Debates between Lord Faulks and Lord Johnson of Lainston during the 2019 Parliament

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Johnson of Lainston
Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I appreciate that intervention. As I said, I would be happy to write with specific information as I do not have details on all 28,000 registered businesses.

The point I want to make, which is important, is that a very large number of overseas entities have registered and, we assume, sent in information that can be confirmed and will lead to them being compliant. That is quite a high number; it allows us to focus. That is the point. The question was about what happens to the 1,500 to 2,000 or so companies that have not registered. Well, they cannot transact; they cannot participate in transactions in this country. Their assets are untransactable, which, in my view, negates the value of those assets to a significant degree. In effect, they are compelled to register and comply if they want to get their money out; that is important. Clearly, the next phase is to do the work on the companies that have registered to ensure that the information we have is accurate. We then have to make sure of why those companies that have not registered have not done so. Sometimes, there are perfectly legitimate reasons why that would be the case but, on the whole, we have made significant process.

Following our discussion earlier in Committee and the sensible points from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—I have been glad to discuss them with my colleagues—let me say that compliance and law enforcement are at the crux of this issue. There is no point in bringing in any of this legislation—not even a single line of it—if it will not be enforced and overseen properly. My view has often been that sometimes we may not need new legislation but we need to enforce properly the legislation that we have, where a great deal of our effort will be far more effective.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification about the level of compliance. If will press him on one point. Last week we were provided with a useful series of notes that made this point, among others:

“Public registers allow multiple eyes to interrogate data, including the absence of data, to inform a risk-based approach to investigation and enforcement”.


I think that what the Committee would like to know is this: now that there is this compliance, who are those “multiple eyes” and what are they doing with the information that was thought necessary to eradicate some of the kleptocracy that has clearly been identified?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I greatly appreciate the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, flagging so well the sentence that I was about to deliver. I would like to investigate further, personally as a Minister and for the benefit of this Committee, a more detailed assessment of the crime-fighting efforts that we will employ around this.

I have some good information to impart to the Committee, which to some extent answers the questions. I have particularly looked into the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about the UAE and so on. We have signed an anti-corruption pledge or framework with the UAE in the last few years. We have in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—

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Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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To add further to the intellectual challenge, and in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, said, when you transfer land quite a lot of formalities have to be gone through, in terms of conveyancing and the like. We are just talking about another formality that needs to be complied with. I do not understand that to be particularly onerous and it is consistent with what is expected. An event-driven matter was what we raised in our report; I am not sure that it should come as a great surprise that we think this is a sensible idea.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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As I hope I have illustrated, my enthusiasm for intellectualisation is paramount, even after an enjoyable light afternoon of committee debate. If I may expand further on the difference with the legislation relating to overseas entities and other types of purchase, using my noble friend Lord Agnew’s concept about the bus route or discovering moments before one buys a house that they are going to build past it some terrible thing—I was going to say a high-speed rail line, but of course we are enthusiastic here about building high-speed rail lines in this country—that is not the same thing at all.

Here, we are talking about the concept of overseas entities and the whole principle around this is to ensure that non-compliant entities are unable to transact. That is the only way to make this process workable. It is not a question of caveat emptor or something that can be corrected later, or whatever. This will prevent a transaction from happening. If a noble Lord purchases something—we were hearing earlier about the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, going to Battersea Power Station to purchase himself a downsized retirement villa, which seemed to be an upgrading, certainly for the Johnson household—is it reasonable to have a situation in which you cannot be sure whether the party you are dealing with is compliant?

I can see the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, waiting to leap up from his seat to tell me how it is possible. If it is possible to find a solution to this principle, I would be happy to have a discussion, but I am extremely reluctant to make a decision at the Dispatch Box.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Johnson of Lainston
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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So that the Minister does not have to answer questions seriatim, as it were, I endorse that. I am not sure that I have heard persuasive objections to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I understand what he says about risk-based, but sharing information with relevant public bodies and law enforcement agencies surely does not tie the registrar’s hand in any way. It must be remembered that while we can all applaud what has happened in Companies House and the change in culture that will follow, this is really a second attempt to tie things up. We should not forget that there was the first economic crime Bill, before the Minister came to his post, where much was promised, so this is the final word on it and the time to crystallise where we are on those things. Objective 5 is another step. If the Minister is saying that Companies House is coming a long way and it is further step to ask it to do this, that is an answer, but I do not think it is an answer that satisfies the Committee.

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I appreciate my noble friend’s comments. I do not believe that I suggested at any point that this was not baked into the cake of what Companies House is expected to deliver. I would be delighted to have further dialogue with Members around this but, in my humble opinion, the entire Bill is designed to ensure that the registrar takes a risk-based approach to ensuring the integrity of the information at Companies House. I am very comfortable on that, and the Government are very clear on it. We are wary of having duplicative statements in the Bill because that causes more complications when we are trying to create the enforcement regime and the integrity regime that we want to bring to bear.

On the key clauses and the language therein, I am certainly happy to consult my dictionary as noble Lords suggest. I am sorry that I was unable to bring one with me. It would be unusual for us to be quite so prescriptive in part 3 of the four objectives. I am delighted to have further conversations if noble Lords feel that that would be more helpful in setting the right cultural change at Companies House, but I am wary of being too prescriptive. I hope this is not misunderstood by Members of this Committee, but we want to avoid a box-ticking exercise because that is exactly what criminals like, as they can then navigate the system. We want to allow the registrar and her officers to use their judgment because that will lead to far better outcomes when it comes to achieving the mission that all of us are embarking on together.

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Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I thank the noble Lords, Lord Vaux and Lord Leigh, the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, and the noble Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Clement-Jones, for their contribution to the debate on this issue.

The Government’s view is that Clause 29 already introduces a revised Section 86 to the Companies Act 2006 in an effort to introduce a definition of what constitutes an acceptable and effective address for a company’s registered office. The amendment seeks to define the opposite: what would not represent an appropriate address. I hope your Lordships will agree with the following argument for why that is unnecessary.

I begin with the suggestion that PO box addresses be explicitly forbidden. We do not believe there is a need for this. A PO box address cannot be an address at which deliveries can be acknowledged, nor an address to which a sender can be assured that what is sent will find its way to the hands of a company representative. It is therefore clearly not an appropriate address—we very much agree with the noble Baroness on that.

I turn to the “reasonable suspicion” element of the amendment. Where the registrar has reasonable grounds to suspect that the company does not have permission to use an address, she will almost inevitably conclude that the conditions that I have just mentioned will not be capable of being met and, again, she will be within her rights to reject or force the company to change it as appropriate.

The other element of the amendment would prevent companies having their registered office address anywhere other than their main place of business. There are, frankly, many reasons why a company may choose to separate the two, so this could be problematic for many companies. That includes, for example, particularly small enterprises that carry out businesses from home but choose to register the company at the premises of their accountant in order to protect their residential address details, which I think we would agree is perfectly reasonable. We have been at pains elsewhere in the Bill to introduce measures to extend, where appropriate, the ability to suppress addresses that the public have access to which might jeopardise the safety or security of individuals. There are elements of the amendment that we believe would run contrary to those aims.

I hope the Committee will be reassured that new Section 86 will be an effective means by which to monitor and police the accuracy of company address information and that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment. As a final point, I personally have great sympathy with the ambitions of the amendment to make sure that the right address is being provided for the company register, but I hope I have laid out the reasons why the processes that the Government have put in the legislation should be sufficient to ensure that real addresses are given and other protections are employed.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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Personally, I am convinced by what the Minister has said about the substitute for Section 86. I just have one query. It creates an offence whereby a person is guilty on summary conviction. The offence appears to be committed by a company and

“every officer of the company who is in default.”

Could the Minister help with who the statute envisages will be an officer of the company who is in default?

Lord Johnson of Lainston Portrait Lord Johnson of Lainston (Con)
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I appreciate that comment. I will come back to the noble Lord with more detail, if that is possible.