United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 (Services Exclusions) Regulations 2023

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Wednesday 18th October 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, I was not involved with the legislation for the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and I have to admit that, even after reading the Explanatory Notes, much of this SI seemed to me more like a Rubik’s cube, so I was appreciative of the clarifications from the Minister.

To a non-expert like me, the SI appeared at first glance to be essentially technical tidying, but I can also see that it tangles with the underlying tensions between the UK Internal Market Act and the common frameworks—that is to say, the intergovernmental agreements that set out how the Governments of the UK nations will work together to manage regulatory divergence in policy areas that were formerly governed at EU level. That leads me to be a little concerned, at least, that the instrument before us received the formal consent only of the Welsh Government. I have no idea whether that is because of objections by Scotland and Northern Ireland, simple oversight or, perhaps, in the case of Northern Ireland, because its Assembly is unable to sit. Perhaps the Minister might expand on that and explain to us why that formal consent was not given, because on the surface it is certainly a little troubling. I remember warning some colleagues involved in the internal market Act when it was passed that it created the likelihood of confusion and tension between Westminster and the devolved authorities, so I am wondering whether this is an instance of that.

I am also trying to understand what the SI will do on a day-to-day basis for the workforces that it names and what the impact will be on their potential customers. I can understand the removing of the exclusions for financial services providers; I assume that it has a positive impact on competition. But I wonder if there was any consideration that it might have a detrimental impact on the provision of local services. We have always had a great problem in financial services stopping everything being either sucked into London or the major centres and in making sure there is local activity across the whole United Kingdom.

I am struggling to understand the consequences of amending social services exclusions. It is very hard to understand why the qualifications for someone who works in social services should differ and whether this reflects some deeper issues within social service provision.

But I am most mystified by the exclusions that have been introduced for what I will group together as qualified utility engineers. They are now excluded from mutual recognition and the non-discrimination principle. We are in a period where we know we have to focus on net zero. That creates dramatic change in the way energy is provided. There are issues of introducing insulation as rapidly as possible across the country and issues with utilities—for example, shortages of reservoirs and transport. All these individuals will apparently be excluded from mutual recognition and non-discrimination. Could the Minister explain what the day-to-day impact is of that exclusion decision?

I thank the Minister and once again apologise for my lack of familiarity with the underlying legislation. It would certainly help in some of these areas to have some further clarification.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for the image of a Rubik’s cube in looking at this legislation. I welcome the detail that has been provided; it has been very helpful and, as a result, I will keep my comments fairly brief. I thank the officials who have been involved in the process and the Minister for his detailed explanation.

The major concern I want to raise is that, despite the detailed consultation—I am very pleased to see the extent to which that was undertaken—it is troubling that consent was only achieved with Welsh Ministers and not Scottish Ministers. Obviously, the Written Ministerial Statement was laid before the Summer Recess, which was a significant time ago now, and I wondered whether there have been any more conversations between those bodies to seek further reassurance about the progress of this.

I have a specific question. The Scottish Government made a request in relation to heat network authorisations. Can I seek clarification that that has been incorporated into this SI?

I too would like to ask if the noble Earl is able to give us a more detailed explanation of why consent was not forthcoming. As we know, the Scottish Government did not consent to the UKIM Act. Could the Minister explain whether this is the reason? Has he had any explanation of the reasons? Is there a reflection of any concern with the content of the SI as a result? We obviously have to note the continued absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. We want to explore with the Minister if that is seen as one of the reasons consent was not forthcoming.

This speaks to a broader concern, which we have expressed on many occasions, about the hoarding of power in Westminster. This is still seen as an issue. Perhaps the lack of progress on an agreement on a range of common frameworks with the devolved Administrations, and the failure to bring this forward, undermines the co-operative working with the DAs.

In terms of review, paragraph 14.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum mentions a review of the Act’s amendment powers, which “must take place” between the third and fifth anniversaries of the passing of the legislation. Could the Minister provide an update on this? Would it be reasonable to assume that there will be further review towards the end of the period stated? If this is the case, has work already begun to detail what further amendments might be required?

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions to the debate on this instrument. I agree that it is a very technical SI, and I would like to answer some of the detailed questions properly in writing. I have a lot of the detail here, but I know that time is short, and we want to get on with it. A number of very valuable points have been made, and I will endeavour to answer them to the best of my ability.

The provisions of the UKIM Act naturally bring up historic opposition, but I hope that the legislation that we are looking to pass today will be considered on its own merits in relation to protecting the UK internal market. As a reminder, the instrument will enable the effective operation of services regulation in the UK by adding, amending and removing service sectors excluded from the market access principles in Part 2 of the UKIM Act to reflect current regulatory practice in the UK.

This instrument is a direct result of a public consultation and therefore a rare amendment to the exclusions list, following the intention to make the scope of the UKIM Act better support intra-UK trade. It continues to guarantee that services connected with the supply or production of gas and electricity can be regulated separately in the parts of the UK. This will ensure regulation, mainly in environmentally sensitive areas, can continue without the application of the UKIM Act’s market access principles maintaining how the service is provided or regulated in parts of the UK. It will also ensure the services excluded in Schedule 2 better reflect the UK’s circumstances post-EU exit by removing exclusions which are no longer necessary in this new context.

Post Office Compensation

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Tuesday 19th September 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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I thank the noble Earl for attending today to discuss yesterday’s important Statement in the other place concerning compensation for victims of the Post Office’s Horizon IT system failings.

What took place after the installation of Horizon accounting software started in the late 1990s has been referred to as one of the greatest scandals of modern times. The installation of the accounting software led to recorded shortfalls in cash at many branches. The truth is that, instead of questioning whether the software was working accurately, the Post Office instead believed that the shortfalls were caused by postmasters themselves, leading to dismissals, recovery of losses from the individuals concerned and, of course, in some cases criminal prosecutions.

The lives of decent, honest postmasters were ripped apart, with some cases resulting in prison sentences but, for all, a long and difficult wait for years to get justice. The consequences for some of those victims are just too awful to contemplate. The wait for resolution of compensation claims has only added to the intolerable burden so many have had to face.

We can all be grateful for the work done by Ministers and civil servants to make progress on this important matter, and I acknowledge the commitment and dedication of Members in both Houses continuing to work with victims through the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance to sort this mess out.

We agree that there is logic in the proposals for compensation outlined in the Statement and welcome the clarification given in yesterday’s Statement by the Minister, Kevin Hollinrake. He acknowledged that 86 convictions have been overturned and that over £21 million has been paid out in compensation. However, due to the complexity of some claims, especially for personal damages, progress on full and final settlements has been slow. The proposal outlined is to offer a fixed sum of £600,00 for those who received an overturned conviction. Can the noble Earl tell us what specific methodology was used to arrive at this figure? Will he commit to publishing it for the sake of transparency?

I also seek clarification on a few factors. First, how many people does the noble Earl anticipate will take up this offer? What assurances can he give that the compensation being offered to those 86 individuals whose convictions have been overturned will be made up to a sufficient level? What can he say in response to the point that, if people go through the full scheme, the compensation will be much higher? I would be grateful if he addressed what he thinks the balance is between the figure of £600,000 and what others might expect to get. Importantly, what is the estimated timescale for compensation completion for those he considers eligible and not yet fully compensated? Finally, can the noble Earl explain why it has taken so long for evidence from key stakeholders—the Post Office, the Government and Fujitsu—to be presented to the public inquiry?

The Post Office is a national institution, but its reputation has been severely damaged by this scandal. I finally ask: what steps are being taken to ensure that this can never happen again?

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl for repeating this Statement. I recognise the good faith that the Under-Secretary of State in the Commons and the noble Earl have in trying to move this forward. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, said, this scandal is deeply shameful—one of the most deeply shameful incidents in public life, certainly in our lifetimes. It has involved lying, cover-up and deceit on an industrial scale and, to date, only the innocent have been punished.

Nevertheless, as I said, this announcement is a sincere attempt to inject some forward movement. As media reports have indicated, and as the noble Baroness set out, since the announcement, some of the victims will be freed from the need for an extensive claims assessment process through this offer. Others, some of the most egregiously harmed by this scandal, will rightly decline in anticipation of more appropriate compensation via a full assessment and, clearly, the Government have recognised this right, which is the right thing to do.

I sense and understand the Government’s frustration that only 86 out of an estimated 600 people who were damned by Horizon evidence have so far come through the process. Perhaps this new announcement will attract some people out, but I ask the Minister: what is plan B and what else are the Government going to do to try to inject further forward motion in this awful scandal? The process is grindingly slow and presents imposing challenges to people who have already been burned by their contact with the courts and the authorities. These are people who have been psychologically harmed by the system and now have to re-enter it to get recompense. Some element of psychological understanding has to go into coaxing these people to cross that line.

In the Commons, my honourable friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton asked a very pertinent question regarding subpostmasters who were dismissed but not prosecuted. In his thoughtful answer, Kevin Hollinrake MP highlighted the complexity and difficulty of processing claims. This is the nub of the problem and why things are grindingly slow. It is complex and difficult, and things are taking so long. Already, people have died and more will die before they find justice. I understand that this announcement is driven by a desire to move things forward, but can the Minister please undertake to carry back to his department your Lordships’ frustration and plea for greater urgency and more energy to make this move forward?

I have a question, which perhaps the Minister can explain now or write to us. Do the victims in this process, which is complex, have to prove themselves innocent, or is the assessment the other way around? It seems to me much harder to prove innocence than to refute guilt. Perhaps one way of moving this forward is to change the bar that people have to clear in the assessment process, and make it clear to them that it has been lowered and made easier. Perhaps we are applying too rigorous a standard for people who were so unrigorously prosecuted in the first place.

The elephants in the room in this inquiry are the roles played by the Post Office and Fujitsu, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, said. Here, I think the Government have been found wanting. The Government moved on the issue of senior employee bonuses, for which they deserve some praise, but, seemingly unchastened by this overall story, the Post Office is still taking an obfuscatory stance with respect to providing evidence to the inquiry and moving things forward, and it continues to be allowed to do so. Secondly, can the Minister confirm that Fujitsu remains commercially untouched by this and continues to bid and win government contracts—and can he tell us why?

This is a welcome announcement, but it is one step and there is a long way to go, so please can the Minister, who I know is working with us in good faith, work with his colleagues to find new ways to speed it up and find resolution and at least some end to this sorry story?

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Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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I do not have that detail now, but I will certainly write and let the House know.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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I think the mood of the House is very much to put pressure on to get some answers about when the three main stakeholders are going to be in front of the inquiry. We cannot wait any longer. Some of those people will be retiring; some of the people involved will not be with us anymore. The clock has been ticking for so long. If the noble Minister cannot answer now, will he come back and give us a very clear picture as to when those people will be held to account and what we can expect from the process to make sure that everything that needs to be is brought to light and exposed for what it is?

Electronic Trade Documents Act 2023

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Thursday 14th September 2023

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for that. I can report that, as the Minister in this area, I have chaired a forum with the International Chamber of Commerce where we are at the forefront of this initiative. By the UK leading the way here, with G7 and others following through, this will become a standard mechanism of trade and will be followed by the new operating border and the single trade window. We will therefore be moving rapidly to 2025 and a situation where trade can be expedited across international markets to the great benefit of our economy.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, estimates suggest that this important legislation could save businesses approximately 50% in costs by moving to forms of electronic trade. The impact assessment attached to the Act had a best-estimate adoption rate of 5% in year 1 and 45% by year 10, while the highest adoption rate predictions suggested 10% in year 1 and up to 80% in year 10. The difference in extremes between these adoption rate predictions will have far-reaching consequences. Given the potential for major cost savings and increased efficiency, can the Minister reassure us that the Government will develop a clear strategy, including guidance and awareness-raising, to support stakeholders and businesses who are keen to move towards early adoption and to inform those who are not yet engaged or are unaware of the benefits of so doing?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I can assure her that this is a great focus for the Department for Business and Trade. At the moment in the UK, only 10% of our SMEs are exporting. Overall, we are a great exporting nation; we have recently gone from sixth to fifth in the table, and we are second in services, so we have a strong export tradition, but we could do better among our SME community. My personal ambition is to drive that number up, and digital has a key part to play in that. There are some 280,000 SMEs exporting. We want to double that, and the digital route will be the way to do so. We have already identified 100,000 essentially new business which are born digital and born international, which will be a great boost to the SME trade. That will be a great focus for our department going forward.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, in his opening dispatch the Minister praised those involved for the way in which the Bill has been modified and changed. The noble Lord, Lord Agnew, needs to take a lot of credit for how that modification has gone ahead, and the work that he has done and will have to continue to do in his role overseeing the Government’s response to this. I will not repeat anything that has already been said, other than to say that I agree.

The reason we are concerned about this issue is that the Government will rightfully say that they know who the names are in these trusts, but the issue we are talking about is the publication. It has been the role of civil society and journalists to uncover problems, and that has been very important in issues around this. If the Government can demonstrate that their commitment to enforcement, getting behind these trusts and exposing people who are using them to avoid issues is fully funded and fully backed by them, our relying on civil society—which we have had to do to date—would be less of an issue. That is why we support the quest by the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, on this, and will support him as he seeks to make sure that further steps are appropriate and that enforcement is at the heart of what we seek to achieve here.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for the broader tidying up of the amendments in this group and by reflecting on the time, over several months, that we have been discussing these important issues. We must keep our eye on the scale of the issues that we are dealing with; they are immense, and they cost this country billions of pounds. We have a great deal to do to repair the UK’s reputation in the world, and I hope that we involved in this debate will all have our eyes on that prize.

I am pleased to say that we have seen some positive changes achieved through the passage of this Bill and a genuine appetite for change, as we experienced with our conversation with Companies House. We are going through an immense cultural change in the management of these affairs. As we know, it is the biggest shake-up for 170 years. I also pay tribute to everyone in the Chamber, and those who are not here today, for their diligence in the work that they have done, and to my colleagues in the other place, Dame Margaret Hodge and Seema Malhotra in particular. Months and months of work have gone into getting us to this place.

I am very grateful for the explanation that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, gave. There is real recognition that there will be an ongoing need to scrutinise. I think we all accept the commitments in good faith, but we need to make it clear to Ministers and their officials that the interest is very live and that there will be close scrutiny as these matters roll up. Compromise has been reached on this—I accept that that is the reason we will not be taking the amendment to a vote—but we add our support to the ongoing scrutiny that will need to take place.

I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, for his persistence in this and his unique position having had experience in government, which has informed the approach he has taken and the concern that I think many would agree he has rightly raised. We are where we are—he has decided to accept the reassurances—but we also have an insight into those elephant traps that he referred to. I also reference the comments of my noble friend Lord Eatwell on the explicit need for vigilance.

With those comments, and thanking everyone for the spirit of compromise, I reassure everyone that we will look closely at this, and we very much hope that the measures being brought in today will be sufficient. We will look to those delegated powers that have been built in to make sure that, if change is necessary, it will indeed be made.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, for her extremely helpful and supportive comments about the overall debate. In her summation, she was right that we have, through a great degree of good faith among us all, come up with a very strong series of actions that will genuinely change the economic landscape in this country for the better.

I have had the privilege of working with my noble friend Lord Agnew for a number of months as we have come to today’s conclusion on these measures. I reiterate my personal commitment, and the commitment of this Government, to delivering on the thrust of his ambitions. On a process that came to light only recently—the issue of bulk data and its accessibility—I can commit that Companies House will do a review of how it can assess bulk data for the trusts’ information on the register of overseas entities once a consultation period has finished and it is deemed appropriate.

Ultimately, we are committed to greater transparency, and I am very grateful to my noble friend and noble Lords across the House for their understanding of our approach to how we can best achieve this without either endangering vulnerable minors or individuals or opening ourselves up to legal challenge which could derail many of the main principles of this part the Bill to which my noble friend is rightly keen to contribute.

Finally, I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, who, from the very beginning, has been a tireless collaborator in creating—with his input across the board in this section of the Bill—a truly powerful piece of legislation. It was my own personal pleasure and pride to work with him as we have come to this conclusion, and I am very grateful to him for his understanding, again, of how we believe that we can achieve our shared ambitions in what we think will be the right way.

We have made some clear further commitments today—to which I would be delighted to be held to account by my noble friend Lord Agnew and all noble Lords in the House today—to make the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill the most effective legislation it can be. I therefore invite the House to agree the government Motions in this group.

Earl of Minto Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Business and Trade (The Earl of Minto) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for bringing the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill through the House. The Government have been pleased to support the Bill throughout all its stages, in line with our 2019 manifesto, which committed to promote flexible working. I am pleased to continue that support today at Third Reading and am very grateful for the cross-party support that the Bill has received.

The successful passage of this Bill will introduce changes to the existing right to request flexible working, which will be made alongside the Government’s commitment to make the right to request flexible working available from the first day of employment. The changes represent a timely, sensible and proportionate update to the right to request flexible working and reflect what many employers already do. They will particularly support those who need to balance their work and personal lives and may as a result find it harder to participate in the labour market. From older workers to new parents and those with disabilities or long-term health conditions, this Bill will be an important step in supporting their ability to remain and progress in work.

I am very pleased to support the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill. It is a meaningful step in the right direction to help employers and employees agree work arrangements that fit with life. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for her sponsorship of the Bill as it has moved through this House, and the honourable Member Yasmin Qureshi and my honourable friend Kevin Hollinrake for their sponsorship in the other place and hard work in putting this Bill forward.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I briefly add my thanks for the smooth passage of this Bill. I pay tribute to the Bolton mafia and, in particular, my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton. I also thank the Minister for his support going forward.

We were all struck by the moving testimonies at Second Reading; I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, who said, “Flexible working—why wouldn’t you?” That absolutely summed it up. A cultural shift is happening. As we know, many companies are already on board and getting great benefit from a more flexible approach to their workforce.

I cannot let this moment pass without referencing our culture; I note that at Second Reading there were 10 noble Baronesses on the Front Bench.

I say an enormous thank you to everyone who has assisted with this in both Houses and look forward to the next steps that will follow once the Bill is enacted.

Bill passed.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
I hope the Commons and the Bill team take what we have left them with and, notwithstanding the probable need for some tidying up, maintain the spirit of the amendments your Lordships have made to the Bill. Undoubtedly, they will help the Bill bear down on what we all want to do, which is to rid this country of the disgraceful scourge of economic crime. I hope we have been able to contribute to that process.
Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his letter on the amendments tabled at Third Reading; it was very much appreciated. All of us involved fully understand the importance of transparency of ownership in Companies House and the register of overseas entities, issues we have revisited many times throughout consideration of the Bill.

Ensuring that complex, opaque structures cannot be built to hide economic wrongdoing is central to what we need this Bill to do. I appreciate the approaches taken in working with colleagues across the House to make sure that this important and complex Bill is as effective as possible at preventing economic crime and enforcing consequences for those who commit or facilitate it. However, as we have heard, other areas of the Bill need to be changed, as this House has agreed and as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, noted, particularly through his own amendments. I hope that Ministers will also hear those points as the Bill heads back to our colleagues in the other place.

I thank all the officials, whose diligence, work, unfailing response and willingness to talk to us throughout has been exemplary. I thank the Ministers for their patience and commitment to working with all parties across the House, in particular the noble Lords, Lord Johnson and Lord Sharpe, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy. We are very grateful for that commitment. I give special thanks to Clare Scally, who works in our office. Her tireless support and endless patience working through the various amendments is to be commended. She has kept us on the straight and narrow going through the various changes, which have been welcomed, in the main. I particularly thank my noble friends who have engaged in the debate, especially my noble friends Lord Ponsonby and Lord Coaker, who have given so much of their insight and expertise to help us move forward.

As we have heard today, there is no doubt that this Bill is in a better place than when we started. However, all of us, hand on heart, know that there is still much more to do, particularly in tackling the sheer scale of economic crime in this country. Many people who were not aware of that now are, and I believe that the demand for action will grow. I hope that our improvements to the Bill will have a swift impact on its legislative journey and really help the many victims who must remain at the heart of our considerations.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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My Lords, before I conclude, I would just like to cover the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. If my memory is correct, Amendment 17 prevents the publication of a PSC whose identity has not been verified, so there is no conflict between the two. It is only right that people whose identity has not been verified is published. What is important about these additional amendments is that they ensure that you have to ascertain that you have no PSCs, or if the PSC has not been identified then the registrar is able to make further inquiries. They are not inconsistent and make a sound change to the Bill very much along the lines the noble Lord was recommending in the first place.

I thank the Opposition Front-Benchers, in particular the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds—a formidable Front Bench, if I may say—and the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I thank them for their engagement and constructive scrutiny of the Bill, as well as the enormous amount of time they dedicated to the various meetings ahead of each set of debates. It was a very valuable collaboration and I believe together in this House, we have formed a significant piece of legislation that all the peoples of the United Kingdom will benefit from.

I thank some of the other key contributors to this Bill. Many other noble Lords have been instrumental in the improvements made during its passage through this House, including the noble Lords, Lord Vaux of Harrowden and Lord Alton of Liverpool. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and I spent many hours working through this Bill, and if ever asked to point to the value of this great Chamber, it is exactly those constructive debates that I would point to. I am extremely grateful for his input and strong sense of collaboration.

Thanks must also go to my noble friends Lady Stowell of Beeston, Lady Morgan of Coates, Lord Leigh of Hurley—I have rightly described him as a “guru of finance”— Lord Sandhurst, and others for their input and constructive challenge. I also thank my noble friend Lord Agnew of Oulton, who has also engaged extremely constructively with me during this process, and my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier. Over recent months, we have had robust discussions and debates and I genuinely thank them for their engagement.

I must also thank the Whip, my noble friend Lord Evans of Rainow; the formidable team of Whips and officials; and my ministerial colleagues—my noble friends Lord Sharpe of Epsom and Lord Minto, and my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy—who have all done an excellent job when representing this Bill in the House in all debates over the last few months. The Bill is significant both in size and scope, spanning several departments.

This brings me to all the officials working across multiple departments behind the scenes supporting the ministerial team as we engaged and debated with noble Lords on the detail of the Bill; I extend true personal thanks and the thanks of my noble friend Lord Sharpe. I thank Louise Smyth, the registrar of Companies House, who will be taking many of the actions we are passing through this House in order to make Companies House function more effectively. She and her entire team have engaged consistently throughout this process, and we wish her the greatest of success in implementing this dramatic programme.

I thank the analysis, company law and corporate transparency team in my own Department for Business and Trade, headed especially ably by the deputy director, Matt Ray, and his head of policy, Steve Webster. I thank the criminal finances and asset recovery unit in the Home Office, excellently led by Maria Hannan. I thank Paul Rowlands, Lucy Chisholm, the hard-working legal teams in both departments—I can certainly attest to that—and the expert drafters from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, particularly Diggory Bailey and Camilla Grundy. I thank my private office team, in particular, Emily Tranter and Simon Moore, who have supported me so much over these last few months. Finally, I thank the Bill team: Tom Ball, the Bill manager, and his fantastic team of Nicola Wallace, Anna Gray, Corrie Monaghan, Tim Holland, Sophie Curry, Monique Sidhu, Michael Tam and Carolin Grassmann. Everyone involved has demonstrated impressive levels of expertise, and I think I can speak for all Ministers when I say that we felt in safe hands. I am grateful for their proactive, patient and professional support throughout.

Finally, I thank the House authorities for managing the large number of amendments made in this House, and the parliamentary staff, the doorkeepers and clerks for their professionalism and continued support to the Bill and to your Lordships’ House.

To conclude, this Bill is a milestone piece of legislation, which will deliver major reforms to the framework for corporate criminal liability, improving the ability to hold corporations liable in their own right for economic crimes; the first serious reform of limited partnership law since 1907; the most significant changes to our system for setting up and maintaining companies since the 1850s; the first national legislation from any Government to take action against SLAPPs; and the legislative underpinning to tackle the new threats facing us in 21st century through action on crypto assets and improved data-sharing.

Economic crime affects every single one of us in different ways and at different scales. This Government are determined to tackle economic crime and drive out dirty money, protecting British citizens. We are ensuring that public agencies, law enforcement and the private sector have the tools needed to deliver greater protections for members of the public and businesses. As I have said on multiple occasions, the Government have been determined throughout that the Bill strikes the right balance in all areas between tackling criminality and avoiding undue burdens on the law-abiding majority. I remain keener than ever to get this important legislation on the statute books, and look forward to implementing the reforms that it contains when we reach Royal Assent. I beg to move.

Equipment and Protective Systems Intended for Use in Potentially Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Wednesday 28th June 2023

(11 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very detailed explanation of these regulations. I have three questions—or requests for clarification—for him; some aspects have already been covered but I will none the less press ahead with them.

First, paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland previously had responsibility for

“informing the Commission and other member States … where there are non-conformity products that may be on the EU market”,

but that this responsibility will now be passed to the Secretary of State. Why was this change considered necessary and why is the Secretary of State considered the most appropriate person to carry out that function?

My second question has to a large degree been covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. I wanted to ask why there was no public consultation on these measures, not least with the businesses in Northern Ireland that are directly affected by these changes.

The Minister has largely already covered my third question, which is about an information campaign. Given that these regulations will introduce sanctions for non-use or improper use, it is extremely important that businesses affected by this are aware of the new rules. He said that there will be a website, if I heard him correctly. Are there also plans for a more proactive approach to reach out to companies that will be directly affected—companies exporting to Northern Ireland as well as businesses in Northern Ireland that will be directly impacted?

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for the full explanation, which is very much appreciated, and those in the Room for their questions. A few things have been covered that I was going to pick up, and I do not have a great deal more to add. As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, mentioned, I was intrigued by the arrangements of the health and safety aspects, particularly the responsibilities for the Secretary of State. I look forward to the answers on that. There are some interesting questions to answer around the consultation. With all these matters, some reassurance is needed on the changes around resources, how they will be managed and, particularly, how they will be monitored. I am sure that the Minister will pick up on the impact assessment in his closing remarks. The only other aspect is around whether there will be any impact on the way that implementation in Great Britain continues and whether this will have any particular impact on that: would there be any digression from the situation arising in Northern Ireland? With those comments, I look forward, with interest, to the Minister’s summing up.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for their participation in the discussion on this statutory instrument. I will try to answer the questions raised in this debate, if I can.

I start with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. I apologised to her in the Division Lobbies for not completely hearing her final question. My commitment here is to focus on the changes relating to these ATEX products, so she will understand if I am quite keen to focus specifically on this regulatory change. I am very aware of the other questions raised around this, particularly relating to the Windsor Framework.

I will cover two points on consultation and, to some extent, impact. We did not undertake a public consultation, given that the instrument’s provisions are limited to making amendments for the implementation of a Windsor Framework obligation and ensuring that Northern Ireland continues to implement EU-derived product safety requirements for ATEX goods. But we did have informal discussions around product sector legislation. As I understand it, these were held with over 4,000 businesses, including manufacturers, trade associations and industry representatives by means of a series of structured interviews. There were further discussions with the Northern Ireland civil servants, the department and the Ministry of Justice. These took place in the form of emails and telephone calls. There was some discussion around the process of this SI and who was effectively responsible for these regulations. That is one of the reasons why they have taken some time to come to noble Lords’ attention.

It is worth looking also at the impact on businesses themselves. We estimate that there are just under 5,500 businesses in the UK subject to ATEX regulations—anywhere between lower and upper bands of 5,000 and 6,000. We think that some businesses may incur costs associated with familiarisation of the new requirements and the labelling, but we believe that the impacts of these changes are expected to be very limited, and the expected net impact of these changes is estimated to be about £2.5 million of direct costs to businesses, most likely relating to familiarisation, among other things.

Officials in the Office for Product Safety & Standards will provide online industry guidance, which I mentioned earlier, to coincide with the instrument coming into force to ensure that businesses have all the information they need on how to comply with the new requirements, but I certainly note the well-made comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, about the importance of ensuring that the affected businesses are well signalled. Officials are also liaising with the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, which is responsible for enforcing the Northern Ireland ATEX regulations and ensuring they have all the necessary information on doing so.

E-scooters and E-bikes: Battery Fires

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Tuesday 27th June 2023

(11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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Yes. I am sure that that will be included in the review.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, the fire risks associated with lithium-ion batteries go beyond their use in e-bikes and e-scooters, adding to their wide-ranging risk in residential environments. Fire incidents caused by such batteries can also have severe environmental consequences due to the hazardous materials involved. Do the Government have any plans to work with manufacturers and recycling organisations to develop effective recycling and disposal methods for these batteries, ensuring that they are handled responsibly and minimising their impact on the environment?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and say absolutely yes on all counts. This is all part of the ongoing review. The work being done with the fire service is collecting information to find out how much of the risk is caused by the batteries versus the way they are used by the consumer in the household and whether they are being charged in the right way and in the right place. The consultation is ongoing and the results are imminent. We are fully cognisant of those risks.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, there are political Bills, where the House divides on political issues and argues among itself, and there are Bills of practical importance, when the House can come together and pull in the same direction. We will not all agree about everything, but the motives behind what we are proposing have been similar. In this case, it is about helping to clear up and clean up a bad situation, and to do so in the best possible way. The Minister and his colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, must be congratulated on their openness and their listening ears. They have not just listened but acted on what they heard, and we should all be grateful that we have moved in this direction.

I am pleased that I can agree with the noble Lords, Lord Leigh of Hurley and Lord Agnew, in their characterisation of these changes, which are important. I think the change to the mission of Companies House is absolutely fundamental. It is vital that it is there, and it then plays to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, about the culture change, as well as, I think, giving the flexibility and understanding that—again, as the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, said—this is going to be a mobile struggle that we have to move forward.

This group of amendments is followed by other groups which are other examples of where listening has turned into positive changes. From these Benches, we are really pleased that we are moving in this direction, and are grateful that we have done that. As we have heard, the Bill is improving as a result. So we are very supportive of these measures, and continue to be supportive of the other measures that we will hear about later.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I add my thanks to the Ministers for their regular updates, and the access we have had to their officials. The ability to meet the team from Companies House was particularly helpful and instructive. I too believe that we have a better Bill before us.

Having said that, we must not forget the scale and severity of the consequences of actions of bad actors, particularly the exposure of the public to fraud, nor the victims, who have suffered so appallingly over many years. As we know, the Ukraine war has brought all these issues to a head, necessitating a swift response. I thank everyone involved for responding positively to some of the many proposals that we have put forward.

I will refer particularly to Amendment 2, with regard to the fourth objective. It would be wrong of me not to mention the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, as has been mentioned, was very forceful in his views that the objective surely must be to prevent unlawful activities rather than to minimise them, as was the earlier wording. I also welcome the change to the third objective, and the increase in the ability of the registrar to strike off companies and take swift action. Again, I think that running through this is the emphasis on the ability to act quickly with clarity.

I acknowledge the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, which would bring in a framework of intervention criteria to assist the registrar, and particularly Amendment 57, which recognises the sheer scale of the task ahead of Companies House and seeks full, regular scrutiny. I want to put on record our concern about the sheer scale of the task ahead of Companies House and make it plain that we must communicate to everyone involved that there is a fallback position and that it can come back if the resources are not adequate for the job it has in hand. The scale of change it has to go through, from being a receiver of information to a proactive partner, is quite significant.

I again thank the Ministers involved for their openness and for having moved on a number of our suggestions.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate. I shall answer their questions in order.

The financial guru, my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley, pointed to Amendment 40. He is right that it does not specifically mention submitting misleading information—this is related specifically to the filing of accounts—but I believe that the Companies Act enables the Secretary of State to issue a winding-up order if there are materially inaccurate filings in the accounts. I am happy to write to him specifically on that issue.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Agnew for his comments. I am extremely pleased to come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, about the objectives. We had long and specific discussions about the difference between the words “minimise” and “prevent”. I think the House understood clearly from my approach that I was being carefully guided by our legal advisers. It is right that we should be, and it is also right that we found a word that would be suitable in how the noble Baroness saw the Bill being presented. We want to make sure that we get the language right. It is important that we have remained in our current function to ensure that there is flexibility for the registrar to perform her duties while at the same time sending the appropriate signal.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, rightly commented on the need to continue to review the situation as we see it. I hope that the noble Baroness has been reassured by my attitude to the Bill as it has progressed through the stages in this House. My point was to ensure that we do not deluge businesses with unnecessary obligations at this stage before we know how this process will transpire. I am also very aware of the dangers of being too prescriptive. Technology changes and the activities of criminals change, and it is important that we assess the situation as it stands and work out how to ensure that we can confront those challenges as and when they arise.

I turn specifically to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Agnew, Amendment 57. Reporting by Companies House is an extremely important element of its activities, and I agree that it is important that Parliament is informed about the implementation and delivery of the reforms that we are undertaking. That is why the Government brought forward an amendment in the other place to that effect, which is now Clause 187. I am aware of the comments made about the cultural and operational changes linked to Companies House’s new responsibilities. I hope that through meeting the registrar we felt a sense of reassurance that the head of investigations is extremely dedicated to his task. We believe that the amount of money we are applying to Companies House and the fees, which we will discuss later, will amply cover expenditure, and could be increased if necessary. It is up to Companies House to ensure that it presents to the Government its funding requirements to ensure that it can do its job and perform its tasks.

It might be helpful for me from the Dispatch Box to go through some of the points formally so there is a record of what we expect Companies House to report when it has finished reporting on what it is intending to do—the inputs—and then turn our attention to the outputs, which is the difference between what it is obliged to report to Parliament for the first three years of operation, I think, and what we then expect to be business as usual.

From the discussions with Companies House to date, I can commit that, subject to the successful implementation of the necessary information systems, early reports will cover items such as: the number of documents rejected for not being properly delivered or for a discrepancy; rejected incorporations and name changes; the number of documents removed from the register for being inaccurate, incomplete or fraudulent; and the number of times the querying power is used and the resulting actions taken by Companies House. We are also looking into how we might report on the number of times Companies House has shared data with other organisations and vice versa. I would be happy to explore with Companies House officials how they might incorporate some of the new items in this amendment into its reporting without the need for this statutory requirement, and of course we listen to all sides of the House about other areas where noble Lords feel it would be beneficial for Companies House to report.

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Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for his comments on the government amendments. We support Amendments 16, 17 and 19. They would significantly help improve the integrity of the register. This issue has been raised in amendments throughout the passage of the Bill. While we welcome many of the other changes that the Government have made and the manner in which they have collaborated with colleagues to make the Bill stronger, the issue of nominees represents a weak point in the Bill. We must know which bad companies and actors are acting fraudulently in order to fight fraud, corruption and economic crime.

A point that has repeatedly been made is that, as things stand, shareholder information is incomplete. It is difficult to identify the real owners of certain companies, which reduces the reliability of shareholder information published by Companies House, which we are all determined to improve. That undermines the corporate register as a whole.

As I said, we support Amendments 16, 17 and 19. I was struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, about the cost of fraud to the economy, which we need to keep front of mind when we are told to be concerned about the cost of putting these measures in place. I confirm that, if the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, is minded to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 16, these Benches will support him.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, and my noble friend Lord Agnew of Oulton for their amendments. If noble Lords allow me to, I will just set the scene.

We have made some significant advances in understanding who is behind a company and who is running these organisations, which is at the core of these measures. By understanding who the people with significant control are, we will be able to crack down on crime and the dirty money going through the system. That is at the core of it, as far as we are concerned; any other changes around that are fundamentally peripheral.

On a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, a nominee is obliged to declare if they acting on behalf of a person with significant control, as is the company collecting the data. If they are acting as a nominee in a collective way to achieve a threshold of 25% or above, or acting as a person of significant control, that nominee has to declare themselves a person of significant control. There is no additional benefit from changing the rules to see how people who stand as nominees are listed as such. It is important for me, for Companies House, for this Government, for the House and, frankly, to reduce crime with this Bill to understand who is behind the companies, and these measures do that.

My concern, if we try to track every move, is that we will bring into the criminal and penalties regime a large number of people who do not necessarily know that they have to register—for example, if they are a registered nominee on behalf of a very small shareholder. We are concerned that we may go too far at this stage. We need to see how the work that Companies House does develops before expanding the regime.

I stress that the work that we have done on PSCs is at the core of the Bill. Most of the government amendments reframe the existing PSC information gathering and disclosure rules to make them clearer and to work more effectively with a centrally held PSC register. This may be covered a little later, but it is worth noting that it is not necessarily for the company to hold the register of PSCs any more; the registrar will now hold this information centrally.

The amendments we are proposing make provision to require more information to be provided by UK companies concerning the transparency of their ownership, including full explanations to be given by companies which claim they are exempt from the PSC requirements, and for notifications to be made to the registrar where a company believes it has no PSC. That is a relatively unique point but it is certainly possible, and so the company has to then explain why it has none. Every company will have a person of significant control listed and registered de facto; if it does not, it will have to explain why that is the case.

My noble friend Lord Agnew rightly pointed out that the average number of shareholders is two—I think it is actually 2.2. If you look at the 4.8 million or so companies that are registered and add up the numbers of companies with one, two or three shareholders, from memory—no doubt my officials will correct me—you would account for 80% of all companies, at around 4.1 million or 4.2 million. Some 3.7 million companies are held by one shareholder, who will automatically be a person of significant control. If you have two shareholders, the assumption is that you will probably have two shareholders with significant control, and so on. You are looking at a relatively small number of shareholders in the 10 million or so shareholders of the 4.8 million or so companies who would not necessarily fall, specifically and immediately, without debate, into the PSC legislation.

I turn to Amendments 19 and 16, put forward by my noble friend Lord Agnew and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. I have some specific text about the improvements we are going to make to the Bill, and I will read it out to make sure I get the wording right on what we believe we can take to Third Reading. I stress that we welcome greatly the work we have done in this area, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, sees the spirit with which I have entered into the debate, particularly around the issue of classifying who is a nominee and who is not. The Government have great sympathy with the intention around that, and I will come on to talk about it in a moment.

As I say, these amendments are not ones that we would be keen to accept. I do not believe they achieve their intent, and they risk disproportionate burdens on legitimate actors and Companies House. The Government considers that further amendment is not warranted because the provisions in the person with significant control framework already require the whole process of disclosure of a PSC behind a nominee. To reaffirm, if a nominee does not declare that they are acting on behalf of a PSC, or becomes a PSC on account of their nominee holdings, then they are committing an offence. I believe the company is also required to collect the information, so there are a number of tiers around this structure.

I emphasise to noble Lords one more time how the existing requirements achieve what we in this House want to achieve. Where a company sees that it has a shareholder with over 25% of the shares or voting rights, or otherwise knows or has reasonable cause to believe the shareholder may fall under the definition of a PSC, the company is obliged to check with the shareholder whether they are in fact a PSC, and the shareholder is obliged, on pain of criminal sanction, to respond.

It is worth mentioning to the House that we talk at length about the 25% threshold but, as the House well knows, a person with significant control can own one share in a shareholding of a billion shares and would still be registered as the PSC if they controlled the business. This legislation is quite well crafted, if I may say so, to ensure that we catch the people who are exercising control over these businesses.

I repeat that the shareholder is obliged, on pain of criminal sanction, to respond. If the person responds to deny that they are a PSC, despite meeting the share-ownership voting rights threshold for qualification, the implication is that they are holding the shares as a nominee for a PSC. Under the Bill, shares held by a person as nominee for another are treated as held by that other and not by the nominee for the purposes of assessing who a company’s PSCs are. That is an important point, and I hope it gives noble Lords some reassurance.

The Bill gives companies the power to require third parties to provide information about the PSC they are holding the shares for. The nominee commits an offence if they fail to respond or give a false statement in response. Amendments I will bring forward at Third Reading will make it easier to prosecute these offences—I will come on to this momentarily. The Government’s position is that it would not be proportionate to require all shareholders to state whether they are nominees or to provide information about who they are holding the shares for. If a company had cause to believe a minority shareholder knew who its PSCs were, the company already has the power to require the shareholder to provide that information.

If noble Lords’ proposals became law, they would be difficult to enforce effectively, and it is unlikely that bad actors would comply with the new requirements. This measure would create a large and expensive haystack with few, if any, needles to find inside. It would therefore serve only to impose new undue burdens on the law-abiding majority, which the Government are actively seeking to avoid. As several noble Lords heard directly from Companies House executives earlier this month, gathering more and more information on shareholders would risk diverting its resources away from material intelligence work and more harmful cases and into more administrative work. An important point to emphasise is that we want Companies House to focus on running an effective companies register and on catching the criminals who are abusing our system.

I am sure that noble Lords who have greater experience than me in this House—looking around, I cannot see one with less experience sitting on the Benches—will know that, if we make too prescriptive legislative statements for these operational entities, they can easily become distracted by the minutiae to try to get to the nth degree and, because of the implementation of the legislative processes placed upon them, not necessarily focus on the core tasks. I repeat again my sympathy and empathy with noble Lords putting these amendments forward. However, I am extremely concerned that they would place undue burdens on individuals, and in particular on Companies House, which would then be distracted from its duties. At the same time, we believe that we have brought in a strong framework which will ensure that we deter crime while allowing legitimate businesses to function.

I appreciate noble Lords’ concerns that the current framework may not always lead to the disclosure of all PSCs, and that having further information about minority shareholders acting as nominees could in theory be useful to help flush out undeclared PSCs. However, the Government’s position is that there is no evidence that any additional benefit would outweigh the costs to all companies and that the totality of measures in the Bill, such as the registrar’s new objectives and powers, will serve better to deter non-compliance and flush out such persons.

I now come to the undertaking to bring forward amendments at Third Reading. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, has stressed the importance of the transparency of ownership and control of companies. The Bill already makes great strides forward in this area, as I am sure the noble Lord knows. However, after further review of the PSC framework and the changes made to it by the Bill, the Government have identified a number of necessary improvements, and I undertake to bring forward amendments to address this at Third Reading.

The current legislation allows companies to maintain their own PSC registers and to then notify the registrar of changes to those locally held registers. The Bill changes that framework so that after it is brought into force the registrar will maintain a central PSC register for all companies. Most of the amendments will reframe the existing PSC information-gathering and disclosure rules to make them clearer and work more effectively with a centrally held PSC register.

The amendments will include provisions which will enable those persons thought to be PSCs to confirm that they are, and to confirm their details before those are published. The amendments will also make provision to require more information to be provided by UK companies concerning the transparency of their ownership, including for explanations to be given by companies which claim they are exempt from the PSC requirements, and for notifications to be made to the registrar where a company believes it has no PSC. The amendments will align the drafting of false statement offences relating to the PSCs of UK companies with other similar offences in the Bill.

I regret that these amendments could not be finalised for Report, but, given the strength of feeling that noble Lords have demonstrated today on ensuring that this legislation is as robust as possible, I trust they will welcome them. We of course stand ready to engage with noble Lords on these amendments ahead of Third Reading.

Finally, on Amendment 17, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, my officials have analysed what the cost to businesses would be should identity verification requirements extend beyond directors, PSCs and filers. As I mentioned to noble Lords, the individuals—as in the numbers of companies covered—will be broadly covered, in my estimation, to the tune of about 80% of the number of people who are single shareholders or shareholders of companies containing one, two or three, and then of course all the other companies, in theory except in rare circumstances, would have PSCs associated with them. The verification process will be deep and significant, and will cover many millions of people who will be required to formalise their identity through these processes.

This analysis estimates that introducing identity verification for all shareholders in non-traded companies could have a net annual direct cost to business of up to around £150 million. I will say that again, so that noble Lords may hear it: we believe that these measures, if introduced, could have a net annual direct cost to business of up to around £150 million. The costs and methodology have been published on GOV.UK, and I am happy to share them directly with noble Lords, if that would be of use.

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Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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The Minister will be blushing with the fulsome praise that he has received. I think he described it as a significant package of improvements and as major steps. The noble Lord, Lord Agnew, went further and described them as revolutionary changes. The Minister can be sure that he has hit an important nail very firmly on the head with this set of amendments. I think we all believe that this makes the Bill a much better Bill, and for that, we are very pleased.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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I rise just to add our support for the amendments. I emphasise the concern that has been raised in Amendment 93 from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, in terms of recognising the significant function that HMRC has. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, with interest. I think there is some issue with looking at the two functions equally and making sure there is no conflict between them.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I thank all noble Lords who have spoken during this debate, and I am grateful, personally, for the kindness they have shown to me as a new Minister on this Bill over the last few months. I am grateful for the high degree of collaboration and the sense of common purpose that all Members of this House have shown in trying to create a truly effective Bill to change—after 170 years—Companies House and what it can do for companies and to eradicate crime at the same time. I thank all noble Lords, my officials and the Government for the work we have done together.

However, we have not finished; we are only half way through. I thank my noble friend Lord Agnew for his Amendment 33. I appreciate the strength of feeling, but we would not wish to impose a duty on Companies House to carry out, as he has described, risk assessments. All ACSPs must be supervised for anti-money laundering purposes, and supervisors will already carry out risk assessments on them. I am aware of the concerns surrounding the supervisory regime, and I can confirm that the Treasury will publish a consultation on its structural reform. I believe this is to take place within the next month, which is very important and will be welcomed by this House and help inform further debate.

As I have just set out, the Government have tabled amendments to strengthen the ACSP regime, enabling Companies House to act if it has knowledge that a person is not fit and proper to carry out the functions of an ACSP, and to strengthen the registrar’s powers to request information. We are enabling the registrar to focus her attention on high-risk ACSPs rather than making it a duty to do so. A duty would reduce her operational flexibility—for example, inadvertently preventing her spot-checking the identity verification done by lower-risk ACSPs. We engaged with the registrar fruitfully on this subject only a few weeks ago. It is for these reasons that I urge my noble friend not to move his amendment.

I turn to Amendment 93. While the Government agree wholeheartedly on the crucial role that supervision must play in tackling economic crime, we are not keen to support this amendment. Under money laundering regulations, HMRC already has anti-money laundering supervisory functions and it takes them very seriously. HMRC is one of 25 supervisors of the money laundering regulations, alongside the Financial Conduct Authority, the Gambling Commission, and 22 accountancy and legal professional bodies. HMRC supervises around 30,000 businesses across nine sectors.

HMRC’s anti-money laundering supervisory function is resourced through the fees that it collects from the businesses it supervises, and these fees are solely for use by HMRC’s anti-money laundering supervisory function. HMRC attaches great importance to its anti-money laundering work, including its supervisory function. For example, in 2022-23, HMRC carried out over 3,200 anti-money laundering compliance interventions, including desk-based reviews and face-to-face visits. It also refused 439 applications to register from businesses considered inappropriate or unsuitable. The number of staff working on supervisory activity has more than doubled from 197 in 2018 to 397 in 2023; in 2022-23, they issued a total of 770 penalties, totalling £5.5 million. Specifically, £1.2 million of this amount came from trust or company service providers.

HMRC also works to help businesses understand the risk of money laundering. In 2022-23, its relevant web pages saw nearly 475,000 hits and it issued 850,000 alerts to businesses telling them about changes to law, inviting them to webinars or raising awareness of emerging risks.

The proposed amendment would duplicate the work that HMRC already does. It could make HMRC responsible for all anti-money laundering supervision, when Regulation 7 of the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 states that certain persons are subject to supervision by certain supervisors. For example, it states that

“the FCA is the supervisory authority for … credit and financial institutions”.

So it would not make sense to mandate that HMRC supervises them. HMRC would not necessarily have the expertise that it would need to supervise all sectors—for example, lawyers or large-scale financial institutions—and it would cut across existing regulatory relationships such as those between the banks and the FCA.

In conclusion, I urge noble Lords once more to support the government amendments that I outlined earlier, which address specific concerns raised during our debates. I believe they will deliver our shared ambition for a robust ACSP framework.

Register of Overseas Entities (Penalties and Northern Ireland Dispositions) Regulations 2023

Baroness Blake of Leeds Excerpts
Tuesday 13th June 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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In general, however, having asked those questions, naturally we welcome this SI as we welcomed both last year’s Act and this year’s Bill. We look forward to a stronger Companies House enforcing this regime and we hope that it will have a highly beneficial effect on the British housing market, on reducing the amount of illicit finance coming into the United Kingdom, and on what the Treasury receives from business rates and what local authorities receive from property rates in future.
Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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I add my thanks to the Minister for his opening remarks and the detail that he went into in explaining the nature of the SI before us. I preface my comments by picking up on one remark that he made, that the whole purpose of this is not to deter investment. We are always looking at finding the bad actors in this situation, rather than bringing in penalties that will have a detrimental effect on businesses’ ability to attract investment.

We regard this as an important statutory instrument, and I am sure the Minister will agree with me that it is very overdue. We know that there were conversations around this and action was taken by David Cameron back in 2016. We have to acknowledge that it is a tragedy that it took the war in Ukraine to precipitate the action that we have seen thus far. I hope we do not get into a Groundhog Day situation, as I know that we will probably engage in further conversations around this when we head into Report on the Bill next week. However, that is the nature of the fast-moving situation that we are in. Many of the issues that have been touched on today have been discussed at length in Committee on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, so I do not want to repeat too much of that, knowing that we will come back to it.

As I say, we support provisions within this SI and believe that they are common sense, but we have to acknowledge that the delays have been at a cost.

I believe the fine is currently set at £2,500 per day. Is it the case that no one has yet been issued with a penalty? It would be good to clarify where we are in the process. We certainly want to see action stepped up against those failing to comply with the new legislation, and we know that there are those who are yet to face financial penalties. The spirit running through all the debates about the next stages of this is of wanting the system to be as robust as possible. In particular, as the Minister mentioned, this presents us with an opportunity to bring in further measures and strengthening, but the question that will run throughout this, which he probably cannot answer at the moment, is whether it will be fit for purpose and will cover all the issues that come up.

How soon after the passing of the SI will the registrar be able to issue financial penalties? I presume there will be a process of issuing warning notices. Has there been any provision for warning notices to be sent out in advance of the SI being passed? It would be helpful to know whether that is the case and therefore whether it will be possible for the registrar to move to those financial penalties as soon as the SI has been passed.

More generally, on timings, the dates of appeal on the warning notices suggest that a period of 28 days needs to be passed. Can we have some clarification? The draft regulations state that the period contained in any warning notices

“must be at least 28 days beginning on the day after the date of the warning notice”

being issued. If a company or entity disagreed with what was in the warning notice, would it have to make representation to the registrar within 28 days or after a minimum of 28 days? There is a need for some clarification. Also, if warning notices have been issued, have any written representations been received?

I also emphasise the issue that we have raised significantly. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, for arranging for us to meet the registrar and some of her officers; it was a very instructive meeting. But, as has been outlined, I want to put on record our continuing concern about whether the level of resources will be fit for purpose, given the scale of change being brought in, the number of companies that we have heard about and the fact that there will be stubborn cases that are difficult to bring to a conclusion. We have had some reassurance that this will not be fixed in stone and that if the registrar feels that more resources are required, they will be able to come back to that. The issue is the sheer capacity and the fact that the status of those working in Companies House is being changed from recording information to taking action when there is suspicion of wrongdoing.

The other area that has generated a great deal of concern is the 25% threshold for beneficial ownership and the possibility of anonymity that it gives, enabling overseas entities access to UK properties and markets. I know there will be more discussion around this, but it is important to flag these matters whenever we have the opportunity. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that this area still presents a problem in getting underneath all the issues that need to be addressed. I thank him for his very clear explanation of the powers in the SI to consent to Northern Ireland dispositions.

I conclude by saying that, yes, we support the changes being introduced, but it is an area of huge concern. Economic crime is still increasing, as we know, and coming back to deal with unforeseen loopholes that might ensue will be an important part of the legislation before us. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response and to continuing the work on this important area.

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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I thank both noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this debate—not just now but in the past.

The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the register is robust and effective at tackling the use of UK property to launder money. These regulations provide mechanisms that ensure the register operates effectively. A clear and effective procedure for the imposition and enforcement of penalties will serve as a deterrent against non-compliance and bad actors, as well as punishing guilty parties, including by potentially imposing charges over their land.

The provisions relating to the dispositions in Northern Ireland extend the same treatment to the entirety of the UK. They allow the registration of land, where it would otherwise be prohibited, for the benefit of those who act in good faith, and ensures that their interests are not affected by the actions of non-compliant overseas entities.

The points that noble Lords have discussed today highlight the necessity of the measures contained in these regulations. I will try to address some of these now. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, raised a number of extremely important issues, and I will take them in the order I wrote them down.

On the question of proper funding for Companies House, there are two elements of funding, which total a maximum of about £83 million in any one period; that should certainly be enough. I think one can see from the work it has already achieved that it has made great strides. I am not saying the work is finished, but it has made great strides towards achieving the whole purpose of the register and, through that, giving the registrar the leeway to concentrate on the people who have not yet fully complied.

On the continuous rate of compliance, I think we last met here on about 2 May. Since then, Companies House has had 600 more applications for compliance. That rate of about 100 a week is continuing, so the process is working.