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Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023

Committee (2nd Day)

Relevant document: 27th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee.

Clause 54: Filing obligations of micro-entities

Amendment 45

Moved by

45: Clause 54, page 38, line 40, at end insert—

“(6) Electronic documents delivered to the registrar under this section must comply as to accuracy, completeness and consistency with the registrar’s requirements.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment creates an obligation for documents delivered to satisfy the registrar’s requirements as to digital formatting.

My Lords, I confess that these amendments essentially offer me another bite of the cherry because they are almost exactly the same as amendments that appeared last time in respect of non-micro accounts, but for completeness I had to put them in here again to cover micro-companies. That was fortuitous because, given that the Minister so eloquently batted away my amendments last time, this gives me another opportunity to make pretty much the same case.

Completeness is defined in Sections 444 onwards of the Companies Act—for example, the balance sheet that was signed by the directors—but the Act and this Bill say nothing about tagging that information. It says that the registrar can require an electronic format, but the legislation does not really tell us what completeness means; in particular, electronic completeness and the area I highlighted, which is inconsistencies within the accounts. For example, an oligarch is a director of a company and his name quite correctly appears on the accounts, but that name has not been tagged or it has been tagged as something other than the director’s name so when one searches for that name, it will not be found; so not tagged means it is not complete or tagged wrongly means that it is not self-consistent. It is no good accountants arguing that the accounts are complete because the director has been named because if the name has not been tagged, it will not be found. I hope that before Report there will be some focus on this issue for micro- and other accounts to ensure that full advantage is taken of electronic filing so that searches can be made easier and the registrar has the responsibility to make sure that the accounts are correct.

I am minded to speak on my noble friend Lord Sarfraz’s intention to oppose the Question that Clause 54 stand part, which is in this group. I am aware that he is not in his place, but, first, having thought about this for some time and prepared some notes on it and, secondly, to avoid it becoming an issue down the line, I want to make the point that I do not think micro-companies should be excluded. They were not excluded, I think, until about 2013. Micro-company accounts can cover revenues in millions of pounds. There could be a temptation to form a number of micro-companies which in aggregate are quite substantial, so I urge the Minister to allow Clause 54 to stand part. I beg to move.

My Lords, I apologise for not taking part at Second Reading due to other parliamentary commitments. I have a couple of small questions, but one of them is quite important.

First, if we are dealing with micro-companies, they are not likely to have substantial staff. There must be some safeguard so that the authorities do not change the requirements for reporting and leave these poor micro-entities with perhaps two or three months to totally amend their software. That has happened in certain other areas, so there must be some requirement that, while it is quite right that the registrar’s requests should be met, there must be some safeguards and those having to do the returns must be given adequate time to do them.

Secondly, I have one small point in relation to new Section 443A(2) inserted by Clause 54. At the end, it says, “(and any directors’ report”). I assume the directors’ report refers to the accounts, but that is not totally clear.

My Lords, in the light of what we have just heard, I want to touch on the micro-company side of things. Micro-companies may be small but they are not unimportant. They are probably the single biggest sort of company used for VAT fraud, for example. There has been a lot of publicity recently about some poor chap in Cardiff. Several hundred companies were registered at his address, then he started receiving large bills from HMRC. It is precisely this sort of company that is used for that; we should not be too generous to these companies in relation to reporting requirements.

My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, together with the notice given by the noble Lord, Lord Sarfraz, that he intends to oppose the Question that Clause 54 stand part of the Bill; I suspect that in his absence this will not be part of the process but I will cover the issues that are raised.

I will confine myself to a few observations. First, no one wishes to stifle micro-enterprises with too onerous a set of reporting duties but, in a Bill that has the word “transparency” in its very name, it is surely important that micro-entities are not exempted from such a reporting duty. That small businesses are not merely the flywheel but the very motor of the UK economy is well known and constantly rehearsed. I have no need to go through all that but flourishing surely cannot come at the price of opacity when that opacity will be exploited in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, suggests it has been in the past and we know is a problem.

The amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, do not merely serve as a symbolic recognition of this fact but serve a useful practical purpose, which I will turn to. It is the stated aim of the Government for Companies House to be a fully digital organisation by 2025. The amendments under discussion ensure that electronic documents submitted to the registrar not only conform with its standard electronic format but ensure that they meet standards of accuracy, completeness and consistency. Surely, each of these measures is desirable and, taken together, they are more desirable still.

If the Government are not minded to accept the noble Lord’s amendments, it would be useful to know which of these requirements they regard as superfluous. It would also be helpful to know how the Government feel that these amendments fail to assist Companies House in meeting its own target of becoming fully digital in the next two years, which seems a very challenging target.

My Lords, I just want to come in on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, on micro-accounts. It was actually 11,000 companies that were registered to this poor man’s residential address in Wales. It all relates to a new loophole, which has been discovered by foreign traders selling on the internet. Up until Brexit, they were essentially avoiding VAT because there was no real mechanism for HMRC to recover it all around the world but, when we left the European Union, we brought in our own regulations. There is a loophole that if, as in this case, you are a Chinese trader and you register a company in the UK, you do not have to pay VAT through the platform on which you are selling the goods.

HRMC is completely floored by this. In its letter to Meg Hillier, it said simply that it had not recognised any fraud so far. Let us get real. Part of the problem is that it is not getting the data. If it could scrape all the data off those 11,000 company accounts, it would very quickly see the pattern.

There appears to be a chorus of agreement, so I will not add terribly to its length. This is just to thank the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, from whose knowledge of this area we benefit. We should be in a position to listen.

We had a meeting with officials yesterday, and my read-out is that the reason for the government resistance to the previous versions of these amendments referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, was, in a sense, practical. The accounts are signed off by the board and auditors, and something needs to be done thereafter to tag them. The departmental team seemed worried that something might go wrong in that tagging process, so we should not go down this route.

Having prepared more than 20 company accounts—I concede that they were largely for large businesses—this always happens. The board signs off a set of accounts and then prepares to communicate it in a number of different media. The accounts are put in an annual report, a Stock Exchange announcement system and a website. In each case, there is a process to make sure that the read-across is performed correctly. I suggest that the practical constraint that somebody might do something wrong does not outweigh the benefit of mandating this tagging process across the board.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, and others that micro-companies should still be included in this process.

My Lords, I think the consensus continues. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, for introducing this group. As he said, this set of amendments really repeats those spoken to earlier, but in this case concerns micro-entities. He made the points about either accidentally or deliberately tagging wrongly, and that not seeming a substantial argument against increasing its use. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, companies are well used to producing and presenting accounts in different media and ensuring that they are presented consistently across them. This tool should extend their use.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, and others that the Clause 54 stand part debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sarfraz, is not appropriate for the Bill. As others have said, micro-companies are not actually that small. Some numbers have been presented, but the figure I have is that 1.3 million micro-entity accounts were filed in 2019-20, the largest proportion of accounts filed with Companies House. The figures I have are of a turnover of less than £632,000 on a balance sheet of £316,000 with 10 or fewer employees. Over the years, I have been involved in a number of businesses of that sort of size, but they can and do sometimes grow into much larger businesses. There needs to be consistent tracking of these companies to see where they have come from and make predictions about where they might go, so I agree with the point on that made by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh.

Other noble Lords agreed with this point, so I hope that the Minister will resist the argument that Clause 54 should not stand part, if the noble Lord, Lord Sarfraz, chooses to speak to it, and is sympathetic to the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Leigh.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register of interests, including as a director and person with significant control at AMP Ventures and as a shareholder of several other businesses and companies. I do not believe I have any personal conflicts represented today.

I also thank all Members of the Committee who participated in our useful and instructive discussions over the past month or so. I am sorry that the Easter break we enjoyed sort of broke our continual discussions, but I hope that we will reinstigate them in the near future. I am fully available over the next few days, particularly before the next series of Committee amendments and over this process, to make sure that the House collaborates together to reform Companies House for the first time in nearly 100 years, and that we bring to bear the crucial reforms that will enable us to have a transparent business environment that allows businesses to flourish and the data that they provide to Companies House to be used more effectively to create greater wealth and private enterprise in this country. I hope that, in my actions, noble Lords see my desire to collaborate very closely with all your Lordships to ensure that we all reach the same end.

I thank my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley, whom I described as a “business guru” at the previous Committee meeting he was gracious enough to attend. I understand that he has put this as his screensaver on his WhatsApp group or whatever and, although I am delighted to have boosted his business confidence, we are not here solely for that. My noble friend’s Amendments 45 to 47, which were well supported by the noble Lords, Lord Naseby and Lord Ponsonby, address concerns on the correct formatting of electronic content, which I would like to discuss a little further.

The Government and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments behind the amendments, which seek to ensure that the electronic formatting of filings submitted to Companies House is accurate and complete. The amendments are intended to work together to make it a requirement on all companies, irrespective of size, to submit electronic documents consistent with registrar rules. In principle, the philosophy behind that is the whole point of the reforms that we are bringing forward today.

However, the Government—and my team and I—do not feel that these amendments are necessary. Clause 73 amends Section 1068(4) of the Companies Act 2006 so that the registrar can mandate electronic delivery and the electronic format of documents by way of the registrar rules in Section 1117 of that Act. I have the document here and have just confirmed it myself.

Registrar rules already require companies to file digitally and specify the technical requirements to be met in this regard. Companies are obliged to comply with these rules. An additional power in the Bill would duplicate these requirements. As electronic formatting is both a technical and an administrative requirement, it is more appropriately placed in registrar rules than in the legislation. I emphasise the commitment of the Government to ensure that this happens and that there is flexibility in the administration of this process. I ask my noble friend Lord Leigh to withdraw his amendment.

My noble friend Lord Sarfraz opposes Clause 54 standing part of the Bill. I notice that he is not in his place. I am not sure of the etiquette around this but since so many noble Lords have spoken on behalf of a point of view that I share, I think it is worth running through some key points. I thank my noble friend for his clause stand part notice and for the time he has taken to engage with me on this issue. Although I appreciate the points that he has raised about the risks of publishing micro-entity accounts on the register, I am afraid that the Government cannot support this amendment.

The decision to require micro-entity companies to file a profit and loss account was based on extensive consultation with stakeholders. The lack of quality financial information on micro-entity accounts was repeatedly flagged to us as a concern by a range of key stakeholders across law enforcement, business and the accountancy sector. We know that the minimal requirements that currently exist make incorporating as a micro-entity open to abuse by those who wish to present a false picture of a company’s financial position. Although the micro-entity company structure has legitimate business benefits, money laundering investigations have revealed that this company structure is also frequently misused.

A pilot comparing accounts filed with Companies House against those filed with HMRC identified almost £15 million of fraud and error relating to incorrect filings and a potential £100 million more that needed further investigation. Thousands of UK micro-entities were also linked to recent international laundromat cases, such as the well-discussed $200 billion moved through Danske Bank by actors within the Russian elite—entities which artificially reported low or no activity to Companies House.

Removing Clause 54 would mean that we would not have access to the fuller financial information that could prevent such cases in the future. It would also mean not being able to improve the financial information available to the customers and creditors who interact with micro-entities, or to the credit agencies which provide ratings on companies.

The Government are clear that collecting and publishing the accounts of micro-entities benefits law enforcement and business, but I acknowledge that there are areas that require further consideration. In particular, the value of publishing the accounts of small and micro-companies must be weighed against potential risks to privacy.

For the Committee’s benefit, a company is a micro-entity if it meets any two of the following criteria: a turnover of £632,000 or less; £316,000 or less on its balance sheet; or 10 employees or fewer. I am conscious that most companies are by definition micro-entities at their inception, and the vast majority of UK companies are micro-entities throughout their corporate life. There are risks in full publication of micro-accounts for all —this is a different point from the recording of the information; this is the publishing of micro-accounts—as this could, for example, reveal people’s personal income and so put at risk many small entrepreneurs.

Many small businesses are owned by couples or single individuals. It is their life; their entire financial wherewithal is in that unit, in effect, as a result of which we have to be quite thoughtful about how we portray that information. It is absolutely the case that, in many instances, this will give other people a great deal of financial information on individuals which, for many good and sensible reasons, such as privacy and security, it may be desirable that we ensure is protected in some way.

The Government intend to determine via secondary regulations how much of the data collected should be published, and we will settle on a way forward only after comprehensive engagement with business. Companies House and the Department for Business and Trade will continue to consider and engage stakeholders on these risks as secondary legislation develops. There is a broad existing power in Section 468 of the Act that enables changes to be made to Part 15 of the Act through regulations, subject to the affirmative procedure. I therefore ask my noble friend Lord Sarfraz not to oppose this clause.

Regarding the position of micro-entities, I spent a great deal of my time as a micro-entity in a partnership. I did not avail myself of limited liability provisions but, when people do avail themselves of the privilege of limited liability, they must recognise that there is an extra public interest requirement upon them because they have been freed from the prospect of personal ruin. Nowadays, we tend to forget about that balance—that bargain—and I just put in a plea that that is not forgotten. There is a bit of a quid pro quo for limited liability when it comes to transparency because you have to protect the public from otherwise unscrupulous people who just willy-nilly go easily bankrupt.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention. In discussions about the Bill, that philosophy has been raised. I may have mentioned on our previous day in Committee—I certainly mentioned it in private—that, given the very large number of companies registered in this country, one has to ask whether they are all necessary for the function that they purport to perform. Many individuals may be better off as sole traders or in other forms of partnership that do not need to go through these registration processes.

I am also aware of the privileges that limited liability offers, as a result of which there is a fair exchange in terms of the amount of information to be released. I absolutely agree with these principles that we have discussed. However, in this specific instance, it is absolutely right to have a thorough and deep consultation to make sure that through our actions we are not prohibiting people from running legitimate businesses and at the same time compromising their personal privacy or security. That is a sensible debate to have. The point, which is not necessarily specific to this amendment, is about the information that we collect. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that we collect the right amount of information so that we can increase fundamental corporate transparency and reduce abuse of the system.

I thank my noble friend for his reply and repetition of some of the remarks he was kind enough to make at our last meeting. He has prompted me to remind the Committee, for the record, of my commercial interests, as noted on the register, which include directorships and shareholdings of micro-entities. I will read Clause 73 again more carefully, and we might return to this on Report if I am not satisfied with that explanation.

On the micro-entity point, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is right. Those bands are correct, but it is two out of three: one could have a small balance sheet and a small number of employees but a huge turnover and be under the net. I was going to make the same point as that raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted: that is the bargain that a proprietor of a limited company makes with the public. You are protected by limited liability, but there must be disclosure. In fact, as I understand it, the information has to be prepared and disclosed to HMRC in pretty much the same format, so there is no extra burden in submitting it to Companies House. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 45 withdrawn.

Clause 54 agreed.

Clause 55: Filing obligations of small companies other than micro-entities

Amendment 46 not moved.

Clause 55 agreed.

Clause 56 agreed.

Amendment 47 not moved.

Clauses 57 to 63 agreed.

Clause 64: Procedure etc for verifying identity

Amendment 48

Moved by

48: Clause 64, page 48, line 8, at end insert “and included in the register, including the name of the authorised corporate service provider who has made the verification statement”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment is intended to ensure that the identity of the authorised corporate service provider who makes the verification statement is included in the verification statement and on the register.

My Lords, in moving this amendment I will speak also to my Amendment 54. Given that these amendments relate to authorised corporate service providers, some of which will be regulated by accountancy bodies, I should remind the Committee that I am a non-practising member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

I thank the Minister for his opening comments and his generosity in his willingness to meet with us. In particular, I thank him for arranging a meeting yesterday with the officials. I also thank the officials very much for their generosity with their time yesterday, as that meeting rather overran.

This group relates to the role of authorised corporate service providers, or ACSPs. This is an important subject because the Bill, to a very large extent, effectively outsources much of the verification work to these ACSPs. To be authorised to carry out verification, they must be regulated in accordance with the money laundering regulations. At the moment, that is the only qualification required. The Secretary of State may add other requirements by regulation. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what plans the Government have in that respect.

These ACSPs are the very same people or entities that have been responsible for much of the company creation of the past. I think we can all agree that our system has not exactly been a beacon of transparency or probity. It is not for nothing that London became the preferred location for Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats and became known as the London laundromat or Londonistan—something, frankly, that we should all be ashamed of. That is why we had last year’s emergency legislation, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act, which introduced the overseas entities register, which is why we now have this Bill to try to clean that up.

Many—probably most—of these ACSPs are honest and diligent, but it must be the case that too many have not historically been as honest or diligent as they should or could have been. They have allowed, or dare I say enabled, the creation of the London laundromat. At best, a blind eye has been turned; at worst, there has been a more active enabling of the bad actors. Transparency International’s evidence to the Committee on this Bill in the other place stated:

“Investigations by civil society organizations and journalists have demonstrated that time and again UK TCSPs”—

trust and corporate service providers, which will now become these ACSPs—

“have been responsible for building and maintaining secretive networks built from thousands of shell companies, used to launder billions of pounds in illicit funds over the years”.

So I and, I believe, many others have many concerns about the level of reliance the Bill has on the ACSPs for the verification of the identity of directors and, in particular, the identity of persons with significant control. As I said, these ACSPs will include the very same people who have historically advised on how best to disguise ownership and control, and who have created the structures to do that.

If we are to rely on these ACSPs, as the Bill intends, we need to ensure that they carry out their roles properly and that they are incentivised to do the right thing, rather than remaining enablers for the kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists the Minister referred to at Second Reading. Just relying on the fact that they are regulated under the money laundering regulations, which is what the Bill currently proposes, is not enough. It has not worked until now and I can see no reason why that will change unless we strengthen the rules. The whole money laundering regime is hugely overdue for reform, which is the subject of Amendment 49 from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew.

The Bill provides for two ways in which the verification of the identity of directors and PSCs can be carried out. Either the identity can be verified by the registrar or a verification statement made by an ACSP can be delivered to the registrar. How that verification is carried out and the records that must be kept in either case will be set out in regulations to be made by the Secretary of State. We do not yet know what those will be. Perhaps the Minister can provide some information as to what he expects those regulations to contain. Amendment 50 in the next group, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, makes some useful suggestions in that respect.

I was rather surprised, even shocked, to find in Clause 68 that the verification statements, including the identity of the ACSP which has made that statement, will not be available for public inspection. I can see no reason for hiding such information, so could the Minister please explain the rationale for it being specifically hidden from public view? My Amendments 48 and 54 are designed to address that by making the verification statement and the name of the ACSP available for public inspection. I am a great believer in the sterilising nature of daylight on these sorts of activities. It will concentrate the minds of the ACSPs if they have to make their verification statement in public; in other words, to stand publicly behind what they have stated. It will put their reputation at stake.

The Minister may argue that these statements are being kept hidden to protect personal information, so I want to be clear here. I am not talking about making any private information public, only the verification statement itself and the name of the ACSP making the statement, nothing else. The verification statement is simply a statement by the ACSP that it has verified the identity in accordance with the regulations. It will not include personal information, so that is not a good reason to hide the information. Let us also be clear that this would not add any burden. The ACSP making the statement must carry out its verification work in order to do so, regardless of whether it is made public or kept private. The only difference is making that statement publicly available in the register; there is no additional work required or burden created.

Why does it matter if the verification statements and details of the verifier are public? First, I believe that the fact of making the statement publicly—in effect, putting their reputation on the line—will concentrate the minds of the ACSPs. Remember that they are supposed to be professional, regulated entities. Secondly, making this available to the public allows people, especially analysts and those at organisations such as Transparency International—and the civil society organisations and journalists that it referred to in its evidence, which I mentioned before—to identify the trends. We will be able to see whether there are particular ACSPs or types of ACSPs which deal with companies that appear more dubious. As trends emerge, the use of a particular ACSP or class of ACSP may even raise a red flag—or, perhaps, an orange flag.

As I said previously, some of these ACSPs are the very people who enabled the creation of the London laundromat. Their activities up till now have been behind the scenes; let us make them public. It is not dissimilar to auditors: they have to state publicly that they have carried out their audit and people can see who carried it out. Some names give greater credibility to the company accounts than others. We do not hide audit statements or auditor names, so why would we hide the verification statement or name of the verifier?

I argued for exactly the same thing in debates on the rather rushed first economic crime Bill, saying that we should name publicly the regulated entities which verify the information on the overseas entities register. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, mentioned this on our previous day in Committee and the fact that the Joint Committee on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, which he chaired, recommended this as well. So I am delighted that while the Government did not agree during that debate, they appear to have taken another look and concluded that it is appropriate that the verifying entity should have to be made public on the overseas entities register.

The identity of what is referred to as the due diligence agent is made available publicly on the overseas entities register, including the name of the agent and the person with overall responsibility there, the address of the agent and its money laundering number. If it is appropriate for the overseas entities register, why would that not also be the case for our domestic companies? My Amendments 48 and 54 do not go as far as the details that are made publicly available on the overseas entities register. They probably ought to require the same information.

I also put my name to Amendment 50A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell—albeit I was too late for it to appear on the Marshalled List. His idea about publishing SIC codes would be helpful to Companies House in its risk-based assessment of companies, so I urge the Minister to consider it. Again, it adds next to no burden but would improve transparency.

I will not comment on the other amendments in this group, as the authors have not spoken to them, beyond saying that I will support any idea that would strengthen the oversight of and improve the transparency relating to ACSPs, providing that it does not add an unreasonable burden. I hope the Minister will take the same approach.

The role of ACSPs is so central to the success of the Bill that we must do everything reasonable to make sure that they do their job honestly and diligently. At the very least, it makes sense to make sure that their activities are transparent, so that we can see how well they are carrying out their roles. Amendments 48 and 54 would add no additional burden or cost; they simply allow a little daylight to be shone on the activities of ACSPs and would bring the companies register in line with the overseas entities register. I therefore urge the Minister to accept them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I will speak to the amendments in this group in my name and those of my noble friends. In opening, I agree with everything that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. It was a compelling speech and I will listen to the Minister’s response to it with great interest. In fact, I will go further: in these amendments are the types of issues that may well be voted on, on Report. Of course, this is not up to me, but I can talk with confidence about my party’s point of view.

Amendment 48A in my name would provide an extra layer of protection when it comes to unique IDs. It would ensure that a proposed director would sign a document to state whether or not they had a unique ID, even under a different name. In the event of an individual giving fraudulent details, this provides another piece of evidence so that even if names, details or passports had changed, there would be a way of retrieving the identity of the original person.

Amendment 50B was provided to me by Westminster City Council. It would strengthen the Bill to ensure that third-party agents provide an annual risk assessment and summary of fees charged, which will help the registrar identify questionable practices. The purpose of this is to raise a red flag if fees are either too high or too low. This may help the people who need to pursue enforcement procedures in identifying businesses that are not set up for the purposes they are claiming. That would help enforcement agencies based in local authorities, and others.

Amendment 51A would allow the Secretary of State to create, in essence, a dodgy business list. It requires the identification of a legally liable individual, so that local authorities and HMRC know who to pursue for taxes, business rates, et cetera. Westminster City Council, for example, would like to see included things such as the American candy stores, vape stores, souvenir shops and car washes that are likely to be involved in fraudulent businesses.

Amendment 52 centres on the ability of ACSPs, foreign ACSPs in particular, to undertake identity verification procedures on behalf of the registrar. Using ACSPs will work only if they are effectively regulated and trusted. This amendment would first ask the Secretary of State to list the number of foreign corporate service providers, as the regulations allow for service providers outside the UK to undertake verification checks and to incorporate a company in the UK.

Secondly, Clause 64 creates the ability of the Secretary of State to allow someone to register as a foreign ACSP, even if the person is not a relevant person as defined by Regulation 8(1) of the money laundering regulations. This mechanism is allowed if the Secretary of State believes that the regulatory regime governing the person in their own territory has similar objectives to the regulatory regime under the money laundering regulations.

This amendment would ask the Government to list the number of foreign ACSPs approved through this mechanism and in which countries they are based. It is absolutely right that the Government are specific about which regulatory regimes they believe meet the standard of our own regime. Additionally, we believe that the language is woolly when it says that similar objectives do not take into account the effectiveness of that regulatory regime.

My amendments, together with the others in this group, try to enhance the role of the ACSPs to use this tool to crack down on businesses, both large and small, involved in illegal behaviour—to stop people taking advantage of the opportunities available in our country through Companies House and the facilities available in the City of London. I hope that the Minister will consider these amendments in a positive light and seek to enhance the protections we can get for our businesses, which we have an opportunity to do in this Bill.

My Lords, I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I will deal with my own suggestions in a bit more detail in a moment but I want to shake the Government out of any sense of complacency in this area. We have a once in a five or 10-year opportunity to sort these problems out easily, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, said, without imposing unnecessary costs on organisations. I support the amendment.

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 50A in my name, to which the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, have kindly added their names. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for his supportive comments a few moments ago. Before I turn to my amendment, I should like to add my support, as others have, for the noble Lord’s Amendments 48 and 54 in this group.

Like the noble Lord, I do not understand why there is any objection to the name of the firm paid to register a company being included by that firm as part of registration. Any product typically has the manufacturer’s name on it; indeed, in some cases, it is a form of advertising. The identification of the firm would enable more efficient contact between the registrar and that firm, and would make visible patterns of registration, which are so important in risk-based analysis of likely fraud and, therefore, the necessary enforcement.

Amendment 50A would mean that any authorised corporate service provider registering companies would be required to make transparent to the registrar their client risk assessment processes; to identify annually in a simple electronic format how many times specific SIC codes have been used and that they are content that these codes are appropriately applied; and to disclose further details of specific company risk assessments to the registrar or other relevant bodies on request. Finally, the registrar would publish annually an aggregated summary of the SIC information.

Before proceeding further, I will say a word about the SIC codes themselves. These codes are in need of an update. I am sure that the registrar is aware of this and will get to it in good time but I am mindful that we cannot remedy everything in one giant leap. The codes are not perfect, but they are the right place to start in categorising companies’ activities. We have been urged by the Minister, in his letter to many of us of 12 April, to give practical assistance to the registrar in a way that is most efficient and flexible.

The amendment is efficient because it bakes transparency and accountability into the processes of registering companies for third parties. It places the onus on those who earn fees by registering companies to provide the necessary information in a simple, standardised format. It is not a heavy data-entry burden on either the authorised bodies or the registrar, and the data will efficiently provide clear information of practical use. It enables law enforcement or local authorities to access the information without burdening the registrar. I understand that there is currently a bottleneck causing frustrating delays. As an aside, local authorities are interested in this amendment as a means to target corporate business rates evasion and VAT fraud more effectively.

The amendment is flexible because it will enable the identification of areas of concern, while the registrar retains the discretion to make further inquiries—only if she chooses to do so as part of a targeted, risk-based enforcement, which might be in respect of the types of companies being registered or those registering them.

I underline again that I am very conscious of the need not to drown the registrar in new processes and information. Production of the data required in proposed new subsection (b) in my amendment is neither onerous nor falls on the registrar. As a matter of interest, it took me about 15 minutes to build a little spreadsheet which the SIC codes and frequency of registration could be entered into. The annual summation of the data by the registrar’s office is, again, a simple and cost-effective way of reporting back with quantitative information about what is happening with company registrations.

In short, the amendment painlessly and efficiently increases transparency and provides essential, quantitative information vital both to economic growth and to bearing down on opportunities for economic crime, while at the same time taking a realistic approach to the resources of the registrar. I hope that we will have an opportunity before Report to agree an amendment along these lines.

My Lords, I agree with the arguments presented by the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Vaux, in respect of their amendments. I have a great deal of sympathy for the thrust of what they had to say. I hope I have not interrupted my noble friend Lord Agnew, who spoke a moment ago. It may well be that I am getting ahead of him by expressing my support for his Amendment 51.

It seems to me that what we are about today is not placing burdens on business. We are not anti business, we are pro honest business, we are pro clean business, and we are pro having a registrar who has the powers to ensure that what is done within our economy is necessarily cleaner than it might have been in the past.

I see no problem at all in requiring ACSPs to be identified. I see no real burden on businesses in requiring them to comply with the terms of these amendments. We need to grasp this opportunity, as my noble friend Lord Agnew said a moment ago, because these Bills come along very infrequently and these so-called burdens on business are brushed aside as matters which are far too burdensome; whereas, as the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, pointed out, although I could not possibly do it myself, it took him 15 minutes to design a spreadsheet. If it took the noble Lord 15 minutes, I am sure there are people half our age who could do it in seven and a half minutes. It strikes me that there are people all across the business economy of this country who are just laughing at the sloth of Parliament in dealing with these matters.

My noble friend Lord Faulks and I sat on a committee dealing with the predecessor Bill to this one. We were told that things were going to happen with great speed. It was not until last year that my noble friend’s committee was able to see some of the benefits of the work that he did.

Now, we are waiting further and being told by a Conservative Government that we must not overdo the burdens on business. Frankly, business is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself. Our job is to make sure that the legislation is apt to do the job that we require of it: ensuring that we have a clean, honest business environment where financial crime is not just inhibited but publicly and expressly disapproved of. Whether we bite on these particular amendments or do it in some other way—I hope that the Government will come up with something that appeals to them between now and Report—I expect us, as one of the leading economies in the world, to be able to construct a system that does not allow bad actors to get away with doing bad things because we do not have the sense of purpose or initiative to deal with them.

My Lords, I apologise; I should have dealt with my amendments when I stood up originally. I will deal with the three that I think are relevant now: Amendments 49, 51 and 63.

I want to stress to noble Lords just how broken the system is at the moment. The ACSPs are not being supervised adequately. A 2021 review found that 81% of professional body supervisors were not supervising their members effectively; just to add to the confusion, there are more than 20 supervising bodies. Half of these supervisors were found not to be ensuring that their members take timely action to improve their money laundering procedures. A third of those procedures still do not have an effective separation between advocacy and regulatory functions.

Let me drop into some details here. Essentially, HMRC marks its own homework on this once a year. In its report last year, it owned up to at least six problems. Regulation 58 of the MLR—the money laundering regulations—requires HMRC to carry out fit and proper testing. This year’s assessment revealed HMRC’s failure to keep pace with the requirement to register a business within 45 days, with its performance worsening over the year, down from 78% in 2021 to 70% in 2021-22. In practice, this means that more businesses—in fact, nearly a third of them—are operating outside the scope of the supervision for longer than in previous years.

There is an issue with recruitment and staff training; I will quote from its report in a minute. There also continue to be delays in publishing sectoral guidance for businesses under supervision. The volume of face-to-face visits in its investigations has collapsed. Yes, we have had Covid, but we are beyond Covid now. There were 1,265 face-to-face visits in 2018-19 but last year, in 2021-22, that was down to 289. Lastly, HMRC has censuring and injunction powers that it is not using. These things just are not happening.

Just read the report that it has written, which I think is a master of the English language. It states:

“The AMLS team largely has effective managers”.

What is that saying? It also states:

“However, it is clear that performance is not consistent across the team, which has made it harder at times to make improvements to supervision”.

Those are its own words. It goes on to announce a case study, which happens to be on TCSPs. It had a concentrated week—one week—in which it suddenly found that it could issue 12 warnings and one penalty. Also, 23 compliant businesses were identified as needing regulation and 14 cases were identified as requiring further investigation—and that is in just one week.

Let us look at who is keeping an eye on HMRC: the Treasury. Every year, it produces a supervision report entitled Anti-money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism. In it, the Treasury says that, despite some improvements, improvement is required in several areas. It stated:

“Many PBSs had not implemented a risk-based approach that effectively prioritised their AML supervisory and enforcement work”

and highlighted

“Gaps and inconsistencies in many PBSs’ approaches to information sharing”


“Gaps in most PBSs’ enforcement frameworks”.

It continued by saying that

“the prioritisation of supervisory activity in high-risk areas, such as Trust and Company Service Provider … supervision”

is weak, so on and on we go. I know that my noble friend the Minister will pour balm on my words and say that everything will be all right, but this is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to deal with these things.

The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, touched on some of the bad things coming out of this. I will give a couple of examples. In 2020, TCSPs played a crucial role in something called the FinCEN files. There was one example of a single formation agent setting up 385 companies. An analysis of these companies showed that just nine of them were linked to $4 billion-worth of missing income.

We then come to the Pandora papers, which came out only two years ago. Owners of more than 1,500 UK companies were using 716 offshore firms, including individuals accused of corruption. Offshore companies could be traced to a variety of jurisdictions. Most of these—678 of the 716—were registered in the BVI. All these companies were set up by just 14 offshore TCSPs, five of them owned by Russian citizens.

On and on we go, which is why my amendment tries to say, “Stop. Do not let this legislation take effect until we have cleaned up this sector”. I would be keen to hear from my noble friend the Minister why the Government are taking such a complacent approach to this. It is really not difficult or expensive. As the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, said, we are a laughing stock around the world, being called Londonistan, Londongrad or whatever else anyone chooses to use. We have this huge conduit of these offshore entities, which are feeding all this stuff in because they all want to use English law. We are a wonderful place for them, but they have to play by the rules as well. It is a whole ecosystem and this Bill is the opportunity to clean it up. I beg to move.

My Lords, I agree with an awful lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, said—in fact, with all of it. He laid out in some detail the fact that anyone could be one of these verification agencies, because there are 20 supervisors of all kinds of businesses where there could potentially be money laundering. It might be an accountant, a company formation agent or an estate agent. All kinds of people could become an authorised corporate service provider.

It is then quite important to be able to do the analysis to find out whether some are shadier than others, and whether there is a connection between businesses discovered to be less than spick and span and, perhaps, the precise identity—or maybe just the nature—of the type of verification agent. What on earth is the reason for keeping this secret? Who wants to keep it secret? Maybe it is HMRC, because it does not want us to know how bad it is, following on from the disclosure of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew. That is about the only explanation I can come up with, because it is such a vital piece of information. It makes me suspicious as to why it has to be secret. The other side of that is: who will be privy to the information? Presumably it will be Companies House. Will special checks be going on that it does not want us to know about? It is hard to imagine a reason, so the mood of the Committee on this is quite clear.

Most of the rest follows: I have added my name to some of these amendments but could have added it to them all. I would be curious to know the likelihood of the types of organisations that will be verifying identities getting penalties for when they get it wrong. If landlords get it wrong and rent out to illegal immigrants there are quite severe penalties, so what are the penalties for people who have a quick flick of the passport, think that is okay and register the company? If we do not know who they are, what are the penalties? Do they face penalties similar to those that landlords face, for example, when they have to do checks? It is very important. Most of us have had PEP checks, unfortunately. We have probably been to all kinds of places and had all kinds of documents looked through. I cannot say that it has been really thorough, even within banks. How thorough will this be and what happens when it is got wrong?

My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this group of amendments, but I rise just to say that I agree with everything that noble Lords have said thus far. My enthusiasm peaked when the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, spoke. What we have done in this debate is create the environment in which we are making these really important changes.

I have just one complicated question, with subcategories, for the Minister. I approach this question on the basis that if an ACSP is unwilling to have its name associated with its professional work and assessment, it seems to me that that should be a disqualification from it being appointed an ACSP. I ask the Minister: were ACSPs consulted at the consultation stage, before this legislation was drafted? Did the ACSP cohort ask for this level of anonymity which the Government are gifting it? I just cannot believe that, if they think they are doing a good job, they will not want their name associated with it—all the more for those abroad. If the City of London, our Companies Act and our registration are to be all the things that the Government wish for, it will be a sterling mark for those abroad that they are able to facilitate access to that environment because they are accredited by the Government of the United Kingdom, and the Secretary of State specifically, to do this work.

Why are we in this situation, where this really important part of the gateway into the system of limited liability is in the hands of individuals and businesses which the Government seem to think want nobody to know they are doing the work? It is incredible. I repeat: if an ACSP or somebody who wishes it, says, “I will do this only if you do not associate my name with the work publicly”, you should say to them, “Well, goodbye. You’re not doing it at all”.

The noble Lord has anticipated the point that I wanted to make, but I will make it very briefly. I am puzzled why we are so keen to protect anonymity. What is the respectable argument in favour of anonymity? Can the Minister help us with that? A solicitor, for example, will append their name to a document, identifying litigation or other contexts, and many other professionals have similar obligations. Why are we affording these particular people some special allowance? It simply does not make sense.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said, for some time, those of us involved in the register of overseas entities were anxious that there should be improved verification. I gather that there has been some movement in that direction. I ask the Minister to consider having regard to the weight of opinion that there should be a similar movement in this area.

My Lords, I will be very brief. First, having chaired three public companies, I totally agree with my noble friend Lord Agnew’s Amendments 49 and 51, with the exception of subsection (1) of the proposed new clause in Amendment 51. I wonder about it being every three years; that basically means once a Parliament, and I wonder whether every two years would be more appropriate.

Secondly, I ask my noble friend: is there a difference between “foreign” and “worldwide”? Are they coterminous, or not? That is important.

Finally, proposed new paragraph (d) in Amendment 50A says that any authorised corporate service provider registering companies must

“disclose promptly on request from the registrar, or other relevant authorities including local authorities”.

Anyone who has been in local government or the chair of a major committee would like that to be a little more specific; otherwise, it opens the door to arbitration and legal matters as to whether the person making the representations is “relevant”.

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 54 and those of the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. I will be fairly brief, as this is an extremely unusual situation in that I agree with everything that has been said from all sides of the Committee. I will simply set out a couple of extra points.

I pick up particularly the points from the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, that journalists, campaigners and groups such as Transparency International have frequently and very bravely—at considerable financial and other risk to themselves—helped to uncover the situation that we have with the London laundromat, the centre of global corruption or whatever you call it. Many labels have been applied. These amendments, particularly Amendment 54, open this up so that people such as those can see and examine what is happening. We can see that the regulators have failed utterly to provide the sorts of checks that they should, and transparency at least enables NGOs, campaigners and others to do what should be the regulators’ work for them.

I would like to see Companies House not relying on any independent certification practices but doing its own checks. However, I acknowledge that the practical reality of that would require an enormous institutional set-up. You might ask who would pay for that. I say that, if you are going to benefit from being a limited liability company, the costs should cover it fully—but I can see that that is not going to happen. As it is not, the best possible thing is at least to make sure that these authorised corporate service providers are open to scrutiny from others.

We must not forget that we are asking those that have been the enablers of corruption, fraud and sheer robbery to become the enforcers. That is what we are doing now—asking the poachers to become gamekeepers, in more traditional terms. That carries a high level of risk. Your Lordships’ Committee has a huge responsibility to do everything we can to make sure that we have full oversight of that.

I will comment briefly on Amendment 51A in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and others. It takes a risk-based approach in looking at the many industries we have that have huge problems. Some are identified here; the situation with car washes is a clear one. A recent study by Nottingham Trent University showed that only 11% of workers in hand car washes were getting payslips, which is the most basic arrangement to enable you to see what is going on. Not even that is happening there.

We have a huge problem in many sectors of our society. Just a couple of weeks ago, Farmers Weekly exposed huge levels of fraud and, as a result, significant public health risks in our food sector. We know what has happened in the building sector, where local councils, without the resources, have stepped away as we move to self-certification. We have huge problems with standards in that sector. These problems are there and many of them go back to the financial sector. These amendments are crucial to deal with problems right across our economy.

Finally, it sometimes seems like this is all financial, that it is not really related to people’s lives and that it is somehow a victimless crime. The reality is that we are robbing poor people around the world by enabling London to be a centre in which corrupt money is placed. In our own society, we are enabling whole sectors of our economy to be consumed by businesses built on fraud, corruption and the exploitation of workers. I have forgotten which, but a noble Lord opposite said that that makes it difficult or impossible for honest businesspeople to set up, run and thrive.

My Lords, I will not join the complete love-in but I will focus on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, in particular on his provision that covers the point about SIC codes and the requirement that those are accurate. I will echo and perhaps take further his remarks about the problems that exist with SIC codes.

I appreciate that it would not be in the Minister’s remit to answer on this during our debate, but perhaps he might take time to write to us afterwards to comment on SIC codes. As he knows, they came into operation in 1948, when there was a very different business environment. They have been refreshed since then but the last refresh was in 2007 and a huge amount has happened since then. The Ron Kalifa report commented that about 50% of fintech companies do not have an appropriate SIC code. Many companies fall into a number of SIC codes, but a company can choose only four. In fact, out of the 5.3 million companies at Companies House, 3.9 million have chosen only one code, which says to me that they are just not taking it seriously.

Companies are not taking it seriously because they do not see SIC codes as particularly relevant or helpful to them. They often just repeat the previous year’s one, or indeed the one of incorporation, which an accountant may have chosen almost at random. As a result, many companies are choosing the SIC codes starting with “Other”, such as 82990 for other business services. In some areas, one-third of companies are going just for “Other”.

The reason this is important is that a whole lot of government decisions are made on understanding what businesses do and how many are in a particular sector. During Covid, it was apparent from the events industry that large numbers of events companies had not properly registered their business within the SIC codes, so the Government were not able to assess the needs of those companies. Likewise, for searches helping businesses to market to other businesses, unless they know what those other businesses, particularly conglomerates, undertake it is difficult for such businesses to make progress.

Private enterprise has come up with its own version of SIC codes: rating agencies and others, such as The Data City, have created their own codes that they apply to businesses. I very much hope that this might be an area of focus in the near future, so that we can enhance the existing SIC codes and give effect to the amendment tabled the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell. Then we can see what businesses actually do here in the UK.

My Lords, speaking to the Minister before the Committee commenced, I predicted that this group would be crucial, certainly to what we will be discussing in today’s set of amendments. Your Lordships have demonstrated that through the detail and the concern expressed on identity verification and more general issues. I am sure the Minister will have picked up that right across the Room, this is not a political issue. It is a practical issue about how this Bill, when it becomes an Act, will work—or, indeed, whether it will.

It is worth emphasising that authorised corporate service providers can and do provide legitimate services for businesses. We know that and that they are important. However, research by very many civil society organisations, not least Transparency International, has shown that in many cases those providers are at the spearhead of the abuse that happens in our society and have been the key enabler of the money laundering that we have seen across this country. They have built shell organisations of thousands of companies to be able to do that process, which is why, taken separately and together, these amendments all have something which I hope the Minister will be able to take away and discuss with your Lordships, with his colleagues and with the team. We have had some excellent speeches here.

I remind the Minister that Amendment 48 requires the publication of the identity of the ACSP. The question that many have been asking, in different ways, is: why not? I would like to think that the Minister is actually broadly sympathetic to that position and that perhaps your Lordships have given the Minister some ammunition to go back to colleagues and departments and to come back to us saying that he agrees with us and that identities will be published. It will be interesting to hear whether the opposite is true. I would like to hear what the Minister believes would be the barrier to publishing the identity of the ACSP.

As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, Amendments 49 and 51—and I regret not signing them because I think they are absolutely central to the functioning of this in future—point to the need to establish a credible supervisory framework for ACSPs before we allow such services to be employed. It is clear that we cannot continue to let these services run loose without a credible structure for their supervision. The noble Lord, Lord Agnew, is completely correct there.

Amendment 50A, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, and carrying my name, is absolutely clear, and I was pleased to hear others, not least the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, support the notion that further work is needed around SIC codes.

Amendment 51A, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others, is interesting. The question it asks the Government is: how are they focusing on high-risk sectors? It may be appropriate or otherwise to put something like this in primary legislation but the real question is, given that we know there are high-risk sectors, how are the Government embracing that issue? Those sectors change from time to time; there are different trends. I had not even heard of candy shops five years ago, and now when you walk down Oxford Street you can see them there. There is a reason for that. How do the Government pick up on this? How do the regulators or Companies House pick up on this and what do they do? That is the question that is buried in that amendment, and we would like to hear the answer.

There has been some great debate on this and an awful lot for the Minister to chew on. Whether he is able to answer in detail today or will come back in writing, there is a tremendous amount around this issue that we need to know before we get to Report.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, for his Amendments 48 and 54, my noble friend Lord Agnew of Oulton for his Amendments 49 and 51, the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for their Amendment 50A, the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, for their Amendments 50B and 51A and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his Amendment 52. I hope I have that right. I will try to cover everything in order this time. These amendments all relate to authorised corporate service providers, known as ACSPs. I am grateful for all the contributions to the debate.

I will cover one point made by my noble friend Lord Naseby on the difference between “foreign” and “worldwide”. Foreign is if you are headquartered abroad; worldwide is if you operate in a large number of jurisdictions. I hope that clarifies that point.

I will start with Amendment 48. The question asked was why not? Why not publish the name of the authorised corporate service provider against its verification? One noble Lord suggested that it would be good advertising for the authorised corporate service provider to attach itself. I am sure that many of them will be delighted to attach themselves to noble Lords’ names when they receive the unique identification number. We have to hope that is the case.

I asked that question myself: why not? Why would it not be sensible to have the name of the verifier next to the entry? I would like to have further discussions with noble Lords about how this can be achieved. The Government do not believe that putting this into primary legislation will be helpful, given the complexities around administering this process.

There are also some specific areas where identities need to be kept discreet so there may be complexities around the process of identifying the ACSP in the sense that there would not be a verified identity to—

If noble Lords will allow me to continue with my train of thought before intervening, the difficulty I have is in finding too many justifications as to why it would not be sensible for us to have a full consultation on and review of why we do not want to put the name of an ACSP next to the identity that it has verified.

I welcome the input from the Committee and our discussions on this issue but it is not necessarily as simple as accepting this clear amendment. It is important for the Government to make sure that we have not missed anything but, in principle, having a further discussion around this matter and seeing whether there is a way to ensure that the corporate providers can be clearly identified, with the verification of the individuals in Companies House, seems to be something that we should look at very closely.

I have had private conversations with a number of the speakers in today’s Committee proceedings in which I have been clear about what I am trying to achieve, which is exactly this: an increase in transparency; making sure that bad actors are clearly identified; and making sure that patterns of poor behaviour can be measured and assessed effectively. However, I hope that noble Lords will respect my position on the Bill and the amendments that we are discussing, including my reluctance to support this amendment and the other associated amendments in a specific sense. I would want to make sure that we did this right but noble Lords have my commitment to look deeply into the possibility of ensuring that the proposals that have been discussed today are brought to bear in how we manage the verification and listing of ACSPs.

I am grateful to the Minister for his qualified support. I would be interested to understand why the Government decided to go along with this recommendation for the overseas entities register and are resisting it, at least to some extent, for the domestic Companies House. I am not sure that I understand why the two things should be different at all.

I am always grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for his interventions. As I said, we are looking forward to having a full discussion about this issue in our proceedings over the next few weeks. From my personal point of view, it is right that there is a higher degree of transparency and it is absolutely right that we should look closely at trying to ensure that the identity of the verifier is also linked to the verification of the identity.

I was interested in the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. I have been listening carefully to what my noble friend the Minister has been saying. When we have these further discussions, either in Committee or elsewhere, could he kindly come with a few reasons to support the arguments that he is currently putting forward? I do not get the impression that the cogs are quite meeting here. I know that the Minister is under some constraint because this Bill has been pushed here from the other place by the Secretary of State, but I would be interested in getting to grips with the underlying rationality that supports the words that the Minister is uttering. I do not intend to be rude—I hope that I am not coming across as such; it is probably my fault for being obtuse—but I am missing bits that might encourage me to think that we are moving forward.

I thank my noble and learned friend for his intervention, as always. I am sorry if my words have not been clear enough. I hope that, over the next few weeks as the Bill proceeds through the House, we will have conversations that will allow us to come to a sensible conclusion on this issue. In trying to justify why we should not publish the name of an ACSP against the verified identity, we will of course provide reasons. The point is that we should have a sensible, legitimate discussion about this. It is not for me at this Dispatch Box to come up with a variety of reasons or excuses because this is an important point that we want to look into with great seriousness.

I can perhaps come partially to the aid of the Minister by pointing out, and I do not want to be partisan, that if for some reason that we are all looking forward to hearing about it is felt that companies which are registering—these ACSPs—are right to be shy about having their name attached, I point out that Amendment 50A requires those companies simply to notify the registrar of how many companies they have registered and the codes that they have used. That will throw up the sorts of patterns that the crime agencies are very interested in. For example, if registering body X has registered 3,000 companies in a year or 300 companies under a particular code which is of interest, that will emerge very quickly from the data, even if it is not necessary for some reason to attach the name of the company to the companies it has registered, which I think, in line with my noble friend Lord Vaux’s amendment, it should be, but I appreciate that we are going to discuss that later. I want to draw to the Minister’s attention that the statistics that will enable those who are interested to focus on what companies are being registered by whom in what sectors would still emerge without having to attach the name of the registration body to the company.

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I would like to clarify my point, which is that this is a very relevant point raised by a number of noble Lords in the Committee. I have been doing a great deal of investigation into this point over the past few weeks and have great sympathy with the sentiments expressed about making sure that the bodies that verify identity can be tracked in some way, in public as much as in private, because I feel that to be very important.

However, there may be technical points that I have overlooked, so I am reluctant to commit today to accepting an amendment, as noble Lords can imagine. It would be inappropriate for me to do so, but I hope noble Lords can hear from my clear words the commitment that we make to see whether the principle around this amendment could be made possible as we look into how the Bill will develop over the forthcoming period, so I greatly thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for his amendment, and I look forward to having discussions over the next few weeks to see how we can find a way to try to implement the philosophy of the principles.

I rise to press the Minister to answer my question about the consultation and what ACSPs asked for in relation to this. I am confident that the Minister will have that discussion and include everyone in it. It is very clear what his inclination is, but I will add one testing question, which I think is important. If an ACSP wished to have its identity associated with its professional, accurate and helpful work and to have that association with the business that is being registered known publicly, would the Companies Act, as amended, facilitate that? Would it be allowed to do that? Would it be allowed to publicise who it is or are we forcing anonymity on everyone who does this work and not allowing their name to be associated with sterling, world-class work?

I thank the noble Lord for that point. I am intrigued about whether or not that is true. That is why I think it is important that we look into this in detail to ensure that it can be done properly and that we are making legislation that improves accountability and transparency. Without repeating myself, I hope noble Lords feel comfortable that we have made a significant and serious commitment to see what we can do about this point, and I will take a personal interest in this.

I will move on to the point about standard industrial classification, which has just been raised, and Amendment 50A, put forward so well by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell. I greatly thank him for his amendment and, again, agree with the intention to increase transparency.

Let me just go back one step. It is important that the Committee and the Government are clear that ACSPs are not a criminal fraternity and that not every single ACSP is somehow designed to try to circumvent transparency and the law and is creating a wealth of poorly structured and illegal corporate entities in order to run rings around our legal system. The vast majority of them are well-run, legitimate organisations that we as individuals depend on. If I can declare a conflict, I am grateful for my accountant, who performs an incredibly important function of trust and mutual benefit and on whom I rely. I am sure that noble Lords agree and rely on their professional services providers to enable them to navigate what will become a slightly more complex process in terms of ensuring that we have transparency at Companies House. It is important that we do not get the tone wrong. I want to ensure that the Government’s views on this important sector are clearly projected. It is a very important economic sector, employing many thousands of people doing a very important job. We rely on them to do that function and we support them.

To the question from the noble Lord, Lord Browne, on the consultation, we consulted widely with the ACSPs and numerous stakeholders; I think we had more than 1,000 consultation pieces to consider for this Bill. So we have been closely engaged with them and I am contented to go back and continue engaging with them on this single point. I would be delighted to return to the Committee with any specific reasons that are raised so that we can debate them and decide whether they are legitimate. I hope noble Lords hear the principle on which I am committed.

On that same point, following on from what the Minister said about the vast majority of these organisations being good, trustworthy and so on, is it that the risk of one mistake being associated with them, because their name would be available, means that people would not want to do it? I asked this associated question: what is the consequence or penalty for getting an identification verification wrong? I made the parallel with the rental side of things, where landlords are expected to be able to know whether they are looking at forged documents and that kind of thing. Are we trying to protect the reputations of organisations in case they make the odd mistake but it blows them out of the water? I am still grasping for reasons but I wondered whether that was part of the response. It is the inverse of what the Minister was referencing.

I appreciate the noble Baroness’s intervention. I do not have an answer to the question as to whether there was concern over reputational damage but I personally do not see that as a particularly significant reason to withhold one’s identity. If you are an auditor of a corporate account, your name is public. As I am sure we have found with some auditors relating to some national political parties, their embarrassment will be palpable but at least it will be public for us all to see.

To answer the noble Baroness’s other point on penalties, just so she is aware, it is an offence falsely to confirm the identity of an individual. I am unable to make comparisons with the private landlord sector but it is very clear that falsely identifying an individual would be a serious offence. That is part of the legislation we are providing for.

On Amendment 50A, I consider that the measures included in and added to the Bill provide a significant amount of transparency. I will come on to discuss that in a moment. To look at the process that allows an individual to become an authorised corporate service provider, they have to be supervised under the money laundering regulations. They are already required under those regulations to take appropriate steps to identify and assess the risk that their customers would have on their business. Although I understand the noble Lord’s intention, I do not think that this is the right place to consider publishing information about risk assessment processes. In our view, it is beyond the role of the registrar to gather and store this information, or to question it.

The right place to consider the quality of risk assessments is through money laundering supervision. Supervisors are already empowered to compel this information and take enforcement action against firms found to be non-compliant. I have well heard the comments around the money laundering process and whether the supervision regime is adequate. A review is being undertaken at the moment, which is raised in one of the amendments we are about to cover. It makes sense to include discussion of how ACSPs are monitored in that review.

I turn to the suggestions from the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, around standard industrial classification, or SIC, codes and the publication of this information. SIC codes allow Companies House to track what a business does and are used primarily to indicate emerging trends and the strength of the UK economy. I support the noble Lord’s intention to have clear information about the activities that companies are undertaking. Through the Bill, the Government are extending the requirement to provide a SIC code to limited partnerships. As my noble friend Lord Leigh rightly pointed out, such provision is already obligatory for companies. Companies House already runs reports on how SIC codes are being used and will be capable of filtering these to show only the SIC codes of companies that were registered by ACSPs, for example. I therefore consider that requiring ACSPs to provide this information as well would be duplicative.

I also consider it disproportionate to require ACSPs to provide annual reports to the registrar on the SIC codes associated with the companies that they have registered. It is possible that thousands of ACSPs will be registered and it would not be possible for these reports to be regularly monitored. This is a concern in terms of the cost and burden to Companies House.

Furthermore—this is a very relevant point for me that has been made; it does not negate the necessity to assess the process of SICs but it is important in the context of this debate—a company’s SIC code can and often does change. There is a great deal of—I do not necessarily know the right word—greyness about how people classify their business activities. In my investment career, I looked at a tank company that was classified as a consumer discretionary and I saw a military defence business that had a lingerie subsidiary. I am still trying to work out whether that was related to distracting the enemy but the point is that, in many cases, it is very difficult to be absolutely certain about the occupation or classification of a business.

On noble Lords’ comments about companies obfuscating their actions, this amendment does not necessarily provide a solution. It is not necessarily the role of ACSPs or Companies House to determine the specific validity of every claim made; that would be extremely difficult, particularly where there are grey areas around activities. That change may or may not be presented by an ACSP; it would be unreasonable to expect an ACSP to be responsible for monitoring this.

I am therefore not clear what benefits this amendment would bring and request that the noble Lord does not press it, but I am happy to have a further discussion about SIC codes if they fall within the Department for Business and Trade, which they probably do. At the same time, I am happy to have further discussions with noble Lords about the review of money laundering processes and the supervision environment.

I very much look forward to those discussions and certainly do not want the reporting burden here to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. However, is the Minister saying that, if we have a problem with companies misallocating their codes, it is up to the company or the registration body to determine the code? If the registration body is deliberately miscoding companies, we have a problem. If companies are foolishly misqualifying themselves, we have a different type of problem. Either way, we have a problem, but the Minister seems to be saying that there is no problem in either case. Could he just confirm that situation?

I appreciate the noble Lord’s intervention. As far as I am aware—I am comfortable to be corrected, as I am surrounded by so many experts in this area—it is the company that classifies itself, rather than the ACSP. If that is not correct, I will certainly come back to noble Lords. I repeat that we are happy to look at the issue of industry classification, which is very important in understanding the growth of the economy, new industry classifications and how businesses are performing, at the very least—separate from the opportunity it will give Companies House to assess high-risk areas.

I understand Amendment 50B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, but I cannot support it. Information on the money laundering and terrorist financing risks associated with the TCSP—trust or company service provider—sector is already published in the national risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing. Risk assessment undertaken by firms on their clients can be shared with money laundering supervisors who are responsible for reviewing them as part of their supervision of TCSP policies, controls and procedures.

With respect to the proposal to provide information about the fees that they charge, I remind noble Lords that ACSPs are themselves businesses or consultants which are a part of a market economy. In our view, it would not be reasonable to expect ACSPs to disclose this information. There is nothing in the Bill which would oblige an individual to have their identity verified by an ACSP. Individuals will be at liberty to decide whether to pay any fee that an ACSP decides to charge, or to use the service that will be provided by Companies House. I am confident that, if a prospective customer considers an ACSP’s fees too high, we can trust them to vote with their feet.

Amendment 51A, also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is well intentioned. To some extent, we have already covered this, but I will go through these points to make sure that we are complete. I do not agree that the amendment would add value. There are over 600 SIC codes which are used to inform economic trends. Trying to adapt their usage for the purpose of fighting economic crime is unlikely to be successful. I am unclear as to how the Government would determine which SIC codes would be classified as “high risk” or how they could be applied fairly. Perfectly legitimate lower-risk businesses would almost certainly be inappropriately labelled high-risk. I hope that I have covered the other points relating to standard industrial classification codes.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady Bennett, for Amendment 54. As I said, I hope that I have covered the points raised in enough detail to satisfy noble Lords present today that there will be a significant amount of work and inquiry in relation to that amendment.

Amendment 49, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew of Oulton, is about blocking the use of ACSPs until HMT’s supervisory reforms have taken place. It would be disproportionate to block all ACSPs from carrying out identity checks while the Treasury works through its reforms to the supervisory regime, which, as I said, I hope will conclude around the summer of this year. It would have a disproportionate effect on the thousands of high street accountants and solicitors, and their business clients, who operate entirely legitimately. I remind the noble Lord that ACSPs will be required to carry out checks to at least the same standard as the registrar and that she will keep an audit trail of their activity and will be able to query any activity that she thinks suspicious. She will be able to share information with the ACSP’s supervisor and suspend or deauthorise an ACSP, preventing it from conducting identity verification.

A delay in allowing ACSPs to carry out identity checks could also impact other areas of reform; for example, limited partnerships will be required to make certain filings via an ACSP and may wish to have their identity checks done simultaneously by an ACSP. The Bill already provides in Clause 65for secondary legislation to be made which would allow spot checks to be carried out by the registrar under Section 1098H. I am confident that, if any rogue agents slip through the net, they will soon be spotted by Companies House, which will have the powers to take appropriate action. In all honesty, I see no merit in delaying ACSPs making identity checks and beginning this important process of bringing transparency and clarity to the register at Companies House.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for Amendment 48A. I understand that its purpose is to prevent the possibility of an ACSP being used to verify an identity where one already exists. However, in our view, the amendment is not necessary. An individual should not be able to have more than one verified identity; that would defeat the purpose of identity verification. I make it clear that while individuals might verify their identity directly or using an ACSP, only Companies House will be able to allocate unique identifiers.

We already have a regulation-making power in the Companies Act, which is being expanded by the Bill, and which can achieve what the noble Lord proposes. Under Section 1082 of the Companies Act 2006, the Secretary of State will be able to make regulations which could require that a statement of a person’s UID, or lack thereof, is included in any document delivered to the registrar, such as a verification statement delivered by an ACSP. This will help us to double down on the system that Companies House will implement and make it as robust as possible.

Companies House is developing mechanisms to prevent individuals from having more than one unique ID. This is worth emphasising. Additionally, if an ACSP has verified an individual’s identity, it will be required to inform Companies House which checks it has undertaken and to store records relating to the checks. These systems should intercept the type of activity about which the noble Lord is concerned, as indeed all of us are.

Perhaps I might turn to Amendment 51. I hope I am in the right order and that we have one more amendment, Amendment 52, that I am hoping to cover in this section. Amendment 51 has also been tabled by my noble friend Lord Agnew and would require Companies House to conduct risk assessments on ACSPs and to request and review documents in relation to the identity checks that an ACSP would undertake. To some extent, I believe I have already covered this in my last few comments.

We think these measures would be duplicative. The entities that would be ACSPs will already be subject to risk assessments by their supervisors. Not only would this therefore be an ineffective use of resource; it would have the effect of turning Companies House into a regulator. By the way, this has come up over the last few weeks in discussion on the Bill. Companies House is a repository for information that we wish to make as accurate, clear and transparent as possible. It is not a regulator of ACSPs. That is not its role and, frankly, we do not intend it to be so, certainly not in this Bill. I am confident that the powers set out in the Bill will give the registrar the powers she needs—

Does the Minister think that there is a case for there being some form of regulation of ACSPs, or does he think that that is not needed?

I am very grateful for the noble Lord’s intervention, as with all interventions today. The ACSPs are already supervised by the money laundering supervisory authority. Should there be a discussion over some type of more effective oversight of ACSPs, in the view of this Committee? We will no doubt discuss that in the future. But as it stands, they are regulated and if any noble Lord is involved with such a business—if they have a financial services business or have been involved in financial services—they will know the strength of the regulator and the fear in which decent, law-abiding firms hold their regulator when it comes to enacting the necessary practices to perform their duties and tasks.

The final amendment that I have in my notes is Amendment 52, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. It would require a report on foreign ACSPs to be made one year after this Act is passed. I do not consider this amendment to be necessary, the main reason being that colleagues in the other place have already agreed to the addition of Clause 187, requiring the Secretary of State to prepare reports on the implementation and operation of Parts 1 to 3 of the Bill and to lay a copy of them before Parliament within six months of the Act being passed and every 12 months thereafter. Since authorised corporate service providers are provided for in Part 1, they should already be captured.

For the reasons given, therefore, I do not support these amendments. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, to withdraw Amendment 48.

Captivated as I was by the Minister’s mellifluous tones, I am not quite clear if he is saying that he is prepared to write to us about proposals for SIC codes or to meet us or both. I totally accept that it is within the scope of the Bill and certainly within the scope of the purpose of the Bill, but it is an extra exercise, an extra burden. None the less, I wonder whether he feels it is something he could take on.

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this point, and I hope I have not overpromised. Personally, I am very keen to make sure that every part of the Bill is discussed and I am very happy to ensure that the comments we have raised in this debate today are passed on to the right office, which in this case is the Office for National Statistics, which falls under the Treasury rather than the Department for Business and Trade. I am sure it will welcome involving itself in this discussion.

I would like to make a correction: the consultation on the money laundering oversight regime will begin in the summer, not conclude in the summer. I apologise for that.

I do not want the Minister to leave this process with the concept that we are entirely satisfied with his answer on the regulation of ACSPs because of the multiplicity of those regulators and, frankly, the variability of those regulators, never mind the absence of any structure or template, which the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, suggests. I hope the Minister can continue to keep that in his list of things to think about at the end of this session.

Will the Minister clarify something? I am sorry that I hesitated, but I am sort of in shock. Has the Minister just told us that he is not going to have consultations with us about so many of these points, but we are going to be talking with the Office for National Statistics about them?

I hope that the noble Lord did not misunderstand my point. I think I referenced the fact that I assumed that SICs would fall under the Department for Business and Trade, but it turns out that that is not the case. I was mistaken in my knowledge of departmental structures and it turns out that they are under the Office for National Statistics, which is under the Treasury, so it would be wrong for me to suggest too much consultation on account of the fact that that is not my department. However, I have committed to making sure that we have further discussions around this. It is clearly very important, and if we are to make the function of SICs work properly, they need to be seen as effective and useful, so I am very comfortable to commit to ensure that a suitable discussion is held around that. I would be delighted to make sure that the relevant officials are brought before noble Lords to have a further discussion around how that can possibly be effected, but clearly I cannot commit another department to a specific activity.

I thank the noble Lord for the point. I very much look forward to those discussions. I would have to be dragged away from such discussions, unless it turns out that it would be inappropriate that I should attend any part of them.

The Minister very comprehensively dismissed my amendments, but earlier in the debate he committed to thinking much more carefully about bringing much more transparency to the regime that oversees ACSPs. I just want to make sure that is the case. I also want to offer a couple more anecdotes about why I believe this is so important.

The former chief executive of HMRC Sir Jonathan Thompson questioned the role of HMRC in regulating these people. He did not understand, or was not prepared to accept, that anti-money laundering duties were part of the core activities of HMRC. I gave earlier examples of the failings of oversight by HMRC. The Financial Action Task Force review stated that there were “significant weaknesses” among all supervisors, and specifically recommended that HMRC should consider

“how to ensure appropriate intensity of supervision”.

My point is that Companies House is going to be relying on what I believe to be a broken regulator at the moment. I am not suggesting that we create a new regulator, but that is why the risk assessment in Amendment 51 is so important. Who is minding the minders? At the moment, nobody seems to be. It is all moving at a glacially slow pace, and we keep being told that everything is okay, but I do not think that everything is okay. I accept that the protocol is that I do not move my amendment, but I would like a slightly stronger commitment from my noble friend that he really is going to kick the tyres on this and lift a few drain covers, if I can mangle my metaphors.

I appreciate my noble friend’s mixed metaphors. I hope I have been clear that the process of making sure that the ACSPs operate in an environment that is trusted and clear is at the root of much of the activity we are discussing today. I will certainly make myself available for further inquiry but, as I hope I have made clear, ACSPs are regulated by the money laundering supervisory authorities and a review of that important process will begin in the summer.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this fairly long debate for their support. Once again, consensus seems to have broken out in the Committee, which must be a good thing.

The noble Lord, Lord Agnew, dramatically set out the scale of this problem. We all stand around it. Like him and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I must confess that I thought the Minister was rather complacent in his views on the efficacy of the anti-money laundering regulations as they stand. The Treasury review is welcome; it has been hanging around and talked about for quite a long time now. The fact that it is only starting in the summer is somewhat alarming. We need to fix what is a broken system. In talking to the Institute of Chartered Accountants, it surprised me by telling me that the vast majority of accountancy firms are not regulated by it. This is not consistent and really does not work well; it is an area that we have to improve.

At the outset of today’s debate, the Minister said that he is open to constructive and practical suggestions for improvement. We are all grateful for that. In this group, we have a number of simple suggestions that would add little or no burden on either the registrar or business and could make a genuine practical difference. The Minister was quite right when he said that the vast majority of ACSPs are diligent and honest, and that it is an important industry. It is worth repeating that. I am sure that that vast majority would like to see the poor minority driven out of the business so that it stops giving it a bad name.

I am disappointed that the Minister cannot accept some or all of these amendments today, I must say, but I am grateful for his confirmation that he will consider them seriously. I look forward to the promised discussions that he has agreed to have. On that basis, for now—although I am absolutely certain that we will come back to this issue on Report—I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 48 withdrawn.

Amendments 48A and 49 not moved.

Amendment 50

Moved by

50: Clause 64, page 48, line 13, at end insert—

“(2A) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision for the evidence required to verify an individual’s identity for the purposes of subsection (2)(a) to include—(a) an identity document with a photograph of the individual’s face, and(b) an identity document issued by a recognised official authority.(2B) In subsection (2A)(b), “recognised official authority” includes—(a) a department or agency of UK government;(b) a department or agency of any of the devolved nations;(c) a department or agency of the government of another country.”

My Lords, this will be a much briefer group. The purpose of Amendment 50 is to ensure that

“an identity document with a photograph of the individual’s face, and … an identity document issued by a recognised official authority”

form part of the registrar’s identity verification procedure. The amendment would specifically allow for two separate documents to be used to identify people rather than just limiting it to, for example, a passport or a driving licence.

An identity verification procedure that involves photographic ID is explicitly committed to on page 43 of the corporate transparency White Paper and reflects international best practice guidelines. What reasoning do the Government have for weakening this aspect of the verification process? They clearly believe that, in the case of voting in local elections, there should be photographic ID. Why not make it explicitly part of the process here? I beg to move.

In our debate on the previous group, I asked the Minister what regulation the Government were intending on ID verification. The Bill allows the Secretary of State to create regulations on what the ID verification process will be. The Minister did not answer that question then, so this seems like a convenient moment for him to do so.

The noble Lord just said exactly what I was going to say. If it is not this, what is the process to identify people and what documentation is required? It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby: if it is good enough for voters in local elections, why is it not good enough for multi-million-pound companies?

I support this amendment. There is a slight irony because the Labour Party is against the provision on which it relies to support this amendment. That cheap debating point notwithstanding, this amendment seems quite useful and I cannot see an obvious reason why we should not have it.

To add further irrelevance—no, just irrelevance; I apologise to my noble friend—I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the Labour Party have moved this amendment. When we debated identity cards in the dim and distant days when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, one of the great things that was stressed by the then Labour Government was that there should be a photograph of the person in question, but they did not say that it should be of the person’s face. This enabled cheeky Members of the Opposition to tease—I cannot remember whether the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, was a Home Office Minister at the time—

We had a great deal of fun working out which part of the identified person’s anatomy should form the main part of the photograph. I am happy to say that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has obviously learned from that hideous experience. This seems an altogether better set of proposals.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, for Amendment 50. As has been discussed, it seeks to require that the new identity verification process includes the use of photographic ID issued by a recognised authority. Although I welcome our shared ambition to ensure that identity verification will be a robust process, I am concerned about noble Lords’ proposed approach to limit the acceptable documents in primary legislation. Under Clause 64 of the Bill, the procedure for identity verification, including what evidence will be required, will be set out in secondary legislation.

I apologise, as always, for not answering noble Lords’ questions. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, raised how I dodged his question the first time. I hope I am not dodging it a second time but I would be delighted to write to noble Lords with some further information on the specific detail that is required for identity verification. Let me be very clear: we assume that it will include a photograph. However, I will come on to explain why that may not necessarily be the case in every instance.

Setting this out in secondary legislation will allow for flexibility and ensure that the technical detail of the identity verification process can be adapted to meet evolving industry standards and technological developments. Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise these regulations via the affirmative procedure. I assure noble Lords that, for the majority of individuals, photographic ID will be used. The primary identity verification route will be via the so-called “selfie verification” method, which will involve the person providing documents such as a passport or driving licence. The person undergoing identity verification will take a photograph or scan of their face—my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier may be pleased by this specificity—and the identifying document. The two will be compared using likeness-matching technology, and the identity verified.

However, I am concerned that the proposed amendment would exclude individuals who do not have photographic ID. Restricting the acceptable documents could inadvertently discriminate against a number of people and raises equality concerns. For example, would it be fair for the law to prevent individuals setting up a company simply because they do not have a passport or a driving licence? Should an individual who has owned the freehold of their home for decades via a company now be forced to apply for photographic ID despite there being no other statutory requirement to have one? This is why, for individuals who cannot provide such documentation, there will be alternative options available. I assure the Committee that these will be robust and proportionate.

Most importantly, all providers will conduct checks in line with the cross-government identity proofing framework—the GPG 45—which will be comparable to verification checks conducted elsewhere in government. Under the GPG 45 framework, a combination of non-photographic documents, including government, financial and social history documents, can be accepted to achieve a good-level assurance of identity. ID documentation from an authoritative source such as the financial sector or local authorities is also recognised under the cross-government identity proofing framework and is routinely used to build a picture of identity.

For the reasons I have set out, I hope that noble Lords will understand the philosophy of my approach and agree that requiring in primary legislation that an individual provide official photographic ID to verify their identity would be unnecessarily restrictive and potentially unfair. I am afraid that I must therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that serious answer to the amendment that I have just moved. I am also grateful that he has said that the Government’s intention is to harmonise the identity-checking methods across a number of different parts of the government process, if I can put it like that. I acknowledge that the technology for identifying individuals is evolving and that photography itself is not the end of the story; that part of the identification process is evolving as well. I will reflect on the Minister’s answer to that point. I need to look at other pieces of legislation and see whether the way in which identity is going to be checked is explicitly put on the face of the Bill in other Bills. Nevertheless, as I have said, I thank the Minister for the serious way in which he has answered the points that I have raised. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 50 withdrawn.

Clause 64 agreed.

Clause 65: Authorisation of corporate service providers

Amendments 50A to 51A not moved.

Clause 65 agreed.

Amendment 52 not moved.

Clause 66 agreed.

Clause 67: Allocation of unique identifiers

Amendment 53

Moved by

53: Clause 67, page 56, line 12, leave out subsection (3)

Member’s explanatory statement

Clause 67(3) would make any statements of a person’s unique identifier (or that they have not been allocated one) unavailable for public inspection. This amendment would reverse that so that the numbers are available for public inspection.

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 53; I hope to be fairly brief. It is related, in a way, to Amendment 48A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, which we spoke about earlier. In effect, it attacks the issue of unique identifiers from the opposite direction.

Clause 67(3) ensures that the unique identifiers allocated to companies and others, including ACSPs, are not available on the public register. I was rather surprised to find this. My amendment is really a probing amendment to find out the rationale for hiding unique identifiers and discuss whether that is the right thing to do. It seems to me that the unique identifier would be a helpful tool to assist civil society organisations, journalists, analysts and, indeed, AML regulators to discover trends and connections in the information held on companies on the register.

One person can easily have a number of versions of their name—A Jones, Andrew Jones, AJ Jones and so on. It is not necessarily dishonest. I have two names myself: my title and my real name. I hope that that is not dishonest. My amendment would make it much easier to search using the unique identifier and would avoid the problems of potentially having multiple names or versions of names and people being missed off. It would allow an AML regulator quickly to search for all situations where a particular ACSP has acted, or a journalist to identify ACSPs that act regularly for companies in particular industries, and to be sure that they have caught all the instances.

When I met the Minister previously, for which I thank him again, he explained that the unique identifier is used as the login for the relevant entity. If that is the case, I understand why it should not be public, but I strongly question whether that is sensible. Very few organisations would use a number such as a unique identifier for login purposes; it would go against commonly accepted security practices. The Government do not do it in other systems, as far as I am aware. Would it not make more sense for the unique identifier to be public, and therefore useful, to allow the greatest transparency that I have described and to have a more secure method of logging into Companies House accounts? I beg to move.

I will speak briefly on this amendment because key to it is: what is the purpose of the unique identifier? Perhaps like the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, I thought that it was like the resource identifier that you use for searching. I know that if you search on my name, you do not find all my directorships. I keep amending my name to try to make sure that they are all the same, but you still cannot find them in Companies House, so I was thinking that it was a better way than names of finding out all the companies that people were involved in, and so on.

I can see that, if it is more of a login approach, that might be different, but that then begs the question: is there not a better way of identifying companies and individuals that works on the searches? If you are searching to see whether somebody is doing something in a different company, or how many directorships they have, simply going by name means that too often there are minor variations, and it will not flag up what you are looking for. Like the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, I am curious about what the purpose of this identifier is, and therefore why it is confidential.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for his Amendment 53. Unique identifiers are unique codes allocated on an individual basis. The Bill will allow unique identifiers to support the effective operation of identity verification, such as allowing Companies House to link an individual’s verified identity across multiple roles and companies. I like to look at it as operating as a username. That is important; it is not a public but a private number that the individual will have allocated to them.

I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, that this amendment is not necessary to achieve the objectives that they have described—although I am concerned about the noble Baroness’s difficulty in tracing herself in the records of Companies House. This will be a good test as to whether the systems work. Companies House will be making changes to how members of the public view the register so that, although the unique identifiers themselves will not be public, it will be possible to see accurately connections between individuals and entities. That is the central point of the reforms being made to Companies House. This includes how many companies for which an individual is a director or person with significant control.

From my own experience of using the Companies House database, I come up under the various different forms of my name: D Johnson, Dominic Johnson, DRA Johnson or whatever it may be. It works in that instance, but it is absolutely right for noble Lords to be concerned about whether the system will work. We have undertaken to make sure that it does. It is the cornerstone of our activities and everything that the Bill points towards.

Regulations made under Section 1082 will govern the use of unique identifiers. We intend to prevent individuals from having more than one unique identifier, as the name denotes, and anyone submitting a statement with an incorrect unique identifier will commit a false filing offence. Furthermore, the primary purpose of a unique identifier is to allow its owner to communicate securely and privately with Companies House; as I said, it should be looked upon as a username. Unique identifiers can be considered personal data so making them public could expose the registrar to data protection breach risks, in the same way that it would be inappropriate to publish individuals’ national insurance numbers.

There is a significant privacy element around this. One is looking at sensitive, complex information. We must make sure that we protect people’s security; otherwise, they will be open to similar sorts of fraud to the ones we see them already being exposed to. Making unique identifiers public would compromise their use as they could be appropriated and misused by anyone looking at the register, including potentially to commit identity fraud and other crimes. Although it is well intentioned—I use this term sincerely—we believe that this amendment would weaken, rather than strengthen, the Government’s efforts to tackle economic crime.

I hope that this provides reassurance and that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, will kindly withdraw his amendment.

I thank the Minister for that helpful answer. I am somewhat reassured; the “behind the scenes” use of the unique identifier to make sure of the connections between different names—and, now, all the names to be displayed if you are searching for one person—will be important. We will see how well it works in practice. From what I understand from what the Minister said, the Secretary of State will have the power to make changes to this by regulation if it does not work properly. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 53 withdrawn.

Clause 67 agreed.

Clause 68: Identity verification: material unavailable for public inspection

Amendment 54 not moved.

Clause 68 agreed.

Clauses 69 to 76 agreed.

Clause 77: Power to reject documents for inconsistencies

Amendment 55 not moved.

Clause 77 agreed.

Clauses 78 to 80 agreed.

Clause 81: Power to require additional information

Amendment 56

Moved by

56: Clause 81, page 62, line 14, leave out from “any” to end of line 20 and insert “information contained in a document received by the registrar falls within section 1080(1)(a).”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment enables the registrar to require a person to provide information not only to determine whether the document is properly delivered but more generally to determine whether it is a document that must be registered.

Amendment 56 agreed.

Clause 81, as amended, agreed.

Clause 82: Registrar’s notice to resolve inconsistencies

Amendments 57 and 58 not moved.

Clause 82 agreed.

Clauses 83 to 88 agreed.

Clause 89: Protecting information on the register

Amendments 59 to 62

Moved by

59: Clause 89, page 68, line 31, at end insert—

“(1A) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision requiring the registrar— (a) not to make available for public inspection any information on the register relating to an individual;(b) to refrain from disclosing information on the register relating to an individual except in specified circumstances.”Member’s explanatory statement

This allows the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the registrar to refrain from using or disclosing information relating to an individual irrespective of whether the individual makes an application.

60: Clause 89, page 68, line 32, leave out “The regulations” and insert “Regulations under subsection (1)”

Member’s explanatory statement

This is consequential on the amendment to Clause 89, page 68, line 31 that appears in the Minister’s name.

61: Clause 89, page 69, line 3, at end insert “or (1A)(b)”

Member’s explanatory statement

This is consequential on the amendment to Clause 89, page 68, line 31 that appears in the Minister’s name.

62: Clause 89, page 69, line 7, after “(1)(b)” insert “or (1A)(b)”

Member’s explanatory statement

This is consequential on the amendment to Clause 89, page 68, line 31 that appears in the Minister’s name.

Amendments 59 to 62 agreed.

Clause 89, as amended, agreed.

Clause 90: Analysis of information for the purposes of crime prevention or detection

Amendment 63 not moved.

Clause 90 agreed.

Clause 91 agreed.

Amendment 64

Moved by

64: After Clause 91, insert the following new Clause—

“Reporting requirements

(1) The Secretary of State must publish an annual report assessing whether the powers available to the Secretary of State and the registrar are sufficient to enable the registrar to achieve its objectives under section 1081A of the Companies Act 2006 (inserted by section 1 of this Act).(2) Each report must—(a) make a recommendation as to whether further legislation should be brought forward in response to the report, (b) provide a breakdown of the registrar’s annual expenditure,(c) provide a recommendation as to whether charges for fees for the incorporation of a company should be amended,(d) contain the details of the steps the registrar has taken to promote the registrar’s objectives under this Act,(e) provide annual data on the number of companies that have been struck off by the registrar, the number of companies that have been required to change names by the registrar, the number of fines and the average and total amount of fines the registrar has issued, the number of criminal convictions made, and of cases of suspected unlawful activity identified by the registrar as a result of the registrar’s powers as set out in this Act,(f) provide annual data on the number of cases referred by the registrar to law enforcement bodies and anti-money laundering supervisors,(g) provide annual data on the total number of company incorporations to the registrar, and the number of company incorporations by authorised corporate service providers to the registrar, and(h) detail all instances in which exemption powers have been used by the Secretary of State, as introduced by this Act.(3) The first report must be published within one year of this Act being passed.(4) A further report must be published at least once a year.(5) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of each report before each House of Parliament.”

My Lords, it is a pleasure to address the Committee for the first time this afternoon. The theme of the discussions earlier was transparency. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, made an outstanding speech about why transparency is important. Other noble Lords talked about this being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this Parliament to progress in a way that perhaps we have been slow to do, which has led to many of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, pointed out in his remarks about the exploitation of the economic and business laxness in London and beyond that has led to things that all of us deplore. The Bill gives us a real opportunity to tackle that. The Minister’s response is crucial for us to determine what we may wish to push the Government on on Report.

We have now moved from transparency to reporting, how the Bill will be implemented and how effective it will be, hence Amendment 64 in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Ponsonby and Lady Blake. I also support Amendment 72 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Agnew and Lord Cromwell, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, which is virtually the same.

I know that the Minister’s notes will tell him that there is no need to worry about this because he can just get up and tell Coaker that it is irrelevant, that there is no need for this because the Government proved that they are a listening Government in the House of Commons and introduced Clause 187, which, as noble Lords will have seen, talks about reports on the implementation of the operation of Parts 1 to 3. Indeed, I had not realised that the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, is as radical as he is, but the clause includes some of the amendments that I and other noble Lords tabled. I refer to the Minister’s radicalness because subsection (3) of the proposed new clause inserted by Amendment 64, states:

“The first report must be published within one year of this Act being passed”.

However, if we read what the Minister has put before us, it states

“The first report must be laid within the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed”.

It is good to see the Government moving further than they were pushed to do. The Minister no doubt has that in his notes.

However, the serious point is that it is good see Clause 187 in the Bill because it takes on board many of the points raised in the amendments about the effectiveness of the way in which the Bill will operate. The Bill says many things that we all agree with, but the concern is whether it will be enforced and will work in the way that the Government and, indeed, all of us wish it to. Hence Amendment 64 seeks to explore what the Government mean. Clause 187 states:

“The Secretary of State … must prepare reports”,

but through my proposed new clause, which would be placed after Clause 91, I am saying to the Government what such a report should include. I do not see why we would not report on the effective implementation of the Bill.

Let us look at why I am saying in Amendment 64, with the requirement to report on the way in which the four objectives laid out in Clause 1 are actually met. We had a debate earlier on in Committee about how effective those objectives are and whether the Bill would meet them. It is particularly important that these objectives are reported on—not just in some general report that the Government lay before us but in a specific report, given the fact that, in Committee, we have debated long and hard about why on earth the registrar of companies would have as an objective “to minimise the risk” rather than prevent it. We also debated why objective 4 says “minimise the extent” rather than “prevent it happening”. Given the concerns raised in this Committee about the loose language that the Government have employed in the very first clause of the Bill to determine the objectives of the registrar, it is especially important that we have laid before Parliament a full and frank report on how effective the registrar has been in achieving the four objectives in Clause 1.

Through the reporting requirements in my amendment, I have sought to say that these are the sorts of things that the Government should include. It starts with proposed new subsection (1). It would be interesting to hear what the Government think about it. Is this what is going to be included? That is the question around each of the various points that I have set down. Are they what the Government are going to report on or not? Are they what the Government are going to include in determining the Bill’s effectiveness? Is that what the Government are going to do? I would have thought that assessing whether the objectives have been achieved was an absolutely fundamental part of this. Is that what the Government will report on: whether the objectives have been achieved?

Is further legislation needed? All sorts of regulations are included in the Bill but, again in previous debates, noble Lords referred to this Bill as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, mentioned that; if it was not him it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, but a noble Lord certainly said it. He is quite right—indeed it is. However, perhaps the Bill will identify gaps that the regulatory powers in this legislation could seek to avoid.

On the breakdown of annual expenditure, we are going to have a discussion when we come on to the next clause and beyond about fees, where they should go and how they should be used. That will give us an opportunity to look at annual expenditure, where the charges for fees should be amended. The Government have a regulation-making power but perhaps the report could give the Government some information about that.

Again, I go back to the steps that the registrar takes to promote the objectives. Proposed new subsection (2)(e), to be inserted by my Amendment 64, refers to

“annual data on the number of companies”.

How will we know what is going to happen? We do not want bald statements; we want factual information so that we can base any decisions that we make on evidence.

Proposed new subsection (2)(f) is particularly important. It would require each report to

“provide annual data on the number of cases referred by the registrar to law enforcement bodies and anti-money laundering supervisors”.

It is crucial that the Bill has some teeth, is seen to be implemented and is seen to operate in a way that deters those who may wish to operate in a way that undermines the vast majority of good business. Is that the sort of thing that the Government are thinking of?

A whole range of points have been raised there. These are the sorts of things that should be reported on. These are the sorts of things that the Government need to reflect on and allow Parliament to reflect on to see how effective the Bill, when it becomes an Act, is in achieving the things that we all want it to achieve. As I said, in a later clause, the Government say that they will report. This amendment probes what the Government actually mean by that and what they seek to include. It would be helpful to the Committee for us to hear a bit more about what the Government think they are going to use as a way of determining whether the Bill is successful in the way that they want. I beg to move.

My Lords, I do not want to speak for too long because the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has covered it clearly and our amendments are very similar. Indeed, in a spirit of collaboration, I would be delighted to give ground and for my noble friend to accept amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, rather than my amendment.

There is a serious point to this. My noble friend will know that in business what gets measured gets done. Unless we are specific in the requirements of this annual report to Parliament, it will be fudged if the story is not a good one. Earlier, I read to the Committee some extracts from the internal HMRC report. It absolutely hates putting bad news out there and will use every bit of the English language to obfuscate as much as possible. Having a simple list of requirements that we expect to hear every year will reduce that—it is really that simple.

I notice in the Government’s wording that they want to put a sunset clause on reporting in 2030. I accept the principle of sunset clauses, but this will not cost anything. It is information that organisations must have if they are to function in any way professionally. That is a very flawed idea.

I will not speak for longer than that, but I would like to hear from my noble friend why the Government are so shy about reporting properly on this thing, learning some of the lessons that we have taken so hard over the past 10 years and making a clean slate of it.

My Lords, as my name, among others, is attached to Amendment 72, I express my sympathy with it. In the previous day of debate, a great deal was said by the Minister and others about the importance of the guiding objectives to be given to the registrar. I suggest that much of the Bill and, in particular, the majority of the amendments that have been tabled are attempts to give practical effect to those objectives. I am sure the Minister welcomes the engagement of us all in seeking to achieve that, as he said.

I would expect the registrar and the Secretary of State to welcome an annual report reviewing the adequacy of the powers and progress, including, importantly, quantitative measures, as the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, outlined. Such reporting is a crucial part of reporting and being accountable to Parliament. Given that we are looking at a major overhaul of Companies House in the Bill, it is essential that we have proper reporting on progress. There are a number of probing amendments in this vein, including the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to blend them into a practical outcome.

My Lords, I, too, have put my name to my noble friend’s Amendment 72. He is quite right: in business, what gets measured gets done. That is also true of politics: one has only to set down a requirement and have it followed up and measured to see an improvement in the performance of a government department or a public authority such as Companies House. I entirely agree with the thoughts put forward by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, in support of this amendment, and by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in addressing his amendment.

For my own part, I do not necessarily think that we need to see the terms of these amendments set out in legislation, but we do need a public recognition that the elements that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lord Agnew spoke about are publicly recognised as goals and things that will be measured and reported on annually.

Nowadays, annual reports are made not only by company chairmen. The Lord Chief Justice makes an annual report, as do various other public figures dotted about our constitution, so we should not run shy of requiring that. Indeed, Clause 187 makes clear that the Secretary of State will make a report. The main thing to do is to get the information out there regularly and publicly so that the public know what is being done in their name.

My Lords, I support what others have said. If we take these amendments as essentially saying that Clause 187 needs to be amplified, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, do not see the reason for sunsetting in 2030. It is not that far away given that, although this might commence immediately on Royal Assent, there are quite a lot of regulations and other things—and I do not know what the timescale of those will be—before everything is up and running.

As I see it, Clause 187 is about monitoring progress, getting everything up and running and seeing that it is okay, then just saying “that is fine”, but I think there is a case for ongoing monitoring to see what is changing and whether there is a need for any further update. The annual report seems to be a vehicle for that and, like others, I say that that is a good reason for it to continue, rather than being sunsetted, and if need be, perhaps to list a few more things that it will cover. Clause 187 could stay silent on that as it is quite broad, talking about

“the implementation and operation of Parts 1 to 3”.

If you took away the sunset clause, I could probably be quite satisfied.

I briefly thank my noble friend for Clause 187. It is a valid attempt to achieve some of the aims of these amendments, although I wholeheartedly agree that the sunset clause is puzzling. I ask my noble friend to bear in mind that the expertise being offered by this Committee and Amendment 65 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, as well as the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Agnew, are attempting to assist the Government in achieving the objectives that we all wish to see by injecting the difference between theory and practice. The Government want these measures to succeed. The Committee is trying to suggest that there are, in practice, a number of measures identified in each of these amendments—which, of course, could be combined—to guide those overseeing or producing the reports about what the important elements will be if we want to make this work well.

My Lords, in terms of timing, it is important to bear in mind that the genesis of much of this legislation can be found as long ago as 2015. It has taken a long time for anything to happen in response to what was then identified as a major threat—the corruption which has permeated our society. Eventually we got the Criminal Finances Act, then there were many promises of legislation, which did not materialise, then we had the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, which dealt with some aspects of this, and then it took the invasion of Ukraine before we had the last piece of legislation. Now, eight years after the initiative of 2015, we have this legislation, which may or may not be the final chance. So, with respect, keeping the Government up to the mark with an annual report and not having a sunset clause is something we should learn from the very chronology that I have just described.

My Lords, I intended to sign Amendment 72, but I was beaten in the stampede to support it, which must in itself say something about the quality of the amendment. Amendment 64 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is very similar. Like others, I think that both include important elements and it would be great to try to combine the best of both when we get to Report.

I shall not repeat what has already been said, but it does seem that adding this level of transparency into the system must help in ensuring that we have got this right. During the debates on ECB 1, the previous economic crime Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan said:

“When we introduced the provisions on PSCs—persons with significant control—in relation to UK companies, we had to make some iterative changes to that, as it became evident over time that aspects were not working as effectively as we had hoped”.—[Official Report, 14/3/22; col. 44.]

The best way to see if things are not working as effectively as we had hoped is transparency and reporting, so I hope the Minister can accept this very simple and sensible amendment to promote that level of transparency.

With permission, I will make one addition to the list of items to report on set out in the amendment. Given the importance of the ACSPs to the process, as we discussed in the previous group, I think it would be useful to include some statistics on the number of ACSPs that have approved, both UK and foreign, who they are regulated by and the number which are suspended. With that addition, I add my support to these amendments.

As always, I offer my thanks to noble Lords for their participation and to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, for their Amendment 64. I also thank my noble friend Lord Agnew, my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for their Amendment 72—if I have got that correct. These amendments address reporting requirements in similar ways and are very relevant and important.

I agree that it is important that Parliament is informed about the implementation and delivery of these reforms. That is why the other place agreed to add an amendment to this effect on Report, which noble Lords have discussed. Companies House already reports on many of the items set out in these new amendments and, in many cases, actually goes much further, either through its annual report or via quarterly and annual statistical releases. Legislating to duplicate this, given the new reporting duty at Clause 187, seems unnecessary.

It is important that any report is holistic and of use to Parliament and the wider public. It should provide the necessary context to facilitate an informed view of performance, which would be difficult based solely on the raw data that these amendments propose. However, I agree that some of the new items of data identified in these amendments could be of interest. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, raised some specific points, which I believe are already covered in part in some of the quarterly filings. In any event, if they are not, they are certainly worthy of discussion. I am happy to explore with Companies House officials how they might incorporate these into their reporting without the need for this statutory requirement.

It may be worth returning to some of the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to cover some of the key points raised. Under Amendment 72, each report must

“provide annual data on … the number of cases referred by the registrar to law enforcement bodies and anti-money-laundering supervisors”.

As I understand it, this is already enabled via the Commons amendment and is expected to be included. Also in Amendment 72, each report must provide annual data on

“the total number of company incorporations to the registrar, and the number of company incorporations by authorised corporate service providers to the registrar”.

These incorporations are published quarterly via the statistical release. The amendment says that each report must

“detail all instances in which exemption powers have been used by the Secretary of State”—

which is also covered by the government amendment—and

“confirm that the registrar has sufficient financial resources to meet its objectives”.

The registrar’s resources will continue to come from fees, which will be set according to how much activity Ministers want to be undertaken. Also, each report must

“provide annual data on … the number of companies that have been struck off by the registrar”


“the number and value of fines”.

Removals from the register are already reported on quarterly. The number and value of late-filing penalties are published in annual management information tables.

That just gives the Committee reassurance that there is already a great deal of detail published, and we will be looking to publish more. I look forward to a discussion with noble Lords on specific areas that we can cover; I am sure that my officials are looking forward to those discussions. This is all about the sort of data we provide that allows us to run an effective and transparent company system in this country. But I am very reluctant to legislate specifically, according to these amendments, given what I have said and our commitment to making sure that we are publishing useful information.

I will cover the comments from some of your Lordships relating to the supposed sunsetting of requirements to report. As I understand it—I may have misunderstood, but I hope I have not—the purpose of the clauses on six-month and annual reporting relates to the implementation of changes in Companies House that will bring it up to the standards at which we wish to see it operating. At that point, the reports will be included in annual and/or regular reports. It is not that reporting ends, but that it becomes commonplace to report on the data rather than necessarily on the changes that we are instigating to Companies House. I am happy to clarify that further, if my description was not accurate enough.

Clause 187 says

“on the implementation and operation”.

Therefore, I hoped there would be ongoing commentary and reporting on the operation. I accept that the sunset clause implies that it is about transient stuff, but if the operation—it must be the ongoing operation because it might break down; we do not know—is included in other reports, I would be satisfied. If it is not, I suggest that we need to keep Clause 187 going.

I appreciate the noble Baroness’s point. As I said, the sunsetting effectively becomes business as usual, which is provided for to enable Companies House to report according to the criteria that have been established. I am happy to discuss what data it is useful to provide. That is a very important and relevant point. My assumption is that it will evolve over time to some extent, but we can be pretty comfortable that a great deal of information is already provided. It might be useful for us to assess that and then engage in further discussions with officials. We are very open-minded on the data provided. I am reluctant to legislate for this, since we are trying to make data useful rather than simply a legislative process.

Is the Minister suggesting that he will clarify the noble Baroness’s point? The wording in Clause 187(1) it quite specific in saying “operation”. Is he saying that he wants this to drop away as part of the sunset clause, but that another report will endure and he will discuss it with us to ensure that it is fit for purpose for the longer term?

When the Minister replied to me he used the word “data” rather than “operation”. There is a difference between data and operation. This might not be something that he can instantly resolve, but the ongoing concern is about not just the data but the operation of Companies House. Those are two different things.

I thank the noble Baroness for that point. There are two separate components to that, one of which is the data and/or requirements tabled in these amendments, which are relevant to understanding the activities of Companies House and ensuring that we have a comprehensive assessment of what they are. The second point is that there is the assumption that, over the next six or seven years, Companies House will have reached its operational capability to deliver on providing the relevant data, so we have a good deal of time to assess whether that has been achieved. There is a potential for Companies House to achieve its ambitions before 2030, at which point it would settle into business as usual reporting.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, which in some ways was helpful in trying to clarify some of the things the Government would expect to be included in any report. Amendments 64 and 72 are clearly very close; we will need to discuss with others whether we need to push the Government further on Report as to what they mean. There was, if I am honest about it, some ambivalence in the Minister’s response to the sunset clause and Clause 187(1)(a). We will have to reflect on that. There will obviously be further discussions with officials about what “and operation” means. We will have to see, on that basis, what we might or might not wish to do on Report.

However, in the interests of time, we have had a reasonable debate on this. Following discussions with others, we will see whether we need to return to it. I take the point that what gets measured gets done. I think that is what we all want to see: an effective Bill that works. We may need to see whether further clarification is needed in the Bill for it to achieve that. With those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 64 withdrawn.

Amendment 65

Moved by

65: After Clause 91, insert the following new Clause—

“Fees and penalties

(1) Section 1063 (fees payable to registrar) of the Companies Act 2006 is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (4).(2) Before subsection (1) insert—“(A1) The registrar must charge a fee of at least £100 for the incorporation of a company.(B1) The Secretary of State must once a year amend the fee in subsection (A1) to reflect inflation.”(3) In subsection (1)—(a) after “fees” insert “other than the fee in subsection (A1)”;(b) in paragraph (a), after “functions” insert “other than the incorporation of a company”.(4) In subsection (5), in paragraphs (a) and (b) after “regulations” insert “or subsection (A1)”.(5) The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a report examining the case for fees paid under section 1063 of the Companies Act 2006 being paid into a fund established for the purposes of tackling economic crime.(6) The report must also examine the case for penalties received by the registrar under section 1132A of that Act (power to make provision for financial penalties) being paid into the same fund.(7) The report must be laid before each House of Parliament within six months of this Act being passed.”

My Lords, I will be reasonably brief on Amendment 65, which is tabled in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Ponsonby and Lady Blake. Amendments 69 to 71 have some, if not many, similarities and, like Amendment 106E in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, seek to do the same thing. I shall make a few introductory remarks.

I know the Government are resisting putting an amount in the Bill and are saying that they are going to do this by regulation, but I think it is important for Parliament to make a statement about what it thinks is a reasonable fee. As I understand it, the resolution is under the negative procedure. If it is not in the Bill and the Government propose £40 or £50, it may be that we do not think that is enough, but we will not have any way of changing that or dealing with that.

The research that I have had done shows that the current fee is £12, while the eurozone average is €300, and that £12 is the sixth-lowest incorporation fee in the world, so somewhere along the line, we have got this badly wrong. I do not think that £100, as my amendment suggests, is going to deter businesses or could be seen as anti-business. It is a reasonable fee in line with that charged in many other economies in the world. There would also be the opportunity to raise the fee in line with inflation and with various other changes made to the Companies Act.

Alongside this, Amendment 70, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, Lord Cromwell and others, is about the establishment of an economic crime fund rather than reporting on the need for one and is something that we will need to reflect on from our position. However, I take the point that if there is a fee as laid out in Bill, it just goes into the Consolidated Fund to disappear without trace, whereas amendments in this group suggest not just reporting on it to see whether it is needed but establishing an economic crime fund which could then be used; in other words, it becomes a hypothecated fee. The Treasury will always say that it hates hypothecated taxes, that they go against the grain and are something that on principle it does not do. However, the Explanatory Memorandum shows examples of where the Treasury has agreed to the hypothecation of tax. A very effective argument is: as the principle of hypothecation has been accepted by the Treasury in the instances laid out in the Explanatory Memorandum, why should it not be accepted here?

I will not repeat all that has been said but the fundamental point is to create a framework within which economic crime can be investigated effectively and the law enforced effectively. That is essentially what this is all about. The Government will agree with that and say that that is their intention. The purpose of my amendment and the other amendments in this group is to give the Government the tools with which that can be achieved and the resources by which that can be done. In later amendments there is real concern about the effectiveness of the various bodies we already have to tackle economic crime; that concern will no doubt come up again on Report. This Bill will quite rightly say that more needs to be done. How is that going to be achieved? The fee suggested in my amendment and the establishment of an economic crime fund as suggested in Amendment 70 can be used to ensure that we have the resources to tackle the level of crime that we know is out there. It is something this Bill needs to address. It is a real priority. I beg to move.

My Lords, to build on the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, again, this is a wonderful opportunity to do something that will put our enforcement agencies on to a much sounder footing in future. They are very underresourced. For example, we know that 40% of crime in this country is economic crime yet we deploy only about 1% of our crime-fighting resources to combat it. By ring-fencing this, it gives us a chance to solve that problem.

There is currently a scheme called the asset recovery incentivisation scheme—ARIS—where the money goes to the Treasury and the Treasury hands some of it back. However, the amounts that come back have decreased by 34% in the past five years, at a time when we are seeing escalating volumes of economic crime.

I put in my explanatory statement examples of the hypothecation that the Treasury has agreed over the past few years. As noble Lords can see, there are several of them; some of them are very recent. I want to head off the excuse from the Treasury that “We never do it”, because it does do it, and does it regularly. I suggest that this is as good an opportunity as any to do it. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will consider this issue carefully over the next few weeks because, if we do not have the resources in our crime-fighting agencies, we will not be able to stamp out a lot of this. Back in 1984, the US introduced a scheme in which all forfeiture proceeds go back into an assets forfeiture fund. I very much hope that we can do something similar.

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 69 to 71, which the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, has just described so powerfully. Those of us who participated in what we call ECB 1 will remember that there was a great deal of discussion and many points made around the fact that passing legislation is pointless if you do not resource the enforcement bodies that must then carry it out. Reading that debate back, this was covered in detail; I am simply making the point baldly again.

I have three further points to make. The fund would appear to need no new money. It would be funded and administered through the fines and incorporation fees. There may well be pushback on the hypothecation of funds in principle, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, just highlighted, his explanatory statement illustrates that there are plenty of precedents for such a fund. I would also suggest that, for the crime-fighting agencies—if I can call them that—being able to access this money swiftly and flexibly, rather than having to fight up hill and down dale with the Treasury in trying to extract the money from it, would be a great leap forward. After all, it will be they who will have achieved these funds through successful prosecutions.

Let me add one small but important qualification. We are going to need transparent processes and procedures, including audit, for how these funds are used and by whom. However, with that small and rather pedantic caveat, I lend my support to those three amendments.

My Lords, I rise to speak to my Amendment 106E. In a way, it is an attempt to combine and perhaps strengthen the other amendments in this group: those in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—he explained them excellently—the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake; and those in the name of my noble friend Lord Agnew, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles.

I welcome the new duties and powers for Companies House. We all know that, as the Government themselves have recognised, there is a severe and growing threat in the area of economic crime. With the pressure on public funding and the fiscal constraints that we know are being and will continue to be faced, funds have to be found for the transformational changes needed to keep pace with the growing and severe threat.

These amendments aim to raise the funds necessary without going to taxpayers. My Amendment 106E seeks immediately to use the opportunity of the Bill to establish a minimum fee of at least £100. The international comparisons made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, showing how low our current £12 figure is, would be resolved. Quite frankly, if somebody cannot afford £100, it is difficult to see why we should approve of them setting up a company in the first place.

The Treasury Select Committee has recommended a fee of £100 and the House of Lords Select Committee on fraud has expressed its concerns about how these new powers will be funded. These amendments attempt to give the Government the funding that will clearly be required, as all noble Lords in the Committee have already said. The money would be ring-fenced for fighting economic crime so that Companies House will—or should—be able to invest in the capacity needed to prevent and combat economic crime. The word “prevent” is really important: moving from the reactive regulatory approach that we so often see to a more proactive one will be really important if we want ever to be ahead of the problems of economic crime.

Companies House must have some resource. I am asking for that to be established now. In Amendment 106E, I am also asking for the economic crime fund to be legislated for now rather than having a report looking into that, as other amendments propose. I want to take this opportunity; it seems so obvious that something of this nature is needed. Companies House will fundamentally change: it will no longer be a register. It must have a proactive role in finding misleading or false information and, I hope, fighting economic crime.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister can look favourably on the merits of using the Bill to do this now. The only small change in the wording of Amendment 106E compared with Amendment 65 is that I am specifying a minimum fee of £100 and asking the Government to consider raising it in line with inflation—not necessarily mandating that that should be done but considering it annually. I am not wedded to any of the wording but I feel that putting this into the Bill now has significant merits. I hope that my noble friend will agree to consider it carefully.

My Lords, a packet of 20 Lambert & Butler or Marlboro cigarettes costs £12.65. That is how out of proportion the fee for setting up a limited company has become. It may well be that government taxation and inflation have influenced the price of cigarettes and that it does not reflect their real value, but that is the reality of the world that we live in. If you have £13 in your pocket, you can buy a pack of cigarettes or you can float a limited company.

This has got totally out of proportion. Businesses that have this limited liability have become a driver of our economy but a significant proportion of them have become a serious problem for our country. Not only has our international reputation been trashed by the people who abuse this, with us being trusted less as a centre of probity and good practice, but, if we accept the Government’s apparently accepted assessment of what this costs us annually, they are taking £350 billion out the economy on a regular basis. They are doing that in a series of economic activities in which they take the money but we count it as GDP. That is utterly ridiculous. Then, after the money goes out of the country—quite often as cryptocurrency—it comes back in and we count it as inward investment. They have distorted the reality of the economy of our country in a significant way and they have stolen significant amounts of money that could have been put to other purposes.

I support these amendments because these two issues need to be addressed. First, the process of setting up a limited company needs to force people to think more about what they are doing. It needs a quality about it and part of that has to be in the fee. The people whom we charge now with not only collecting this data but being the gatekeeper and inhibitor of crime—that is what we are asking Companies House to do—have to be resourced. That resource should come substantially from those people who wish to exercise the privilege of having limited liability in their companies because it is in their interests to have the ability to do that and not be characterised with the rest of these cheats and robbers. The way in which they conduct their business is being protected, and money is not being taken from them by fraud and the other activities that are manifestly going on. It is in their interest for this system to work properly; they should pay the appropriate fee so that that work can be done.

More importantly—this is the real issue that this amendment addresses—the measure of the ambition that we have, that Parliament has and that the Government say they have to interdict all this behaviour has an enormous prize at the end of it: £350 billion. This was described to me as relatively low-hanging fruit in my recent correspondence with one of your Lordships. We know how to interdict this behaviour, keep this money in our country and stop it from being stolen from our common resources in this way.

The measure of the Government’s priority for this is that it should have figured in Rishi Sunak’s five priorities. This is such an extraordinary series of things to be happening in our community, with such a dreadful effect. Economic crime—fraud is part of it, as 41% of crime against a person in our country now is fraud—is having an effect on almost every family in our country. If we do not know people in our families who have been defrauded, or if we have not been defrauded ourselves, we will live in constant fear of it. Every text we open or every email we get that we do not recognise immediately causes our heart to beat a bit faster, as it may have infected our electronic communications. We are all affected by this. There is a great delivery to be had for the people of this country, the way in which we trust each other and the way we live, but there is also a lot of money at the end of this.

A significant proportion of the money going out comes from the Government’s own coffers and we are not protecting ourselves against its loss. If they have an alternative way to convince us that this can be done differently than is proposed in these amendments, now is the time to tell the House of Lords. Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords is going to coalesce around these sorts of amendments—the difference being that support for them here will mean your Lordships’ House winning the day when it comes to counting the votes. We all collectively want the Government to bring these types of amendments and solutions to the House for approval, in their own words.

Can the Minister explain to us how we are going to move out of being a country that basically sells to people, for the price of a pack of cigarettes, this ability to do something that a lot of people are using for crime? Where is the money going to come from to ensure that the work that is needed is done in regulation, enforcement and prosecution but mostly by inhibiting this from happening in the first place? I am much less interested in prosecuting people who have done this than I am in stopping them doing it. We can stop them and give ourselves a resilience but we are going to have to invest a significant amount of money; the Government should see that money as a priority because the prize at the end of it is so significant. If there is no alternative, then this is the best way to do it and I would support and vote for it, but the Government have it in their gift to tell us how they will do it otherwise, if they can convince us that we can trust them to put their money where their mouth is.

My Lords, I have added my name in support of Amendments 69 to 71. I agree with what my noble friend Lady Altmann said in support of her own amendment and very largely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said from the Opposition Front Bench—supported, it is fair to say, by his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Browne.

These amendments are important not for what they say intrinsically but for what they say about us—as a Parliament and as people who make policy then implement it. The cigarette packet analogy is very telling: it is ridiculous that it costs the same to buy a packet of cigarettes as it does to register a company. That clearly has to change and I do not think that the Government believe that £12.50, or whatever the cost is, is the right price to register a company. There may well have to be a sliding scale, reflecting small and larger companies, but suffice to say that the current level of fees is ridiculous and the current level of fines could well be ridiculous.

Having signed these amendments, however, I do not want to be seen as a false friend. I take the point that putting on the face of primary legislation the fee, or the fine, makes lifting it higher annually—or whatever the relevant time is—much more difficult because the primary legislation will have to be amended. You might get a Bill like this—okay, we have had two in a year; we are all smiling but these two years are very unusual—but the next time we get to amend the level of the fine in primary legislation could be a long way off. I suggest that we use these amendments to prompt the Government to set realistic fees and fines, and to place those in a form of legislation that can be amended readily and quickly. That would presumably be under regulations, which is not an unusual state of affairs. The purpose behind these amendments, as I say, is to provoke or promote the Government into thinking about the levels of these fines and fees.

In relation to the question of hypothecation or whether the fines should go into the Consolidated Fund, again, I am going to demonstrate that I am a false friend to some extent because hypothecating fines or fees can sometimes create another form of sclerosis. It also creates an inability to be flexible in how one spends public money.

Our arguments in support of these amendments demonstrate what this Committee thinks—here, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Browne: if this proposal was put to a vote on Report, it would win. I do not think that the Government need have any false hope about that; I suspect it would win. Of course, it would be overturned back in the other place but we would be saying to the Government, “We want real and meaningful action”. This Committee leaves it to the Government to come up with a scheme that avoids having a vote and meets the real nature of the problem that we face.

My noble friend Lord Agnew spoke about the asset recovery fund. I have experience but also a suspicion—horror is too strong a word—of incentivising public authorities to prosecute people for money. If I prosecute someone and I recover £X million, the police, the CPS and the whatever get a slice. That happens under the asset recovery scheme at the moment.

I have, as a part-time judge, refused applications made by certain police forces to go off to happy places in the Caribbean to recover assets from drug crimes. When you ask how much they are after, they say, “Ooh, lots”. You ask what it is going to cost to get them over there and back and stay in this five-star hotel while they collect “lots”, and you are told that it will be “not very much”. When you work it out a little more deeply, the numbers are reversed: they are after not very much and they will spend a huge amount to go and get it. It is not an effective or efficient system. Do not incentivise the law authorities with money; provide them with the tools to go and get it.

I refer back to the rather feeble story that I told at Second Reading about the state attorney for the southern district of New York and his comments on the funding of the Serious Fraud Office. We have to fund these authorities—be it the Serious Fraud Office, Companies House or other law authorities—to such an extent that they can do the job that we want them to do. If we give them tuppence, they will do nothing and we will complain about them. They need bigger fees and we need to get the fines up to discourage the bad people from doing what they do.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Browne, who mentioned the Prime Minister’s five objectives. I am delighted when a Member of the Opposition refers to the Prime Minister in such complimentary terms. There are four objectives in this Bill, in Clause 1. Let us get them right. Let us fund them and ensure that the way in which we create and enact this Bill enables Companies House and our law enforcement authorities to do a real job—and do it properly and quickly.

My Lords, I signed the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew. I am generally in favour of what has been said already regarding the need to increase the funding for Companies House. I was a member of the fraud committee. When we were looking at Companies House, we were astonished that we still had this ridiculously small registration fee. We thought that Companies House needed more to upgrade in the way now envisaged in this Bill; we did recommend an increase.

We were also taken to some extent with the notion of hypothecation of funds. One might say that nobody likes that idea because they think that they are getting perverse incentives and things are going wrong from that perspective, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, elaborated. However, the fact is that our prosecutors are underresourced. When recommending these hypothecations, some us may feel that it is a last resort. Well, that is what it is; there is no other way to get the sort of money that will allow adequate prosecutions into the system.

From my point of view, it does not matter how you get the money in. We have to accept that we need better-funded regulators and better-funded prosecutors in general. It is no coincidence that, whenever there is any kind of scandal, as happens a lot in financial services—about which I know rather more—it is always in the United States that they manage to prosecute them. That is because they have this hypothecation of fines, they have lots of money and they can pin them down. We cannot do that for all kinds of reasons. We cannot keep on being the poor, weak cousins where you will never be for the high jump, you will never be prosecuted and we are still the financial laundromat.

Hypothecation may not be ideal; the Treasury would lose the money, of course, so it would still come from the public purse. Well, why not put it there adequately from the public purse in the first place? I do not see the raising of Companies House fees to £100 as money for legal enforcement; I see it as raising money so that Companies House can be much better and much more advanced and do all the things it needs to do, perhaps more quickly, because a lot of expenditure will be required on technology. It is ridiculous to have this £10; it could be £100, and we could deal with the issue of getting decent enforcement separately.

My Lords, to take up the noble Baroness’s final point on technology, in the very helpful session we had yesterday—unfortunately the Minister could not be there—we were provided with some written information about the use of technology that was going to develop. I asked about artificial intelligence. Either in the course of answering these amendments or generally, could the Minister assist us as to how, with this increasing amount of information that Companies House will now have, artificial intelligence will allow it and the prosecuting authorities to have a great deal more information to put two and two together, which will assist with this legislation’s overall objectives?

My Lords, this discussion about how we fight economic crime would be an awful lot easier and better informed if we had seen the Government’s national fraud strategy, which I believe was supposed to be with us at the back end of last year. Perhaps the Minister might like to find out when we might finally see it.

My Lords, I thank your Lordships, as always, for this very passionate debate. I am struck, after however many pleasant hours we have been together debating in Committee, by the convinced passion and determination of Peers on all sides. An Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill might be considered a dry, technical matter for specific and weighty thought, but the reality is that this is an emotive subject. It is important for all noble Lords to know the Government’s shared passion for stamping out illegal activity and economic crime in this country. From my point of view, it is extremely costly to the economy to enable financial crime to be enacted in the UK. It is not invisible, and every crime has a victim. I hope all noble Lords understand that my personal passion and that of the Government are allied in trying to make a Bill that is practical, will achieve its goals and will allow businesses to flourish.

I would also like to apologise. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, mentioned the meeting which many officials here attended yesterday. I was unable to attend that meeting, for which I sent my apologies. That was the only morning that I have been away in the past six months. I hope all noble Lords will feel comfortable in contacting me directly to arrange further formal or informal meetings.

I now turn to the amendments. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, for their Amendment 65 on fees and penalties. I also thank my noble friend Lord Agnew, my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, and the noble Baroness, Baroness Bowles, for their Amendments 69, 70, 71, which address the economic crime fund and the retention of fees by economic crime enforcement agencies. I also thank my noble friend Lady Altmann for her Amendment 106E on fees and an economic crime fund.

I shall attend initially to the fees and penalties element. The level of Companies House fees has been the subject of much speculation, and I know from our conversations and the amendments in this group that noble Lords have a significant interest in this. At no point do the Government believe, or could anyone in all seriousness believe, that £12 is a reasonable amount for setting up a company. People have suggested that if a commercial organisation cannot afford whatever arbitrary figure one may wish to pick—it could be £50, £100, £150 or £500—for the creation of a limited liability company, it should question whether a limited liability company is the right structure in which to operate.

However, it is very important that fees are set via regulations and that the Government have flexibly over the right level of fee, which has not yet been established. I was grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier for confirming his view that that is the most appropriate way to set fees. The fee will be determined following an analysis and appraisal of the volume of investigation and enforcement activity to be undertaken, the associated cost base, the timelines for recruitment and systems development and other factors which we have raised in this important debate. We are currently finalising our modelling but are increasingly confident that we can fully fund the reforms, including creating around 400 new roles at Companies House, while keeping fees low. Current estimates from Companies House suggest fees of no more than around £50.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the annual administration fee. There is an establishment fee for setting up a company and then there is an annual fee, which is currently £13—it is more expensive to register your firm annually than it is to set it up in the first place. I am not entirely sure how we reached those figures, but we are not looking to enshrine a minimum level of fee in primary legislation because to do so would severely restrict flexibility which may be required at a future date. Fees will continue to be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that they are providing the level of funding that Companies House needs. Companies House is able to retain incorporation fee income under current arrangements between it and HM Treasury, with the arrangement reviewed periodically. That is important. The current intention is that the fees will be used to pay for Companies House, so a raised fee is absolutely right. It is estimated to be used for the functioning of Companies House.

Will my noble friend clarify the annual filing fee? He mentioned that the one-off fee will go up to around £50. Can he give us any sense about the second fee? I think it is more important because it is regular income. I think the stock of new companies will drop because of this legislation. It will stop very small actors, as we have discussed—the plumber, the painter or whatever—and bad actors will not come in, so annual new registrations will drop, but that is why the filing fee is very important. Will the Minister give the Committee some indication?

I thank my noble friend. We do not have an estimate for the annual registration fee so I would not like to speculate on it, but clearly it would be raised to a level commensurate with the £50 initial fee. The Government set the fee levels, as is appropriate under legislation, but they will come from the recommendation from Companies House. We will look very closely to ensure that it has enough income to perform the functions that we want it to perform. I do not think it is anything more complicated than that.

I have had many enjoyable debates about what the fee should be. To some extent, we can enjoy those debates but they are slightly speculative. What is important is that the Government have the flexibility to ensure that the right level of fee is charged and to change that if necessary. I do not think that anyone in this Committee would disagree fundamentally with that principle. Setting a minimum fee level does not seem reasonable, given the flexibility that we wish to retain.

Can my noble friend explain to the Committee what advantage the Government believe would flow from having low fees for incorporation? There seems to be an idea that we need to raise it to £50 only, as though there is some benefit in having a low fee—I am not sure in what terms, given that the EU average is €300, the US cost is between $570 and $1,400 and the BVI charge £1,000. In the Government’s view, why would there be an objection to going with the Treasury Select Committee recommendation, for example, of at least £100? It would not mean that they could not charge more. It seems to be the general view of the Committee that £100 would not be an unreasonable minimum, at least, for this incorporation fee. The annual fee can always be set in a different way.

I appreciate my noble friend’s intervention. It is probably a good thing that we will be cheaper than the EU when it comes to registering a company; we could call it a Brexit dividend. Without being facetious, this is about giving the Government flexibility to ensure that they charge the right amount. I have no personal view on whether it should be £75, £100 or £125; we can have this debate all evening, and I have great sympathy with it. The point is that I do not believe that anyone in this Committee is suggesting a significant change in the volume of cost for either establishing a business or registering it, so it is absolutely right that we should consult widely and make sure both that the right amount is charged and that we have the flexibility to change it one way or the other, if appropriate.

This has turned into something of a Dutch auction. We have lost sight of the purpose of this group of amendments, which is to look through the telescope from the other end. This is about enforcement: how much money will be needed by the enforcement authorities to enforce the Act? Does the Minister agree that the current level of enforcement with the current legislation is inadequate? If so, what will change to fund the organisations to create adequate enforcement? If it will not happen through the measures being discussed in this group of amendments, how will it? That point was made by various noble Lords in the Committee. It is the nub of the answer that we are seeking from the Minister.

I am grateful for the noble Lord’s intervention. If I may, I will come to my conclusion before answering those important points. The Government need to continue setting fees via regulations. I would personally be very reluctant to try to set any minimum floor. The assumption will be that the right amount of fees will be set and they will be higher than currently charged. Estimates from Companies House suggest around £50. We are happy to have discussions about that as we go forward but I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Has any thought been given to the possibility—I know that the Government like this sort of structure—of having an independent fee review body that looks at all this and makes recommendations? The Government could still set the fee but there would be an independent group of experts looking at the objectives that we have set ourselves. Is it too late to put some provision like that into this piece of legislation? I know that the Government like reviews.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for suggesting the creation of another authority but, in this instance, I would be reluctant to do that. As I said, I have noted his comments very carefully, and I will be happy to have further discussions with noble Lords around this issue. I am sure it will be a matter of debate, but the important point is that I do not believe that we should be setting minimum costs by legislation. It would be completely impractical and would remove the flexibility and purpose.

I now come to the economic crime fund and economic crime enforcement agencies Amendments 69 and 71 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, and the economic crime fund Amendment 106E tabled by my noble friend Lady Altmann, which are very relevant. As we have discussed—and I take this view personally—we can have as many rules and regulations as we want, but if they are not enforced properly, they will have no value. That is why when noble Lords come to me with new ideas—there is an ever-bubbling font of new ideas—for new regulations, strictures and penalties that could be imposed upon businesses to reduce economic crime, I sometimes push back. I say that it is not necessarily about introducing new regulations and rules but about making sure we have the resources, focus and capabilities successfully to prosecute existing crimes.

That is at the core of my next comment: the Government are committed to ensuring that law enforcement agencies have the funding they need. The combination of the 2021 spending review settlement and private sector contributions through the new economic crime levy will provide funding of £400 million over the spending review period. The levy applies to the AML-regulated sector and will fund new or uplifted activity to tackle money laundering, starting from 2023-24. I believe that the levy is expected, or targeted, to raise £100 million. I am not sure whether that figure is confirmed; I will come back to noble Lords if it is wildly inaccurate.

In addition to this, a proportion of assets recovered under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 are already reinvested in economic crime capability. Under the asset recovery incentivisation scheme mentioned already by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and some other noble Lords, receipts that are paid into the Home Office are split 50:50 between central government and operational partners, based on their relative contribution to delivering receipts.

Proceeds from fines issued by Companies House are placed into the Consolidated Fund, which is used for financing the expenditure of government departments on important public services. The proposed amendments would see the incorporation fees, all fees paid under regulations made under Section 1063 of the Companies Act and all penalties paid under regulations made under Section 1132A of that Act being surrendered into an economic crime fund. This would be contrary to the fundamental principle that the fees are paid for the benefit of incorporated status and would fall foul of long-established Treasury rules preventing fees being used to fund activities that may be completely unconnected. I am happy to be corrected, but I do not believe that this is pushing back against the concept of hypothecation. The point is simply that these are fees to be paid for a service, and it would not be appropriate for them to be directed to another function.

This would also encompass almost the entirety of Companies House’s income, leaving it with no resources, and it would require funding from elsewhere, primarily from the taxpayer, so going completely against what many noble Lords, this Government and I want, which is to use the fees to pay for the functioning of Companies House. The fees would then go into a fund, so we would have to pay for Companies House on top of that. I am sure that is quite clear. The Government do not believe it is appropriate to place the burden of funding Companies House on the taxpayer, and this would be contrary to the fundamental principle that the fees are paid for the benefit of incorporated status.

I would like to attend now to some comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne.

My Lords, I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with the Home Office practice on this. The Home Office has a very clear practice of full-cost charging for visas for entry to this country. I think it now costs £2,000 to £3,000, for example, for the spouse of a British citizen returning to this country to get settled status in Britain. If some parts of government are now insisting on full recovery of costs, perhaps this is a model that could be applied here as well.

I thank the noble Lord; that is exactly what I am saying. The whole point about the fees is that they are charged in order to pay for Companies House; that is precisely the same principle. Unless I have misunderstood the intervention, this goes directly against the amendment that introduces a fund that has to be paid for by the fees levied on people who are setting up companies or annually registering.

I want to attend to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. He said—rightly—that the whole point of this legislation is not to profit or make money from it but to stop the bad practice happening in the first place. The fines and penalties to be issued by Companies House are designed to drive a change in behaviour, not be a revenue-raising tool. I was grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier for raising the point around how these fines could or should be used. It is possible to suggest that the same situation happens with speed cameras. The theory there is that we want to reduce speed on the roads, not raise revenue—at least, that is my personal opinion.

I do not have an interest to declare there, I might add. Using fines to fund other activities results in the perverse scenario of that funding being dependent on behaviour that we are actively trying to stop. I strongly believe that, in many ways, the principles we are talking about are negated by a well-intentioned concept: trying to make sure that there is enough money so that our law enforcement agencies are properly funded in order to achieve their ambitions.

Given the limitations that I have set out—this goes to the point about providing a report—I am not convinced that there would be merit in providing a report on the prospect of a fund or, indeed, providing for a fund. I hope that noble Lords understand my conclusion here.

I am sorry to intervene but I just want to say something. The Minister agreed with all of us that the crime-fighting agencies need to be properly funded but he did not explain how that will happen because he does not accept that we should hypothecate. He gave some good examples of other situations where it was about not the hypothecation but the use of revenue for activities that were not part of the original source and funding litigation. In June last year, the Information Commissioner announced a new arrangement with DCMS in which it could keep some of its civil monetary penalties to fund it to take on large technology companies. All I am trying to do is ensure that we will have the resources to take on these bad actors.

The Minister and my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier mentioned ARIS. As I said earlier, the funding has declined by 35% in five years—that is without inflation—yet the problem is getting worse. I do not expect the Minister to come back to us on this tonight but I am looking for some reassurance around how we are going to fund these things properly because we are not doing so at the moment. Everybody seems to be in denial and the Minister has offered me no assurances that we are going to deal with this.

I greatly appreciate my noble friend’s intervention. I hope that I have made clear to the Committee the importance that this Government place on fighting economic crime.

If I may—I am not sure of the protocol—I wish to question my noble friend’s intervention. He said that the asset recovery incentivisation scheme has seen a considerable drop in the monies deployed to law enforcement over the recent period. However, I have a figure here: since 2006-07, just under £1.3 billion—that is based on nominal values and not adjusted for inflation—has been returned to Proceeds of Crime Act agencies to fund further asset recovery capability and work that protects the public from harm. In 2021-22, £354 million was recovered under the Proceeds of Crime Act, of which £298 million was paid into the ARIS pot. So I certainly will research the figures given to me by my noble friend.

The point is that we are looking to provide funding of £400 million over the spending review in order to focus on fighting economic crime. I am happy to have further debates around this issue but I hope that I have made my point in relation to these amendments, minimum fee levels and creating a fund out of the fees, which would be completely contrary to the ambitions that we have set in our legislation around Companies House.

My Lords, I have to say that there is a bit of work to be done on this group of amendments before Report. The Minister certainly failed to convince me and I am sure he failed to convince many, if not everyone, on the Committee. There is a real problem here. There is a problem with raising the fee and what it should be. The Government say that it is a matter for us and then came up with the figure of £50, which I think is inadequate. There we go; there clearly needs to be discussion about that on Report. I take the point that a number of noble Lords have made that the fee is not just to fight economic crime but for the additional responsibilities that Companies House will have. That is very clear.

At the heart of this group of amendments, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, is how we are going to resource the measures in the Bill. To be frank, answer from the Government there was none. There will have to be considerable discussion among us, between now and Report, to see whether there is any ground for compromise and to come together here. Of course we will do that. It is my intention to work with others in the Committee on an amendment, if the Government cannot reassure us that they will bring one forward.

This group of amendments is so important. All the way through, the Minister has said, in good faith, that we need to discuss, negotiate and think about how to deal with the issues that have been raised. The issue raised in this group of amendments is as important as those in any other groups, because it asks how we will ensure that the objectives laid out in Clause 1 will be realised and enforced. At the moment, the answer from the Government is to do it on a wing and a prayer, with the resources that we have and an inadequate understanding of all the various bodies that come into it. Quite rightly, we are putting additional responsibilities on them, which we all support. We all support the Government’s aim, but they are just saying that this can be delivered; they have then come up with the figure of £50 and said that it is not necessary to put anything in the Bill and not to worry, because it can be changed by regulation.

We all know that changing things by regulation, in essence, means that the Government get their own way. As everyone knows, people will vote it through in the Commons and then, when it comes here, there will be a regret Motion if people do not like it, but in essence it will not be blocked. It is no wonder that people think this is needed in the Bill because, if it is not, the Government will get what they want; they will decide.

The Government’s answer of £50 really says to the Committee that they are fixed on £50, but we do not think that is adequate. Unless we get some movement on this, we will have to come back to this on Report to ensure not only that the new Companies House is properly funded but that we get the law enforcement that we need to ensure that these measures are enforced so that we do not have another toothless tiger on our hands.

I will just wrap up my amendments. I am afraid that I agree with both the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Fox, that there does not seem to be a strategy for fighting economic crime. I ask the Minister to think about this and come back to us. It could be something as simple as increasing the filing fee beyond whatever we think is the right figure by another £10. At 2 million filing fees a year, we would then have the start of a fund to fight economic crime. It could be something as simple as that, but I urge the Minister to give us something to get our teeth into. On that basis, I will not move my amendment.

Amendment 65 withdrawn.

Clause 92 agreed.

Schedule 3 agreed.

Clause 93 agreed.

Clause 94: Use or disclosure of PSC information by companies

Amendments 66 and 67

Moved by

66: Clause 94, page 72, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 10 on page 73 and insert—

“(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations—(a) require a company to refrain from using, or refrain from disclosing, relevant PSC particulars except in circumstances specified in the regulations;(b) confer power on the registrar, on application, to make an order requiring a company to refrain from using, or refrain from disclosing, relevant PSC particulars except in circumstances specified in the regulations.”Member’s explanatory statement

This brings the drafting of the amendments made by Clause 89 into line with the drafting of the amendment to Clause 49, page 33, line 19 that appears in the Minister’s name.

67: Clause 94, page 73, line 19, leave out “this section” and insert “subsection (1)(b)”

Member’s explanatory statement

This is consequential on the amendment to Clause 94, page 72, line 40 that appears in the Minister’s name.

Amendments 66 and 67 agreed.

Clause 94, as amended, agreed.

Clauses 95 to 99 agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.35 pm.