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Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 9 September 2021

Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee

New Clause 1

Duty to report on directors of dissolved companies

‘(1) The Secretary of State must lay a report before each House of Parliament no later than three months after the day on which this Act is passed, and during each three month period thereafter.

(2) Each report under subsection (1) must include the number of former directors of dissolved companies the Insolvency Service has—

(a) investigated; and

(b) disqualified both in the three-month period prior to the report being published, and in total since section 1 came into force.’—(Jeff Smith.)

This new clause would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to report the number of former directors of dissolved companies investigated and disqualified by the Insolvency Service.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Guidance on non-domestic rating and coronavirus

‘(1) The Secretary of State must, no later than three months from the day on which this Act is passed, publish guidance for local government bodies on the application of—

(a) the provisions of section 1 of this Act, and

(b) the wider local business support policy framework associated with that section.

(2) In preparing the guidance the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) independent experts, and

(b) representatives of companies whose non-domestic ratings determinations are affected by section 1.’

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish guidance to local government bodies on the application of the provisions of section 1 of this act. This guidance must be prepared following consultation of independent experts and businesses whose business rates appeals are affected by section 1.

Government amendments 1 to 6.

I am conscious that we have an important debate to follow and that time is pressing, so I shall be relatively brief. Labour’s broad support for this Bill has not changed. We recognise the urgent need to support businesses, as well as the Valuation Office Agency, and the need to close a legislative gap exploited by unscrupulous directors. The Bill remains lacking in some safeguards. Labour attempted to correct that in Committee, but we were unsuccessful. The new clause is concerned with the resourcing and capacity of the Insolvency Service to deal with the new measures relating to directors of dissolved companies.

As we heard from witnesses in July at the evidence sessions, unscrupulous directors can cause significant suffering to those who have invested in or loaned to their companies. Too often, these directors are able to absolve themselves of their financial responsibilities by dissolving their companies and creating a financial and time barrier to holding them to account. So clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill allow for a director to be investigated and disqualified before their company is restored. That plugs the important gap and is a welcome measure; it removes a costly barrier, both in monetary and time terms, to accountability and financial responsibility.

However, as Duncan Swift, the former president of R3 highlighted in the Bill’s evidence sessions, these provisions could see the Insolvency Service take on 10 to 15 times the number of investigations it currently undertakes. Despite that potential increase in workload, there is no indication in the Bill that the Government plan to increase funding and resources at all for the Insolvency Service, let alone to do so by the significant amount it might need to allow it to cope with the extra investigations. So Labour is calling for new clause 1 to be added to the Bill to ensure that there is appropriate, regular oversight and scrutiny of the Insolvency Service’s ability to carry out this increased workload. If it is not given the resources to carry out its increased responsibilities, clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill become, in effect, redundant. New clause 1 would ensure that parliamentarians and others are kept updated on the Insolvency Service’s ability to carry out its tasks and on any need it has for extra resources. We do not intend to press the new clause to a vote, but we think it is important to make this point, particularly given that the Insolvency Service cannot apply to court for the disqualification of a director whose company has been dissolved for more than three years. That means that the Insolvency Service does not just need extra resources to carry out the additional investigations; it needs them to carry out those investigations promptly, within that three-year timeframe.

As Dr Tribe summarised:

“The Insolvency Service needs to be properly funded to ensure that this additional disqualification work can happen.”––[Official Report, Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Public Bill Committee, 6 July 2021; c. 18, Q29.]

Although this Bill goes some way to helping tackle financial corruption, the Government could and should go further. The Bill is too narrowly defined for any financial amendments, but the Government could provide a stronger deterrent, beyond disqualification, for unscrupulous directors.

Let me briefly turn to the other new clause and amendments. New clause 2 stands in the name of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and we do not disagree with it. However, we think we do not have to wait for this until the day the Act is passed. It is clear that there is cross-party support for the Bill, that it will pass and that businesses are desperate for support in the current circumstances. So we see no reason why indicative guidance cannot be published and sent to local authorities, as well as possibly indicative amounts for the grants that local authorities will receive, so that they can get on quickly with designing their schemes, ready for when the Act passes. I make the point that we made in Committee that this should not be on a per-head basis; it should take into account the effect of the pandemic on different regions and on different sectors of the economy. I also note the Government’s technical solution, which allowed the backdating of these grants so they effectively apply this financial year.

In Committee back in July, the Minister said that the Government were engaging with local authorities and

“working on the final points in the guidance.”––[Official Report, Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Public Bill Committee, 8 July 2021; c. 76.]

Officials have had all summer to do that now. Let us just get on with it—let us let local authorities know what they can do and let them get on with doing it.

Finally, we support the Government’s technical amendments to allow the measures to apply to Wales as well as England. We note that they are at the request of the Welsh Government and we welcome them.

I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). I shall start by responding to new clause 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him for his constructive words and the way in which he has approached the debate.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the number of directors investigated and disqualified under the new provisions in the Bill every three months from the date that the Act is passed. I am grateful to hon. Members for the opportunity to confirm to the House that statistical reporting is routinely undertaken by the Insolvency Service. Regular three-monthly releases cover company insolvencies across the whole UK as well as individual insolvencies in England and Wales. The releases also contain underlying data and are published and available online to everybody.

As well as that, since the start of the pandemic, the Insolvency Service has been publishing experimental monthly releases of data concerning insolvency numbers. This was so that the statistics could act as an indicator of the impact of the pandemic on insolvencies. It may be of particular interest to hon. Members that the Insolvency Service also releases monthly updates about its enforcement activities. This information includes not only the number of companies wound up in the public interest, but the number of disqualification orders and undertakings broken down by the relevant section of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, under which they were sought. Going forward, these numbers will include any orders or undertakings obtained as a result of this new provision. The reports also include information on lengths of periods of disqualification. Furthermore, there is an annual report on the nature of the misconduct being alleged.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that a large amount of information is already provided that can be accessed easily through a quick online search and that future reports of enforcement outcomes will include any disqualifications made against former directors of dissolved companies. I would be grateful to him for withdrawing his new clause.

Let me just add one last point. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the new burdens on councils. I somewhat couched my answer the last time we spoke about it, so I just want to put on record that we will absolutely be meeting the new burdens cost, including the associated administrative and IT costs.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1

Determinations in respect of certain non-domestic rating lists

Amendments made: 1, page 1, line 2, for “an English” substitute “a rating”.

This amendment and Amendments 2 to 6 extend the application of Clause 1 to non-domestic rating lists compiled for the purposes of business rates in Wales (as well as lists for England).

Amendment 2, page 1, line 5, for “an English” substitute “a rating”.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, for “an English” substitute “a rating”.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

Amendment 4, page 2, leave out lines 22 and 23.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

Amendment 5, page 2, leave out lines 28 to 35.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

Amendment 6, page 2, line 40, at end insert—

‘“rating list” means a local non-domestic rating list or central nondomestic rating list under Part 3 of the LGFA 1988.’.—(Luke Hall.)

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is a pleasure to lead this two-part Bill on Third Reading after a series of constructive debates and scrutiny sessions. The contributions of Members from across the House have underlined the importance of these business rates and insolvency measures being on the statute book and will stand the Bill in good stead as it passes to the other place.

The business rates element of the Bill is a sensible measure that will mean that the application of the material change of circumstances process meets the law’s original intention. The MCC process is designed to be used in cases such as localised roadworks, not in response to market-wide economic changes. The passage of the Bill would ensure that this continues to be the case. Instead of business rates bills potentially being reduced following lengthy appeals processes, ratepayers will instead be able to benefit from a £1.5 billion relief package to be targeted at those businesses that have not benefited from the support linked to business rates during the pandemic.

The relief will be available as soon as possible once the Bill has passed and local authorities have set up their local schemes. This approach has been welcomed by the Public Accounts Committee and will be mirrored by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. That means that this measure has wide support, both in respect of the English business rates system and across the other nations of the UK, where ratings are a devolved matter.

Similarly, we have also seen widespread support for the second measure, which brings the conduct of former directors of dissolved companies into scope for investigation and potential disqualification proceedings. This measure is a valuable addition that will be an important tool to help to combat bounce back loan fraud and to deter others from acting in breach of their duties as company directors. I am pleased that the measure will apply across the United Kingdom, protecting our businesses and increasing confidence in doing business in all four nations.

I am grateful for the contribution of all Members throughout the Bill’s earlier passage and today. I thank them for the attention that they have paid to the Bill. I am particularly grateful to the shadow Ministers, the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), for their constructive scrutiny of the Bill.

Finally, I thank the Clerks of the House and my excellent Bill team at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, who have supported us in steering this piece of important legislation through the House. This important Bill speaks to the Government’s commitment to maintaining sensible and fair rating and director disqualification regimes, and I am pleased to have supported it in its passage so far. I commend it to the House.

I will again be brief, because we set out our concerns on Second Reading and in Committee, I am aware that this might not be seen as the highlight of the parliamentary week by Members, and there is an important debate to follow.

As we said, we have always supported the Bill’s broad aims. We want to see support administered quickly for businesses that have been affected by covid and have missed out on business rates relief. We accept that ruling out material change of circumstances claims, but instead administering the bespoke £1.5 billion fund, will probably be the best way of doing so in the current circumstances. We also support the aims of clauses 2 and 3, which would close the legal loophole and give the Government the power to investigate and disqualify unscrupulous or unfit company directors.

I welcome the Government’s decision to extend the provisions of clause 1 to apply in Wales, which has been welcomed by colleagues in the Senedd. I also welcome the Government’s decision to ask local authorities, when it comes to administering the fund, to award relief against the liabilities of ratepayers for the current financial year—2021-22—as a way of getting around the restrictions on the business rates legislation so that they can effectively award it against the previous year. It is a technical solution to a technical problem caused by the timing of the funding, when it is eventually released. Local government colleagues assure me that they are happy with this.

Again, I emphasise the fact that we need to get this relief out to businesses as quickly as possible. The rates relief was announced in March and not a penny has yet been paid out. I do not think we need to wait for the end of the Bill proceedings to get indicative guidance to local authorities to design their schemes.

There are still concerns about the resourcing of the Valuation Office Agency and the Insolvency Service and how funds will be recouped and actions taken against unfit company directors. I hope that the Minister will take those concerns into further consideration.

Finally, I thank the Minister for his engagement with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on the Bill’s finer points. I thank his officials and the many, many representatives of the business community and local authority officers who have also engaged with us during the passage of the Bill.

I am pleased to make a brief contribution to the debate. As I did at earlier stages, I will restrict my comments to the disqualification of directors, which is the only aspect of the Bill that extends directly to Scotland.

The SNP supports the Bill. Our concerns are the same as those of the official Opposition: that much, much more is needed than is included. We need a much more comprehensive set of regulations, not so much to protect shareholders and directors as to protect customers, members of the public and investors from the scams that have all too often been committed by companies whose shareholders are the directors. A lot of company legislation was designed to protect investors against misaction or misconduct by company directors who are different people, but we are now looking at companies whose directors are the shareholders. They are not going to defraud themselves, but sometimes they may be willing to defraud others.

At earlier stages, I have repeatedly mentioned the conduct of a group of companies called Blackmore Bond and its directors Phillip Nunn and Patrick McCreesh. I will not go over even a fraction of their history, but why they were not at least investigated for disqualification long, long ago is beyond me. The Bill will not make it easier for such directors to be called to order, so we need legislation that fills in the gaps that are left.

As an indication of just how current such behaviour is, the BBC reported as recently as Monday that DialADeal Scotland Ltd has been fined £150,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for making more than half a million illegal marketing calls, many to numbers that had explicitly opted out of such calls. DialADeal Scotland Ltd used false business names in its marketing, which is illegal. It disguised the number that it was calling from so that people could not phone back to complain, which is also illegal. The calls were about non-existent green deal energy savings schemes. That is not a telecoms offence; it is fraud or attempted fraud, and very probably conspiracy to defraud.

The fine was decided in September 2021, but clearly the action by the Information Commissioner’s Office started before then. In May 2021, the directors of the company, Calum Mckay Kirkpatrick and Yvonne Mccuaig, applied to Companies House to place the company in voluntary liquidation—almost certainly with the sole purpose of avoiding the financial penalty that they knew was coming their way, because if the company were dissolved before the order was made, its directors would get off scot-free. Fortunately, the Information Commissioner’s Office was able to lodge an objection with Companies House and the voluntary strike-off action has been suspended.

The same two individuals, Kirkpatrick and Mccuaig, were also directors of DialADealUK Ltd, which was voluntarily dissolved in September 2018, immediately before DialADeal Scotland Ltd was created. Coincidentally, shortly after they had started the process of winding up DialADeal Scotland Ltd, they set up another company called Simple Lead Ltd. Not one of those companies has ever filed a set of accounts with Companies House; DialADeal Scotland’s accounts are now over a year out of date.

Why is it that company directors can repeatedly avoid any kind of scrutiny? As I have mentioned in relation to Nunn and McCreesh’s companies, they can go for years and years without filing the very limited information that they have to file at Companies House, which just does not seem able to keep up.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point about Companies House and its limitations. Does he share my concern that the UK Government just do not care enough about Companies House and the massive loopholes that they are leaving for people to be defrauded and company directors to get away scot-free with the wrong things that they are up to?

That would certainly be many people’s interpretation of how long it has taken the Government to take any firm action. We keep being promised a comprehensive review of company legislation; it cannot come quickly enough. I hope that we will finally see an end to the scandal of the creatures called Scottish limited partnerships, which are too often set up purely as a means to fund organised crime.

Companies House needs to be reformed and probably better resourced. As the Opposition spokesperson—the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith)—mentioned, the Bill may place additional demands on the resources of the Insolvency Service. We know that the Financial Conduct Authority needs another complete sorting out. Either it is not doing its job or it has not been asked to do the right job; it probably does not have the resources to deal with fraud on the scale that is now going on right under our nose.

Although I welcome the Bill and we will certainly not oppose it—we have supported it all the way through—we look for assurances from the Government that it is not the end of the road. It can only be allowed to be one tiny step towards finally stopping these people. I remember one of the witnesses who gave evidence to the Bill Committee describing the United Kingdom as becoming one of the go-to places of choice for international fraudsters. That is not a badge that any of us should bear with honour. If that badge is applied to the financial services industry, and to the business community in the United Kingdom generally, it will take years—decades—to get rid of and honest businesses will suffer desperately.

The Government have to start to act now. I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to tell us today when the comprehensive review of company regulation will come forward, but I certainly hope that we will see it very soon. As DialADeal’s example makes clear, even since we started our consideration of the Bill, further scams have been inflicted on innocent people throughout these islands.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.