK companies. Thirdly, they set out that legal entities governed by the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom that provide trust services regulated by a supervisory authority, and which are subject to their own disclosure requirements, are classed as “registrable beneficial owners”.
On the first of these measures, Part 2 of the instrument sets out that certain documents are to be delivered to Companies House by electronic means. Regulation 3 specifically sets out a duty on overseas entities to deliver certain information to the registrar by electronic means. These regulations state that the following information must be delivered to the registrar: an application for registration; the statements, information and anything required for the updating duty; an application for removal; the replacement of or additional documents delivered to the registrar for the purpose of resolving inconsistencies in the register; and an application to rectify the register. Regulation 4 sets out an exception to this duty to deliver documents by electronic means.
Mandating electronic delivery for certain documents enables the registration process to be streamlined and efficient, and is intended to avoid delays in processing valuable property transactions. Therefore, it is important that electronic delivery to the registrar can be mandated in most cases through these regulations.
The duty to deliver a document by electronic means will not apply where the document relates to an application which contains information about individuals who have applied for their details to be protected. The aim of this limited exception is to provide for those who may be at risk of serious harm to apply for protection from having their details publicly available on the register. Their details would need be handled in a sensitive manner. As such, electronic communication might not be appropriate in those cases.
On the second measure, Part 3 sets out details of the protection regime. This allows beneficial owners and managing officers, or the relevant overseas entities, to apply to have their details protected from disclosure and from inclusion in the public register, if they or someone who lives with them are at serious risk of violence or intimidation because of their link to the overseas entity. Evidence must be provided to the registrar to support the application. As I said, this approach is very similar to the one currently applied in the equivalent regime for people with significant control—PSC—of UK companies.
It is also important to note that an application for information to be protected from public disclosure will not exempt an overseas entity from the requirements of the Act in general. The required information must still be supplied to Companies House and will be available to law enforcement agencies if required.
As for the measure on corporate trustees, Part 4 provides a description of legal entities subject to their own disclosure requirements. Schedule 2 to the Act provides that beneficial owners who are legal entities must be subject to their own reporting requirements in order to be registrable beneficial owners. The aim of this measure is to ensure that corporate trustees fall within the definition of a registrable beneficial owner. If this definition is satisfied, overseas entities must take reasonable steps to obtain and provide to the registrar the required information about those trusts. This reflects the requirements already imposed where trustees are individuals. This will provide greater transparency about the true owners and beneficiaries of the land.
I thank the House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for examining this instrument and note that it was included as an instrument of interest in its recent report. I confirm that UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories that own property in the UK will be required to register details of their beneficial owners with Companies House in the same way that all others do.
In conclusion, I emphasise that the measures in these regulations are crucial for the effective operation of the register of overseas entities. I was grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate the operation of the register to a number of noble Lords last week. I hope that aided understanding of the measures and the objectives. Therefore, I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for arranging the recent meetings to which he just referred to show us the progress that has been made in creating the register of overseas entities and demonstrating the prototype. I was rather impressed by the progress and, in particular, the verification process that has been included.
The verification goes some way—further than I had expected—towards the suggestion that I and others raised in the debates on the Act, which was to have a regulated person sign off publicly that they have verified the information. We could still go a little further, by ensuring that the name of that person is shown up front and central in the publicly available database. I know it can be found, but I would like to see it in the key information on people involved in the entity, right alongside the beneficiaries, officers and directors. A search function that allows the database to be searched by verifier would also be a very useful tool. It would allow users to see whether any trends emerge and would soon highlight any enablers who are not taking the verification process seriously. The more publicly visible the verification is, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by those doing it.
I hope that the Government will look at strengthening that a bit but, more importantly, that the identities of those doing the verification will be rigorously checked, that the statistics will be closely monitored to identify any trends that emerge, and that action will be taken if it becomes clear, for example, that a small number of persons are verifying a disproportionate number of entities, especially entities registered in less than transparent locations.
I realise that that all relates to the SIs tabled under the negative procedure, but it is relevant to the instrument in front of us today, which mostly covers the rules that will allow the details of an entity to be kept private. Of course, there may be perfectly innocent reasons for that—for example, a celebrity who is worried about stalking, or things of that nature—but privacy must be the exception. These sorts of rules, if not rigorously applied, can creep to become the norm if we are not careful.
Can the Minister explain how the application of these rules for keeping details private will be monitored, and at what stage the Government would step in if there was evidence that the use of the rules was becoming more common than we would expect? What statistics will be available to the public about the use of these privacy rules? How will they be reported, and how regularly?
I am not completely clear which information will be private and which will be public if someone gets a dispensation. I spoke earlier about the verification process and the making public of the identity of the regulated person who carries out the verification being an important disincentive to casual, or even false, verification. If the details of the entity are private, will that also be private? If so, why? The identity of a regulated person is not likely to be sensitive. The regulations are to protect the privacy of people on an exceptional basis; they must not become a back-door way for enablers to avoid the disinfectant of publicity. The identity of the verifier should always be public. The Minister mentioned in his opening words the penalties for false filing that will apply to the directors and officers of the entity. Can he let us know what the penalties would be for a verifier who fails to verify appropriately?
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for his introduction and give apologies from my noble friend Lord Fox, who is unavoidably detained up a mountain. He would never normally miss an SI debate for the whole world. It is very good to see the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, in his place, as he played such a prominent role during the Bill’s Committee stage. Like him, I thank the Minister for arranging an extremely interesting and instructive hybrid demonstration of the digital application process, the way that it is put on the register and the way that the register will be maintained.
I want to speak to all three SIs, linked as they are, even if only one needs specific approval today. I welcome the speed at which the register is being brought into effect and echo the Minister’s praises for those who have been responsible for doing so. It goes quite some way to justify the rather cursory nature of the passage of the Act itself.
Of course, we still have unfinished business on the economic crime front and I hope very much that it is actively in the pipeline, to ensure that there are no kleptocrats or oligarchs out there who are unexposed. I hope that part 2 will consolidate the UK’s fragmented and ineffective anti-money laundering supervisory regime and reform corporate criminal liability law to ensure that it includes enablers. Enablers were very much the subject of our discussion in Committee. I hope that it combats the use of strategic litigation against public participation, which stifles public interest criticism of these characters, and empowers and resources Companies House to effectively monitor, verify and investigate suspicious companies. I hope that it will significantly increase resource for law enforcement agencies fighting economic crime and support whistleblowers to play an effective role in tackling economic crime. Could the Minister give us a little indication of when we might expect those goodies in the part 2 Bill?
On Regulation 7, I hope that the provisions regarding not putting information on the public register are rigorously applied. But I think there are questions when one looks through the regulation. Will certain elements of the enforcement and crime prevention authorities be consulted when an application under Regulation 7 takes place? What checks of the evidence provided by the applicant will be carried out? That is going to be an extremely important element to maintain that rigour.
As I said, we have had much discussion about enablers. It seems that those who do not comply with the requirements or make false returns on behalf of clients will be subject only to sanctions by their professional body or regulator. Have I got that right? I believe that that is what the Minister said when we had our demonstration. If that is correct, are there plans in part 2 to have sanctions on those professionals who give false verification under Section 16 of the Act, other than via professional bodies? Otherwise, it seems a very tame way of making sure that those who provide that verification do it honestly and with integrity.
It is notable that in this SI process the Act has actually been improved along the lines suggested in Committee by myself and my noble friend Lord Fox for overseas corporate trusts and nominee companies. I used the example of a Panamanian nominee company with multiple properties to point out the flaws in the original Bill. I believe—and I hope that the Minister can confirm—that that avenue is now completely closed, and that a Panamanian nominee trust company would have to disclose the beneficial ownership of every property in its portfolio.
I see that there is no impact statement. In fact, there is a statement in each SI that there is no impact from any of the SIs. That seems very strange. Is it a technicality? In other words, does the main impact come from the passing of the primary legislation? Or is it the case that this set of SIs and maintaining the register will have no impact? It seems extraordinary to put that statement into these SIs, when what they actually do is put into effect the really important part of part 1 of the economic crime legislation. I hope that the Minister can clarify where the Government believe that the impact is.
I have a little technical teaser for the SI team. I noticed that these regulations are made partly under Section 25(3) but not under Section 25(3)(e) and (g). Given that they are being made under paragraphs (a) to (d) and (f), that seems rather odd. Paragraph (e) is
“recording of restrictions in the register”
and paragraph (g) is
“the charging of fees by the registrar for disclosing information where the regulations permit disclosure, by way of exception, in specified circumstances.”
Since the SI specifically mentions the bits of the Act which are prayed in aid to make the regulation, it would be useful to know why these two paragraphs have been excluded.
We have three SIs here. Are any other SIs needed to bring the register into effect or is that it? Can we say it is done and dusted, all that needs to happen now is that Companies House gets on with it and the register will be open as soon as possible?
Finally, it would be useful to know from the Minister by when he expects the Crown dependencies and overseas territories to introduce public company ownership registers. I believe it was meant to be by the end of the year; are they still on track for that? In the meantime, will the Government ensure that the authorities in those dependencies and overseas territories will proactively share information with UK authorities to enable comprehensive sanctions designations?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining this instrument. As we know, it implements aspects of the new register of overseas entities, which will finally require owners of UK property to reveal their true identities and crack down on foreign criminals using UK property to launder money. I apologise for not attending the digital presentation, which sounded fascinating. Maybe I can look into that for the future.
As the Minister said, in order to do this, this instrument will require certain documents to be electronically delivered to the Registrar of Companies. It will also set up a protection regime which will allow owners and managing officers of overseas entities to apply to have their information made unavailable for public inspection, where there is evidence that they or someone in their household are at serious risk of violence or intimidation, and will set out that legal entities governed by the law of another country are subject to their own disclosure requirements.
These are all positive steps which we support. However, I think the noble Lords, Lord Vaux and Lord Clement-Jones, and I are looking for a bit more of an explanation so that these protections are not abused. If the Minister could share some of the detail of the protections that will be put in place to stop the overuse or abuse of these protections, I am sure your Lordships’ Committee would be appreciative.
There is a lot to be said here, but of course it has all been said before on many occasions, not least during the passage of the Economic Crime Act through this House in March. As such, I will not keep your Lordships for too long, repeating what has already been said. However, I have some points to make, primarily around the timetabling. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, picked up a few of those, but I would like to add to them.
There should be nothing controversial about knowing who really owns property in the UK in a healthy, transparent economy and making that information publicly available. Transparency in this area is essential. This is a matter not simply of targeting individuals or entities through sanctions but of fixing a broken system that has helped sustain Putin in his invasion of Ukraine. However, it is not just because of oligarchs and their position in Putin’s regime that this has finally being expedited. Like others, I congratulate the Bill team and the civil servants on their speed in pushing this through. It also deals with money launderers and tax evaders.
We have needed transparency in this area for years, but the Government have historically dragged their feet when we have called for these measures time and again. These steps were first promised in 2016, some time ago. In fact, when we have our next Prime Minister it will be four Prime Ministers ago. Since then, £1.5 billion- worth of property has been bought by Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin.
While the Government fulfilled their commitment to update on progress within eight weeks of the Act receiving Royal Assent, this update was lacking in substance. While the update is of course a positive step, it is four months later and these are only the first of several regulations to be implemented with regard to the register.
With the Summer Recess coming very shortly, the next steps will take even longer, so I have some key questions for the Minister. When can we expect the full implementation to take place? From when will ownership of UK properties have to be logged? When will it finally become public? With that, we support these regulations.
I thank noble Lords for their support and their valuable contributions. I think the measure has a wide measure of support. I too pay tribute to the officials who have worked long and hard to bring this into operation.
Before I talk about this, I will answer the point from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about economic crime 2, as we are not in fact referring to it; we are not allowed to call it that, for some strange reason, but it is the next tranche of economic crime legislation that we expect to introduce to Parliament shortly after the Summer Recess. The measure is being worked on now. I am afraid I cannot promise him that all the measures he outlined at length will be contained in it—I am sure we will have some debate about that—but we intend to take action on some or many of the things he mentioned, particularly reforms to Companies House.
The Government are committed to ensuring that this register strikes the right balance between improving transparency and minimising the burdens on legitimate commercial activity. The measures contained in this instrument will play a key part in the effectiveness of the register from its launch. To pick up on the point from the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, I hope we can bring the register live on 1 August. That is the intention.
These regulations are essential for the register of overseas entities to operate effectively from the outset. To answer the point from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, they will enable it to operate. I am afraid they are not the end of the regulations—we will need some additional ones to further clarify the operation, et cetera—but they will enable it to commence and the six-month countdown period to start. All existing entities, including those that have made transactions since 28 February, will have to register in that period. That was a discussion we had during the passage of the Act.
Four affirmative and six negative, I am informed by the experts. So we will be back, yes. We will return, as they say.
These regulations are essential for the register to operate, so we can commence it and get the six-month countdown period started. There has been some debate about whether we might expect a large rush of applications as soon as the register goes live. I reiterate that the vast majority of these overseas entities are legitimately owning property. They are corporations and others that legitimately own land, commercial properties, et cetera, in the UK. They will want to ensure that they are in compliance from the outset.
Mandating digital delivery for certain documents ensures that the registrar is able to receive and process information in a timely manner. An effective protection regime will protect those at real risk of serious harm because of their link with the overseas entity from the public disclosure of their details. I say again that this information must still be provided and will still be available to law enforcement. I will say a few more words about that shortly.
The measure on trustees allows for a consistent approach to dealing with corporate and individual trustees. It is a complicated area, but I assure noble Lords that we are attempting to close every possible potential loophole. We will also have some further measures in the economic crime Bill to tackle this issue of trustees, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, is always reminding me, is extremely complicated. But we are determined, and we will not hesitate, to return to this if any inadvertent loopholes are discovered. But we want to make it harder for corporate structures to be altered to avoid reporting requirements.
The main point raised—predictably—by noble Lords was the issue of protections. To try to alleviate concerns, I will give some of the statistics for the existing regime. There are something like 4.9 million companies registered on the UK companies register. Since 2016 there have been 436 applications for protections from that register, of which 163 have been granted—163 out of 4.9 million. Bearing that in mind, there are about 35,000 overseas entities; it is possible, given their nature, that a slightly greater proportion of the persons with significant control of overseas entities will want to be exempted, but I hope I can reassure noble Lords that the system is not being abused and that, given the proportions, tiny numbers of applications are being granted. Of course, I will make sure that this is closely monitored and that there is no excessive use of this provision. It will be only for those who have a very real need for that protection. But I think we can see from the use of it—it is pretty much an identical regime for the persons with significant control—that it is a tiny proportion, and an even smaller proportion of applications are granted. As I said, only 163 of 436 applications were granted.
This will be a public register. All information will be displayed, aside from, as I mentioned, protected information, such as date of birth and residential address information. Of course, again, that will be available to law enforcement and other public bodies. Companies House does have experience of determining these applications for protections since the PSC regime was introduced in 2016. We will ensure that the mechanism is robust and we will require applicants to provide evidence as to why they think there is a serious risk of violence or intimidation. If necessary, we will refer cases to the appropriate law enforcement agency. I reiterate that the protection does not exempt the person from disclosing this information to Companies House and all protected information is still available to law enforcement. So there is no place to hide.
I will give the figures once again. There were 436 applications under the previous regime, and 163 of them were granted.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, asked about verification. Agents who will provide the verification will be UK anti-money laundering supervised professionals—
Before the Minister moves on to verification, I just wanted to probe a little further on the Regulation 7 points he was talking about. It is reassuring that it will be a limited number, but my question was about Regulation 7(3):
“The grounds on which an application may be made are that the applicant reasonably believes that if that protected information is available for public inspection or disclosed by the registrar … the activities of that overseas entity; or … one or more characteristics or personal attributes of the relevant individual when associated with that overseas entity, will put the relevant individual or a person living with the relevant individual at serious risk of being subjected to violence or intimidation.”
How is Companies House going to assess that? Is it going to consult other crime prevention authorities? Is there an evidence-checking process?
The answer to that question is: absolutely. It is kept deliberately—not vague; that is the wrong word. There is a wide scope here, because different individuals will be affected in different ways. They might be foreign diplomats, to take one example. There could be a number of different opportunities depending on their personal circumstances, but the Act is very clear: they will have to provide evidence. That evidence will be checked and verified, and if necessary the head of Companies House, the registrar, will consult the law enforcement agencies.
Noble Lords can see that 163 out of the 436 applications made were granted under the previous regime, so it is clearly a rigorous process and they will have to provide the appropriate evidence. We will monitor it and make sure that the system is not abused. I reiterate that the information is still available to law enforcement; it is just not on the public register. It is also worth saying that there is considerable interest in this from transparency organisations, who I am sure, once the register goes live, will—correctly—crawl all over it and point out any obvious errors or omissions, or anybody who is attempting to avoid the provisions.
I move on to the verification of agents. They will be UK anti-money laundering supervised professionals, and most of those individuals already carry out due diligence when completing property transactions. Those who seek to circumvent the requirements of the Act, including any who provide misleading, false or deceptive information, are liable to criminal or civil sanctions. The identity of the person carrying out the verification will be made public and appear on the face of the register, and if necessary there will be future enhancements for making that information more accessible. We are determined that there is no place to hide for either those seeking to acquire property maliciously or the professionals who enable them to do so.
Companies House will engage with the verifier’s supervisory body, but ultimately the enhanced false filing offence may be used in this circumstance, if necessary. Some of the feedback we have had from professional organisations—I shall not mention them—think that these provisions are too draconian; they are unwilling to put their name to some of them. I did say that there was unlikely to be much sympathy in the House for that position.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, questioned the impact assessment. The secondary legislation does not make any significant changes that were not anticipated in the primary legislation impact assessment, and for this reason, in line with the better regulation framework, for which I am also responsible, we did not think another impact assessment was necessary and one has not been produced.
The noble Lord also rightly raised the point of tackling the enablers of economic crime. As I said, the information about agents and verifiers will be published on the register. We believe the supervisory regime we have in the UK is comprehensive. We regulate and supervise all businesses most at risk of facilitating money laundering, including accountants, estate and letting agents, high-value dealers, trust or company service providers, the art market, et cetera.
HMRC’s civil and criminal enforcement powers and capabilities are an integral part of government work to collect and protect revenue and build a trusted, modern tax and customs department. Our enforcement powers allow us already to tackle a minority who attempt to cheat the system and whose actions cause wider harms. HMRC uses a range of supervisory enforcement powers robustly, to address money laundering and terrorist financing risks caused by non-compliant businesses. The aim of this register is to help them in that task.
As always, of course, the Government keep the law under regular review to ensure that there is a robust legislative framework. Following concerns that parts of the criminal law may not be fit for purpose and calls for legislative certainty around the prosecution of corporate bodies for economic crime, the Government sought to establish whether there was a case for change. In 2020 the Government commissioned the Law Commission to undertake a detailed review of how the legislative framework could be improved to appropriately capture and punish criminal offences committed by corporations, with a particular focus on economic crime. That paper was published on 10 June this year. We are carefully assessing the options presented and are committed to working quickly to reform corporate criminal liability.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised SLAPPs, which are an abuse of the legal system involving the use of legal threats and litigation to silence journalists, campaigners and public bodies who investigate wrongdoing in the public interest. The invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns about oligarchs abusing laws and seeking to shut down reporting on their corruption or economic crime. The MoJ has published targeted proposals against SLAPPs, including legislative changes such as establishing a definition for SLAPP cases and early strikeouts of claims that meet that threshold, strengthening defamation defences and cost capping. The MoJ recently held a call for evidence on these proposals to gather a robust basis on which to introduce targeted reforms swiftly. It also held a series of round-table events with key stakeholders—campaigning journalists, claimant and defendant lawyers, media groups and civil society organisations. The MoJ is currently analysing the evidence gathered and will publish its response in due course.
I am also happy to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the combination of this year’s spending review settlement and private sector contributions through the new economic crime levy will provide funding of approximately £400 million over the next three years for law enforcement to combat economic crime. This includes the £63 million for Companies House reform to help it to carry out the necessary transformations for delivery of the new powers and the updated register.
This SI does not make provision for the charging of fees, so we do not need to rely on Section 25(3)(g). Companies House will not charge specified public authorities to access protected information. The equivalent regulation was not necessary, removing a potential barrier.
I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, on the timing of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act and these regulations. The Government are at the forefront of tackling illicit finance, including that linked to Russia. Combating the illicit finance threat from source to destination has never been more important. Serious criminals, corrupt elites and individuals who seek to engage in this activity know that they are now under our targets. They also know that the full weight of law enforcement and the tools that accompany it will bear down on those who threaten the security of the UK and our allies. With the legislation we have introduced in recent years, we have shown that we take the threat of illicit finance, including from Russia, extremely seriously. This register is a key part of this and will help to combat illicit finance.
I think I have answered all the questions that were put to me. I once again thank all noble Lords who have taken an interest in this. As I said, this will be complementary to the additional provisions that will be introduced in the further economic crime Bill coming in the autumn. In the meantime, these SIs enable the register to be up and live in the early part of the summer. Therefore, I commend the regulations to the Committee.