All 22 Alison Thewliss contributions to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023

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Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
2nd reading
Thursday 13th October 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), whom I believe was the Minister who said he was not happy with the progress that had been made on tackling economic crime thus far. None of us in this place are happy about the situation on economic crime.

SNP Members of course welcome this Bill, which is overdue. Many of its aspects could have been picked up in legislation years ago. Members of the anti-corruption coalition across the House have been clear in calling for more action from the UK Government on this, and all this delay has cost us very dearly; openDemocracy believes that economic crime across these islands costs us £290 billion a year—just think of the services we could all be enjoying if that money were not being plundered by those people engaging in economic crime. As with all things around dirty money, we have to ask: who benefits from this? Who benefits from action not having been taken for all these years? There is much to be done, and the panoply of agencies involved must be properly co-ordinated and resourced to tackle it.

This is a big Bill and there is a lot more that could be said. My not saying something in particular now does not discount my saying something about it later, when the Bill goes into Committee. I thank everybody who has sent briefings ahead of this Bill, because that has been incredibly useful.

The UK Government must go after not only those committing economic crimes, but those enabling it. Robust supervision and proper deterrents need to be in place for those responsible for economic crime. Directors and enablers of economic crime need to face proportionate sanctions, and effective anti-money laundering supervision needs to be carried out consistently across sectors. Legislation on economic crime needs to be futureproofed, as a failure to ensure that means that legislators are always playing catch-up with criminals. We see that particularly in the field of crypto.

As Companies House reform is a significant part of this Bill, I will start with a few red flags from the UK Government that I would like to deal with straight up. Having lots of companies on the Companies House register is not the win that Ministers often seem to think it is, mainly because a good chunk of the register is absolute guff. It is like a kid in the playground with an impressive looking pile of football stickers for swapsies; but instead of getting an easy trade for the Kevin van Veen of your dreams, you find that the kid has a pile of doublers, triplers, old stickers from previous seasons, stickers from rugby and cricket, a few with Stormtroopers on and some they have drawn themselves. Sorting out that pile of stickers is pretty easy, but sorting out the millions of companies on the Companies House register is a much tougher task. Even the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy impact assessment, which I would draw everybody’s attention to, hints at the difficulty in unpicking the duplicates from the system. It is riddled with error, never mind the impact of those using it for nefarious purposes.

Having looked myself up on the register, it appears that I am on it three times; three different Alison Thewlisses exist out there in the world—just imagine that! The register believes I am three separate people, rather than the same person having been a director at different points in my life. The Home Secretary, who, disappointingly, has disappeared out of this place before hearing from the third party in this House, is on the register in her own name and in her maiden name, with no link to suggests that we are talking about the same person. The BEIS Secretary is on it as the director of 11 companies with his surname hyphenated and a further three companies with it unhyphenated. I am unclear what the process is by which Companies House will set about tidying up this basic type of messiness within its register. It should not just be put on individuals to fix this; there needs to be some mechanism by which it is all corrected.

The new objectives being given to Companies House are welcome—they are a step up from its being a passive recipient of duff information—but it is unclear how exactly they will work. The querying power must be a wider, separate piece of work to pick through in detail the existing register and figure out what is actually valid, rather than relying on helpful citizens such as Oliver Bullough, Graham Barrow, Richard Smith and David Leask to report in their concerns, as they often do.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
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There is, of course, only one Alison Thewliss. She mentioned Graham Barrow as one of a number of exceptional individuals who do a lot to expose the kind of things going on at Companies House that it should really be doing. I do not know whether she has followed his Twitter account recently. On 10 October, he tweeted that Companies House had just accepted the registration of a business called “Legat Business Limited”, which has a single director, called “Andrei Perezhogin”. His nationality is “Russian”, his place of residence is “Russia”, and he describes his occupation as “Men”. He claims to have set up this company with £100 million of capital. Does she share my alarm that it appears that a Russian living in Russia can invest £100 million in a British company and—this is without the powers in this Bill—nobody at Companies House thinks anything of it?

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I absolutely agree and share my hon. Friend’s concerns. Graham Barrow does great work on Twitter and in other places to highlight such scenarios. Whether or not that person exists, whether or not that company is valid, and whether that money is even being invested anywhere, never mind in this company—this exposes the nature of the garbage in the Companies House register. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) should consider what he intends to do about that situation, because the register also contains abusive names and people being registered when they do not know they have been registered. How do such people go about correcting the register where companies have been registered in this way without their knowledge or consent? Home addresses are being used although the person who lives there has no knowledge that their address has been used until a whole wheen of paperwork from Companies House arrives at their door. These things are being regularly exposed; they should not come as news or as any surprise to Companies House or to Ministers in this place. In the interim between this Bill making progress through the House and its eventually coming into force, what will happen to stop these “companies”? They are among the thousands of companies registered every week at Companies House.

The power to query company names where people might be setting them up to impersonate another company or for criminal purposes stands in contrast with the continued objective to allow companies to turn around their registration in 24 hours. There is a substantial industry in creating fake but similar names, and then using those companies to rip off the public. Without a vast increase in staffing in Companies House to assess and sense-check all these applications coming in, it seems that many will continue to slip through the net, even after these reforms. I suggest to the Minister that perhaps it would be better to build in a slightly longer application period to allow proper verification to take place. It is unclear—I seek confirmation from the Minister—whether the verification that is being referred to will be though the existing UK Government verify scheme used for passports, driving licences and tax returns, or whether a separate verification scheme will used. Using the existing schemes seems to work reasonably well for passports, driving licences and tax returns, and I am not aware of any particular issues being flagged for those—if there are, I shall stand corrected.

The BEIS impact assessment dismisses the opportunity to verify the link between directors or persons of significant control and their companies. Again, this should be changed. Furthermore, we have a golden opportunity here to clamp down on opaque ownership structures and I cannot understand why the Government would not want to do so. The Bill must bring in provisions that prevent all companies from being controlled by opaque offshore entities, which do not need to disclose information on their owners or structures because of where they are based.

I still seek to understand from the Ministers why Companies House cannot be an anti-money laundering supervisor in its own right; this is a huge gap within the system. The Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision has had mixed results in holding the AML supervisors under its wing to account; professional bodies have not done all they can to interrogate their members. That would perhaps fall into the area of a failure to prevent offence. Culpable directors, senior managers and other enablers of economic crime, including professional enablers, need to face sanctions, and rules on AML supervision need to be applied consistently. That is not currently happening.

The non-governmental organisation Spotlight on Corruption noted that there are 22 industry bodies that currently oversee AML compliance in the legal and accountancy sectors. In 2021, OPBAS found that just 15% of supervisors were effective in using predicable and proportionate supervisory action; 85% were not. It also found that just 19% had implemented an effective risk-based approach to supervision. This disjointed approach to tackling money laundering is just not working: it is allowing too many to sail through the net.

In the UK, an estimated £88 billion of dirty money is cleaned by criminals every year, compared with the lesser, but still significant, amounts of €54.5 billion in France and €51.53 billion in Germany. To tackle the issue, it is vital that support is offered to smaller firms, which are often targeted by those who wish to engage in money laundering, criminality and other illicit activities, to enable such companies to spot red flags in respect of potential clients.

It is beyond me why the UK Government allow the verification process for company registration to be carried out by company formation agents when they are the very bodies that have to a large extent created the problem that the Government are trying to solve. As the Home Office report “National risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing 2020” pointed out:

“Company formation and related professional services are…a key enabler or gatekeeper of TBML”—

trade-based money laundering. We should be reducing their power, not endorsing it.

Under the Bill, all third-party agents who set up a company on behalf of someone else will be required only to declare that the information they are providing on behalf of that person has been verified. I return to my verification question: what is the system for that? Without giving Companies House the ability to carry out independent checks to ascertain whether the “verified” third-party information is correct, it is just going to become a box-ticking exercise. The verification requirement in itself has no teeth and is unlikely to lead to any material change in how third-party agents carry out that key verification process.

Before I leave Companies House, I should say that I am deeply disappointed that the UK Government seem to show no willingness to increase the ridiculously low company registration fee: £10 or £12 is nothing in the scheme of things. In Germany the equivalent fee is €400, and in the Netherlands it is around €52; I am sure the Minister would regard neither country as anti-business. Having a low fee is not the benefit that Ministers seem to think it is. I am open-minded as to what the figure ought to be, but in its economic crime report the Treasury Committee agreed that £100 would be perfectly reasonable and give Companies House more resources to deal with the huge challenges it faces.

Improving relations between Companies House and the various law enforcement agencies is welcome. The Treasury Committee report on economic crime called the landscape “bewildering” and noted that both co-ordination and economic crime itself should be higher priorities for the Government. The scale of the issue is outlined in the BEIS impact assessment, with law enforcement referrals to Companies House rising from 1,400 per annum in 2015 to 9,300 in 2021. Given that we have heard how little economic crime is actually prosecuted, this feels like the tip of a very large iceberg.

With talk of future austerity and cuts, it is important that the UK Government invest in the enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute economic crime. It is a specialist area and it requires well-paid specialist staff to tackle this scourge. The Scottish crime campus at Gartcosh is a great example of both efficiency and inter-agency working, but it can do this only if properly funded. A further round of Westminster austerity puts it all at risk.

I feel like I have been raising Scottish limited partnerships forever, and I have no hesitation about doing so again. Because SLPs hold legal personality and can possess property, they have become a very popular mechanism. The BEIS analysis was quite stark: between 2010 and 2016 they had a growth rate—one that the Government would love—of 459%. That alone should have set off alarm bells from Companies House to the Government Front Bench, but nothing terribly much happened for a long time. BEIS figures also state that as of 31 March 2021, SLPs made up 64% of all limited partnerships on the Companies House register. If we compare that with the fact that companies registered in Scotland make up just 5% of companies in the UK, we can see that something is badly out of whack.

SLP registrations have plateaued since the rules were tightened, but they have not gone away. They have also continued to be implicated in money laundering, arms running and sanctions busting, including in respect of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. They are set up with partners in secrecy jurisdictions, with companies named as persons of significant control, which is against the rules. Linking to an actual person with an actual address would be progress, as would limiting the number of times that an address or person could be a company director. To date, enforcement and fines for breaching the rules that the Government themselves set up have been few and far between. There is little point in having rules that are just not enforced.

As I have pointed out before in this place, there are also knock-on effects to our neighbours in Ireland. As there has been a slight tightening of the rules here, registrations of Irish limited partnerships have soared. What conversations has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Republic to ensure that we are not just shifting criminal activity from here to there? All possible co-operation must be undertaken to avoid criminals shifting their business over the sea.

I wish to ask about the links with other legislation that is currently going through this place. The Financial Services and Markets Bill has a significant section on the regulation of cryptocurrencies, which have become incredibly popular with organised crime incredibly quickly, as a means of shifting money as well as of scamming naive members of the public. It is unclear how the legislation before us interacts with that Bill and the halo effect that might be created by the regulation of certain cryptoassets but not others.

When the Treasury Committee took evidence on the Online Safety Bill—which has disappeared but will hopefully come back at some stage—we were concerned about crimes being carried out via the internet and social media platforms. Currently, the banks of those who are scammed have to pay up, but the social media companies themselves are not held accountable. For example, scams conducted over Instagram or Facebook Marketplace, scam messages sent over WhatsApp and unregulated financial advice given via platforms like TikTok are not currently covered. They should be given an awful lot more attention.

I was glad to hear from the Home Secretary that there have been some conversations with the Scottish Government about the implications of this legislation in Scotland, because Scots law is, of course, a devolved area. Registers of Scotland administers the register of persons holding a controlled interest in land, which was launched on 1 April and shows who controls the decisions of owners or tenants of land and property in Scotland. I would like a bit more information from the Government about the conversations they have had with Registers of Scotland and the interaction with the register of oversees entities. Scotland did not hang around waiting for the UK Government to make legislation on this issue; we got on with the job.

I look forward to tabling amendments to try to improve this Bill, and I really hope that for once the Government will listen and be constructive on some of the issues we raise. We would not be in the situation we are in today had they done so during the debates on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill or umpty other bits of legislation over the years. We are all clear in this place that robust supervision and proper deterrents need to be in place for those responsible for economic crime.

We on the SNP Benches are looking forward to independence and setting up our own robust systems to register companies and to prevent economic crime. Nobody would choose the UK system as it stands, and it remains to be seen whether it can be adequately repaired.

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Dean Russell Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Dean Russell)
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I begin by sending my condolences to the family and friends of Sir Davis Amess, who is deeply missed in this place? In fact, the very last speech I gave on the Back Benches was in the Sir Davis Amess summer Adjournment debate. During the time I knew him, he was a dear friend, and I know he is deeply missed.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra). She has been incredibly kind in her engagement over the past week, and having our meeting was incredibly helpful in understanding her views on the Bill. I want to thank colleagues—on both sides of the House, in fact—who have spoken in this important debate for their well considered and eloquent contributions on such an important issue, and for the broad support for the objectives of the Bill, for which I am grateful. I should mention that the agreement is about the fact that they like the Bill and think it is the right thing, but some Members spent the debate more on the stuff that is not in it, which is always useful. I used to think when sitting on the Back Benches listening to Opposition Members—this not a criticism—that the argument was often to go faster and further, which is a great pitch for a personal trainer, so there are careers for them in the future. However, in this particular instance I understand where those arguments are coming from, and I will attempt to address them.

I aim to respond to as many points made by hon. and right hon. Members as I can given the time available, but I first want to remind the House what this Bill will achieve, and what signal it sends across the UK and around the world. As set out by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill will bear down on the kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse our open economy, and it will strengthen the UK’s reputation as a place where legitimate business can thrive while driving dirty money out of the UK.

This historic Bill contains a significant and coherent package of measures to help us crack down on economic crime and abuse of the UK’s corporate structures. As the House has noted today, that includes the most significant reform to the UK’s company registration framework in 170 years. There have been many Governments during that time, so it is good that this is happening now, and the importance and impact of these changes should not be underestimated.

This Bill will help tackle economic crime, including fraud and money laundering, by delivering greater protections for consumers and businesses. It will support our national security, by making it harder for kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists to abuse our open economy. It will support enterprise, by enabling Companies House to deliver a better service for over 4 million UK companies, supporting business transactions and lending decisions across our economy.

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will agree that we must maintain the UK’s status as one of the world’s largest and most open economies, and that London must continue to be one of the world’s most attractive destinations for overseas investors—but crucially, investors of the right kind.

I thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for spearheading cross-party collaboration on these important issues through the all-party parliamentary groups that they chair, and for their learned contributions to today’s debate. I have listened to them talk about these issues in the Chamber many times before. Their wisdom is deep and is heard loudly. I look forward to working with them as the Bill progresses.

Before turning to the issues that hon. Members have raised, let me first share my sadness at the tragic deaths referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. They are tragic examples of why it is so important to crack down on organised crime groups and their business models. At its heart, this Bill is about real people, including children and families. We have to put these regulations in place to protect them because our citizens have to come first.

I will now respond as best I can to the comments and questions raised during the debate. I will start with verification by Companies House and by agents. I welcome the broad interest from across the House in the Companies House reforms, including on identity verification. I can confirm that the identity verification requirements will apply to all new and existing company directors, people with significant control and those delivering documents to the registrar.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) asked about identity verification checks undertaken by authorised corporate service providers. I can confirm that these checks will achieve the same level of assurance of the stated identity as those undertaken through the direct verification route and in line with the cross-Government identity proofing framework. Agents will need to confirm they are supervised by a body that is subject to the UK’s anti-money laundering regime and register with Companies House before they are allowed to form companies or registerable partnerships, or to file on their behalf.

Under anti-money laundering regulations, all agents are required to retain records and the registrar can request further information on identity verification checks if necessary. The agent will be committing an offence if they fail to carry out ID checks, and new powers will enable the registrar to suspend and deauthorise an authorised corporate service provider.

I can also reassure the right hon. Member for Walsall South that the measures in the Bill will help the registrar remove fraudulent information, including the addresses of innocent people, without burdening those people with so much process. We heard concerns from across the House about the challenges of the registration of false businesses and the problem of not being able to do anything about that; the Bill will solve these issues. She asked about the process for identity verification. We set that out in the White Paper earlier this year and operational design work continues. I also note her concerns about the newly implemented register of overseas entities. It is early days for that register but I will look into the quality of the filings being made.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I thank the Minister for his explanation. To be clear, is the verification scheme through the existing UK Government Verify, which is used for passports and driving licences, or will a separate new scheme be built?

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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I thank the hon. Member for her question. I will gladly respond to her in writing so that she has the full details.

I turn to Companies House fees and funding. A number of hon. Members from across the House, including the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—he is not in his place, and if he were I am sure that he would be intervening right now—asked if Companies House will be properly resourced for its new role. Investment in new capabilities at Companies House is currently under way. Companies House was allocated £63 million across the spending review period to implement its transformation programme. That will include improvement of systems to detect suspicious activity. The Government are reviewing funding arrangements in the context of the reforms and are committed to ensuring that Companies House is fully resourced to perform its new role and functions.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central asked whether the Bill will raise Companies House fees. The Bill gives the Government more flexibility to do so, broadening the range of functions that can be funded through Companies House fees. In particular, it enables us to use fees to cover the cost of investigative and enforcement activities. However, to maintain flexibility, we will not be setting the level of fees through the Bill. That will continue to be set via regulations and subject to future parliamentary scrutiny and approval. We must get the balance right, because we do not want to put off entrepreneurs, solopreneurs and businesspeople who want to set up a new business. The threshold must therefore be thrashed out in the right way, but that will come.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I understand the Minister’s point, but it seems incongruous that while Government Departments make people pay through the nose in the visa system, for example, where they pay way over and above production costs, Companies House is charging very little.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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I thank the hon. Member for her comments. The flexibility will be there, and that is something to be looked at. We are not setting the fee right now; that is the fair thing to do.

The hon. Member for Rhondda and the right hon. Member for Barking asked about the Government’s response on asset freezing and seizing. The Government wholeheartedly support the people of Ukraine—it was wonderful to hear about those in the Gallery today—as do hon. Members across the House. We understand the wish to take ill-gotten funds and use them to support Ukraine in rebuilding its country. The UK, along with other countries, is examining further options to seize assets from sanctioned oligarchs and grappling with an array of complex issues. The aim of His Majesty’s Government is to support the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine.

This is a novel and exploratory area with extremely complex legal and operational considerations, and we are not aware that any other country has yet identified a definitive solution, despite commonality of policy intent, but I am keen to continue conversations and hear more from learned friends. The Government are continuing to work at pace to explore all options and will continue to engage with international partners, civil society and others on this topic.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who has worked hard on this issue over such a long period, for his involvement in the debate and for everything that he did to progress the reforms during his time as Security Minister. That is well recognised and much appreciated. I know that my right hon. Friend the current Security Minister would like to add his thanks to mine.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire stressed that reforms to how payments are made are important to help identify and stop suspicious payments. I value his insights significantly. Many banks already delay and refuse payments when they suspect fraud. The Government, financial regulators and industry are working together to ensure that banks can intervene where necessary. The Government and the Financial Conduct Authority are engaging with the payments industry to understand what might support banks to take a more consistent risk-based approach to payments and prevent payment fraud. We will keep under review whether legislation is required to support a risk-based approach by banks.

I turn to whistleblowing, which came up many times and colleagues have asked me about in the past few weeks. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) for their comments and concerns about the framework protecting whistleblowers, and for their ongoing constructive dialogue on this important issue. They are well known for their views on this point and do incredible work to lobby Government and others on it. An effective whistleblowing framework is an important aspect of the UK’s ability to tackle corruption and all forms of economic crime and illicit finance. In recent weeks, I have noted with interest views on the whistleblowing framework and the proposals for reforms put forward by Members of this House and whistleblowing interest groups. I look forward to continuing those conversations.

The Government remain committed to reviewing the whistleblowing framework and it is only right that we take the time to do a proper review before considering legislative change. My officials are working on the proposals for the scope and timing of such a review. That work is complex, however, and will proceed over a longer timeframe than the Bill. Therefore, the Bill does not include measures on whistleblowing. However, we remain committed to discussion with all interested parties and parliamentarians as we progress that work, and we greatly appreciate the ongoing engagement on this important topic.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (First sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)
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Q Gurpreet, your written evidence is very negative. At one point, it states:

“We do not think these proposed changes support the Bill’s central aim of reducing the use of limited partnerships for money-laundering, since criminal users of limited partnerships will simply ignore them.”

That suggests to me that we are not going far enough. We are aiming to catch the people who are guilty of economic crime. Attached to that, somehow I cannot see any investor wanting anything other than to know that they are putting their money into a kosher investment. Even if you are just a pension fund putting your money into a scheme, it does not seem a bad idea to check that the person behind it is legitimate and not a drug or people smuggler.

Gurpreet Manku: Absolutely. We agree with you that it is not in our interests to have our limited partnership fund structure abused by criminals for all those reasons. We believe that the introduction of annual confirmation statements, the requirement to have authorised corporate service providers register limited partnerships and the power for HMRC to obtain accounts will deter criminals and prevent them from using the vehicle—we hope that they have stopped using it now given that these reforms are finally going through Parliament.

On how those points link to the evidence you quoted specifically, which was actually about some niche requirements on passive investors in a limited partner- ship fund, a worry there is that those investors might be deterred from using the UK limited partnership structure because they feel that their liabilities are being increased, that they are being asked to do the job of management and that criminal sanctions are attached to that. That part of our evidence applied not to the Bill as a whole but to those specific areas.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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Q I have some questions for UK Finance about verification at Companies House. What would it take to have confidence in that verification system? You said in written evidence that Companies House should avoid over-reliance on UK-registered trust and company service providers. Can you tell us a bit more about that and what you would like to see put in place?

Nick Van Benschoten: We think that the Bill’s provisions for Companies House reform definitely point in the right direction. The question for us is, “Are they going far enough and will they be implemented fast enough?” Companies House abuse is, as I am sure you are all aware, a significant problem that we in the regulated sector have been trying to compensate for, but we cannot. We need Companies House to act as a proactive gatekeeper.

On the verification measures, one of the key points is that they fall short of minimum industry standards. Verification of identity is necessary but not sufficient. A key thing we have noted is that the Bill does not provide for order-making powers to allow Companies House to verify the status of directors or beneficial owners, and for that sort of requirement on company information agents and so on. That seems an odd gap. We understand that it may be a matter of phasing or resourcing, which can be dealt with in the implementation, but not if we do not have the order-making powers in the bill.

I have spent 12 years arguing for Companies House reform in my various roles. I do not have another 12 years in me, to be frank. We need to make sure that the Bill gives the powers so that the debate can be had during implementation and, if necessary, a phased or risk-based approach. What I mean is that there is a real risk of nominee directors and abuse thereof. Companies House needs to be able to verify that and therefore bring other things within its realm of power, querying and amending the register.

The how is maybe another question for more detail, but a risk-based, reasonable approach is also minimum industry standards. We have not yet seen it, but I note that the international body FATF—the Financial Action Task Force—agreed last Friday that it was going to consult on best practice guidance on implementing new standards for company registers. These are the same reforms that the Government pushed for as part of their G7 presidency. It has been part of the change: the US is setting up a register; Switzerland is moving. The UK cannot fall behind these new standards, so it is important that the Committee takes cognisance of that.

Trust or company service providers is one of those cases where we know that there is an issue; the banking sector and other industry partners in the joint money laundering intelligence taskforce and another four along with the National Crime Agency did a study of the risks of abuse in the UK trust or company service provider sector. We found shortfalls. There was a remediation exercise agreed. I understand that the remediation exercise is still ongoing. It is one of those sectors where there are concerns. We are doing other work that I am not at liberty to discuss, but it is about that sector.

That means that Companies House needs to be careful and cautious. There need to be strict legal undertakings with proper penalties, not just that they have met the standard of verification but that they have done everything they should be doing as a regulated sector. There needs to be access to the evidence of these checks, and that evidence needs to be something that, on a risk basis if necessary, can be queried—not just the information in the register but the actual checks undergoing. There needs to be the ability for Companies House to take sample checks and do also risk-based reviews. That may be something we can come to later on in terms of the querying power. I am sorry for a long answer, but it is an important point.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Thanks for that, it is really useful. Anti-money laundering responsibility has pushed over on to some of these trust or company service providers, which could be quite a loophole in terms of what you are saying about checks and verification. Would it be useful for Companies House to have that responsibility itself for things registered directly with it?

Nick Van Benschoten: I do not have a view on that. I know that the Treasury will be consulting on reforming the AML supervisory regime. That is something we have been pushing for for quite a while. I know that Jersey, for example, has a very different model where it has most of the regulator sector under one bailiwick, and that includes company formation. That may be something that the Committee looks at in future, but it is not the UK model at the moment.

Our priority would be, rather than look at the cost-benefit narrative and machinery of government change, the co-ordination point. There need to be powers not just to request information but to get information from other supervisors. There needs to be the ability to pass information around the ecosystem, including the National Crime Agency and regulated sector people sharing intelligence. There are some provisions in the Bill at the moment where we think they could go further on that matter, but the key thing is that Companies House needs to be a data hub. On whether it has the responsibility or others, we have not taken a view on that yet, I am afraid.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q That is useful. Incorporation fees are ridiculously low at £12. The Treasury Committee recommended £100. Do you have a view on that?

Nick Van Benschoten: I do not think they are unprecedentedly low. From a very quick survey, we found that Benin and Turkmenistan also have a low figure. I am not sure that is the company the UK wants to keep. There is a question about international competitiveness. It is important to note that in other EU countries with major financial centres it is in the £50 to £100 range. That does not seem an unreasonable amount for us.

Perhaps more importantly, we think Companies House needs to get resourced properly. You have to will the means, not just the ends. It is very important that Companies House fees are set at a reasonable level that would not deter an entrepreneur but would disrupt some of the bulk abuse we have seen, in which criminals set up hundreds and hundreds of shell companies. That is definitely a typology that we have seen.

Once there is enough money coming through main registration, there is then the question of whether Companies House will be granted any investment money out of the economic crime levy that is coming in next year. It is important that the levy is spent on things that actually improve the system, and that we do not just cross-subsidise, and that some of the opportunities also have a benefit for the economy—maybe for streamlining the onboarding of small companies, or for facilitating other access to regulated services.

Obviously, there is the question of what the Government will spend the levy on. We welcome the money that they have spent so far. There is an interesting proposal—by, I think, one of the Committee members’ all-party parliamentary groups—that the Government should match-fund the economic crime levy. Obviously, we in the regulator sector would love that. It is something for the Government to consider.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Jackie Doyle-Price)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to come back to the question that Dame Margaret Hodge asked you, Gurpreet. I hear your point that some of the obligations may deter private equity investment, but through the legislation, we are making the positive statement that we are determined to improve standards of regulation, with a view to tackling crime, and are saying that this country will be safe place in which to invest. To what extent will the Bill be a deterrent? Do you have any evidence or have you made any calcuations on that? If so, which other centres do you expect will benefit from our introducing this system of regulation?

Gurpreet Manku: To clarify, I think this is a really important Bill. We have been saying for a very long time that the provisions need to be implemented quickly. The issues that we have raised are really on points of detail. Raising an international private equity or venture capital fund is quite a complex process. We hope that the swift introduction of the provisions will deter criminals from using the vehicles that we are talking about. When the requirement was introduced for Scottish limited partnerships to go on the people with significant control register, it led to a dramatic drop-off in the use of such partnerships for nefarious purposes. We were not aware that English limited partnerships were being used in that way instead, and we were surprised that they were, because English limited partnerships do not have a legal personality, and so cannot hold assets and should not be able to set up a bank account; certainly, they cannot in this country. We were therefore surprised by the scale of abuse there.

The Government are sending a really strong signal by introducing these provisions, particularly the requirement to have an authorised corporate service provider submit documention and the measures around annual confirmation statements. That should deter criminals. Our version of the limited partnership fund structure has been emulated across the world, so there is a lot of competition, in the sense that international fund groups could set up a vehicle in the UK, the EU or the US. Our wish is for them to be here, because that drives other economic activity.

We have a huge domestic venture capital and growth capital funds industry that invests in small businesses around the country. Two thirds of our investment is outside London; 90% of investment goes to small and medium-sized enterprises. Our managers are small firms; they need a domestic vehicle that works and is trusted by international investors, including those from the US who invest heavily in our members. These vehicles are used by private equity and venture capital funds. They are also used by infrastructure, pension schemes and fund-to-fund investors. Notably, they are also used by the British Business Bank through its equity programmes. It is the largest venture capital and growth equity investor in the UK. It has a really important role in catalysing innovation and crowding in additional institutional investors. I am passionate about the need for a robust UK vehicle, and it has been really disappointing to see the abuse first in Scotland and then in England in recent years.

English limited partnerships and Scottish limited partnerships are popular because they are here. The UK law courts attract institutional investors, as does the fact that we have a large professional services community here. Because we have funds here, we also have the administration here, which means that we have good-quality jobs around the country; some of our members have hubs in Belfast and Southampton. I am passionate about ensuring that this vehicle works, and the rules that are being introduced will deter criminals; they will improve the robustness of the vehicle.

Our points are really points of detail, just to ensure that the limited liability status of investors is protected and that we can implement these reforms in a swift and easy manner.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Perhaps two quick final questions. Alison, you wanted to come back.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Thank you, Chair. You talked about the impact on SLPs from the changes in legislation. Have you looked at the issue of Irish limited partnerships? Bellingcat has found that over a thousand ILPs were created between the early 1900s and 2014, but 2,400 were set up from 2015 onwards. Are those who are looking to exploit the system just chasing round for the structures that they need?

Gurpreet Manku: We have not looked into that. I do know that Ireland has set up a new funds limited partnership, so that could be part of the reason for their growth—but that was very recent, so I do not know why that has happened. Again, it is quite worrying if people are just moving around, exploiting different structures.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is interesting that in this sitting, we have got rather contradictory evidence. On the one hand, you, Nick, are saying that we are not getting enough information on the basics, such as identity checks, and that we need information about more people; on the other, Gurpreet, you are saying that there is too much data, and it will damage business formation and prosperity. I wanted to give you the opportunity to think again, particularly you, Gurpreet. Have you got any figures? In your evidence, you say that you have to set up a tertiary body somehow. Is that just your guess? I think Alison Thewliss will agree that all our evidence is that the structures we are dicussing are among the most abused, and have facilitated more money laundering and economic crime than almost anything else. If we do not sort this out, it will just add to our problem, rather than enabling us to do what the Minister wants.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Sorry, what is the omission?

Nigel Kirby: The omission was referred to by Nick Van Benschoten: the civil liability protection. In the UK, we have real trust and confidence built up in voluntary information sharing with the National Crime Agency under section 7 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. That has been the basis of our voluntary sharing, and we have built confidence in it over seven years.

The legislation has two limbs to civil liability protection—I will have to read my notes to make sure I do not make a mistake. The first limb is

“an obligation of confidence owed by the person making the disclosure”—

that limb is also included in this Bill. The second limb that we rely on is

“any other restriction on the disclosure of information (however imposed)”—

that limb is not included in the Bill.

Our position is that the Bill should align with the existing legislation that we are comfortable with. We would have more comfort in sharing and be more incentivised to share if we had the same protections as we have when we share with the National Crime Agency. The further observation is that there is not just one precedent; another piece of legislation, the Criminal Finances Act 2017—under section 11, I think—had sharing provisions with the purpose, in effect, of bringing better disclosures to the NCA. It had exactly the same two civil liability limbs, written in the same way. We believe that the second limb would be hugely helpful in doing things.

You might want to come back, but the other dependency that is key for us is that the Bill is drafted as an interlink with the GDPR, as you well know. That is wise, and one of the protections—that it has that link with the GDPR—but because the Bill has that interlink, the provisions in the GDPR are really important. I am aware that there is a draft Bill that has not yet been laid before Parliament and, again, we—my colleagues in UK Finance—have worked on that Bill. Absolutely key for us in the draft Bill is a legitimate interest for sharing, because that Bill sets out legitimate interests.

At the moment, the GDPR cites only fraud as a legitimate interest, and no other crimes. To be able to make the measure in this Bill work, we need the revised GDPR to have the “prevention, investigation” and “detection” of crime—what the GDPR says at the moment—to be for all crime as a key part, so we can make the interlink. Otherwise, we are restricted only to fraud, but do not include wider economic crime.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q That is really interesting. I want to pick up a little on what you said earlier about receiving banks and where fraud has been against some of your customers. The Treasury Committee, in our report into economic crime, discussed fraud on online platforms, and the level of it. I understand from speaking to some of your colleagues in the past that that has been increasing. If someone tries to buy something on Facebook but is defrauded, the bank of that person will refund them. There is no obligation on the platform to take any action, and the receiving bank of the person who has done the fraud will take no action either. Could more be done in the Bill to break those types of transactions, with fraud being perpetrated on online platforms? What is the wider impact on the banking system?

Nigel Kirby: Your question is specifically about fraud and what we can do in that space. I suggest that tackling fraud is a shared responsibility. When you look at a typical fraud, you have the payment platform, as you mention; you have a sending bank and a receiving bank, and you have the victim. To tackle it, we need to look at the whole ecosystem, as Nick said, and have an approach that works. I am not convinced that there are things that one can put into the Bill for that—it is the wider point of the whole ecosystem coming together for any fraud strategy moving forward, how we tackle that and how we incentivise the right behaviours for tackling fraud in future.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Would a wider “failure to prevent economic crime” obligation be useful in that regard?

Nigel Kirby: When looking at enacting new legislation, I would go back to the purpose. Putting my NCA hat on, rather than from a Lloyds perspective, I was involved in two pieces of quite significant legislative change: the introduction of asset forfeiture orders in the Global Finance Act, and the change in the sanctions penalty from two years to seven years. That was done very much on an operational need basis. As an organisation, we were able to put out the operational perspective of the gap—the fact that we could not use certain powers because, in the sanctions case, of the length of the sentence. There was a big gap in the ability to seize assets from a civil regime.

In whatever we look at, it is important that we understand that gap from an operational perspective. It is clear and compelling that by having new legislation, that gap gets filled. The other point is that there is the resource and the ability to use the legislation when it comes forward.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Finally, do you have any comments on the changes being made to the suspicious activity report regime in the Bill?

Nigel Kirby: I would leave those to UK Finance; it is not my area of expertise. Our nominated office in Lloyds feeds into UK Finance so we get the whole industry.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to come back to the issue of GDPR, if I may. The whole ethos sitting behind the GDPR legislation is to defend the subject that the information is about. As you just highlighted, that feels really incompatible with having information sharing for the purposes of combating crime. I just want a better feel from you of how much of a barrier that will be. Is it a barrier or is it tying our hands behind our back to use the issues in the Bill? How much more do we have to challenge the ethos behind GDPR for us to build a system that is fit for purpose?

Nigel Kirby: I can link this to your question on safeguards. Coming from a law enforcement background, I believe that safeguards for members of the public are really important in this space, and I am used to following those. GDPR does not stop us from doing some things. It provides a set of safeguards for what we do.

When you look at what the Bill does on safeguards—I am trying to answer both questions—it makes it very clear that we share this information when certain conditions apply, such as exit or restriction, or we need the relevant actions, which would be the prevention and detection investigations for economic crime. Those safeguards are built into the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill.

In GDPR you already have safeguards in place. The first safeguard is: do we have a legitimate interest to share? That is precisely my point, Minister, about our needing to have legitimate interests to share—prevent all crime, not just fraud. Then you have a necessity limb to this. Is what we want to share targeted? Is it proportionate? Is there a less intrusive way? From a law enforcement perspective, we look at whether our actions are proportionate and collateral intrusion. There is a balancing act sitting there as a third limb, on ensuring that the legitimate interest of the public is not unduly overridden. I actually support the fact that there are safeguards in GDPR; I think that is the right thing to have. I support the fact that we need to meet those to be able to share information, but in doing so in that particular space, we need to be able to have sufficient breadth to be able to share across all economic crime and not just fraud.

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Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. Ms Trozze, I know that you are a specialist on crypto, so would you like to add anything to that?

Arianna Trozze: I would echo Andy’s point about the difficulty of tracing certain cryptoassets and investigating certain chains and things like that, and how this is evolving rapidly in competition with the existing providers and the blockchain services themselves. It gets more and more difficult to investigate as time goes on. You need more and more capacity building and investigative tools. At the same time, the crypto companies and the blockchain companies are seeking to develop their technologies in ways that will evade that detection, so it is a constant race between the two sides to be able to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Leading on from that question, we are putting a lot of provisions in the legislation. Is the legislation sufficient to keep pace with those technological changes?

Arianna Trozze: One of the key ways that legislation can future-proof itself in the face of this rapidly developing technology is via the definitions. I think that the definition of cryptoasset in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill is sufficient to do that. Probably most importantly, the inclusion of cryptographically secured contractual rights means that the definition will cover smart contracts, which is really the technology that underpins all the major advances in the space of, for example, decentralised finance and non-fungible tokens that have taken place, and that we expect to continue to develop in the coming years. Furthermore, the ability to amend those definitions via secondary legislation is clearly a positive, because in the event that something slips through the cracks and develops in a way that we cannot anticipate, it will make it more efficient to change them.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Are the measures in the Bill sufficient to protect consumers from being victims of economic crime via crypto?

Arianna Trozze: Because they are very clear that they include cryptoassets, it really makes the rules clear for everyone in the industry. Consumers then know as well what rights they have. My view is that it obviously cannot do everything, but the fact that there are provisions for victim compensation goes a long way to also protecting consumers. Obviously, it does not prevent the crimes from occurring, but it helps them to recover the losses.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Briefly, how do you feel the measures in the Bill relate to the other measures around regulation in the Financial Services and Markets Bill? I am conscious that the two Bills are going at the same time.

Arianna Trozze: I cannot really speak to that. I am very sorry about that.

Andy Gould: I cannot either—sorry. I have not looked at that.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

That is okay. No problem.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q When we talk about things like cryptoassets, it is difficult for lay people like me—I am sure I am not alone—to envisage what exactly we are talking about. I recognise some of the operational sensitivities under which you are working, but would it be possible for you to give us an illustration of how cryptoassets have been used to disguise this activity?

Andy Gould: Probably the most obvious area would be around ransomware, which is if you are an organisation and you get hacked and attacked and then lose access to all your files or systems, and then get a demand from a cyber-criminal saying, “Okay, if you want to get access back, you have to pay”—basically, an extortion demand. That extortion demand will virtually always be in cryptocurrency, because there is a view that that is harder to trace.

Depending on the kind of cryptocurrency, the traceability varies. Effectively, a lot of the technology that sits behind cryptocurrencies is based within what is described as the blockchain. Arianna is much better at explaining this than me, but the blockchain is effectively a public ledger, if we are talking about Bitcoin or something like that. We can see all the transactions. It is like your bank account or NatWest or any other bank doing its transactions in the public space—everybody can look at them. It is effectively decentralised and very public, so there are real benefits in that. The anonymity comes from not knowing who is sending what or who is who, in terms of the bank accounts—the wallet equivalent.

That provides opportunities to follow the money, but, although you might be able to see where the money goes, you will not necessarily know who has sent it or who has received it. There are other investigations you would need to do that. And there are tools—mixing services or exchanges—that will jumble it all up and then send it elsewhere, and you will not be able to see what has come in compared with what is going out. That is why criminals like to use it—because, as they see it, it covers their tracks effectively.

Arianna Trozze: One way to make it a bit clearer is to situate cryptocurrency money laundering in the traditional phases of money laundering. When we talk about money laundering, we tend to talk about three specific phases—placement, layering and integration. In the crypto space, placement may look like someone depositing their Government-issue currency into a cryptocurrency exchange, and exchanging it for cryptoassets, or potentially using what is called a fiat on-ramp to buy cryptoassets using their fiat currency. They may also use something like an over-the-counter broker, which may allow them to buy cryptoassets using cash.

Then, the layering process follows, which is kind of what Andy was talking about, in terms of trying to obfuscate the origin and trail of funds. There are a lot of different tactics that the criminals can use to do that. As Andy mentioned, they may use mixing services, to try to break the chain. They may create thousands of different cryptocurrency wallets and accounts and transfer the funds among them in order to make it more difficult to trace. They may exchange them for various different types of cryptoassets, including privacy coins, which we, again, have a lot of trouble chasing, although there have been advancements in that regard. Finally, they may move to completely different blockchains, using what are called blockchain bridges, and that further makes it more difficult to trace—as Andy mentioned before, different providers have different capabilities and different expertise in terms of which chains they specialise in and which assets they are able to trace. That is something else that they may do to hide that trail of funds.

Finally, we have the integration process, which is criminals using those now-cleaned funds for mainstream economic activity. We know that sometimes they may seek to keep those funds in cryptoassets in an attempt to further their gains, speculatively investing in the market; or they may, again, use one of these exchanges or what is called a fiat off-ramp to transfer their cryptoassets back into pounds or any other currency.

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Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Apart from turning cryptoassets into cash in the way that you have described.

Arianna Trozze: I see both sides of that argument. Obviously, if assets are transferred into cash and then the original assets significantly gain value, and if the person with the assets were then found not to be a person of crime, the Government would be on the hook for the change in value of those assets. There are two sides to the argument but, as Andy mentioned, the storage is quite risky and very expensive. I ultimately agree, but I see both sides of the argument.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q As a brief follow-up, do you have any information on how much that cost is likely to be? That would be very useful to us. I appreciate you might not have that figure in front of you now, but it would be useful to have that detail.

Andy Gould: It is quite commercially sensitive, but it could be a large sum—we are talking hundreds of thousands of pounds.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Okay, we have come to the end of this session. Thank you very much for joining us.

Examination of Witness

Jonathan Hall KC gave evidence.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I think the number of the page you are looking for is in the amendment document on page 47 and it is new schedule 1. I think that is what you were referring to, Mr Hall. I am going to move on anyway.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q This is obviously a fast moving area and a lot of expertise is required. Do the enforcement authorities have sufficient expertise to keep pace with this? We heard from a witness earlier that their experts are being snapped up by industry because they are able to offer more money. Does that make it difficult to then enforce the provisions in the Bill?

Jonathan Hall: In the counter-terrorism world, there is an open question about quite how much this blockchain technology will be used by terrorists. There is quite a lot of excitement about the possibility of its use, but the jury is slightly out about how much it is, in fact, being used. I cannot speculate why that would be. Counter-terrorism is a well-resourced part of police business, so I would expect that there would be specialists who would be willing to stay because they are quite highly motivated; outside counter-terrorism, I do not know. I was very struck by the point about the £200,000 transfer fee.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Thank you. I will leave it at that.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to follow on from that, because I am taking it a bit wider than crypto in two areas. After the 7/7 horror, we put our all into counter-terrorism and we now have a strategy that is well resourced, and can respond to and has responded effectively to terrorism threats down the years. When I look at this, I feel that Ukraine ought to be our 7/7 moment in relation to dirty money. I wonder whether we are ambitious or comprehensive enough. I take the point about resources; there is no point doing anything if you do not have the resources. However, are we doing enough here to give you the confidence that we can really start turning around this big tanker?

Jonathan Hall: Do you mean the Russia-Ukraine aspect?

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Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am not sure if you were in for the previous session, but our witnesses talked about the need to be able to transfer crypto into physical assets or cash. What are your thoughts on that and do you have a sense of what the cost would be? Obviously, the disincentive for doing that is how much it could cost the Government for being on the hook. If it is transferred it into cash, and if there has been a rise in the value of the cryptoasset, the Government are potentially on the hook if that person is found not guilty. Do you agree that that “on the hook” argument exists? If so, it becomes a numbers game, because the cost of storing the cryptoasset is high. What is the net benefit to the Government of either transferring it to a physical asset or continuing to fund the cost of keeping it as crypto?

Jonathan Hall: It is quite a bit step to convert it to fiat currency, or pounds, because you are then interfering with the bet that person has placed on the value of the currency going up. I do not know what the figure is in terms of storage. I am interested, too, in the question of potential police liability. I am thinking about the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. As you know, before the Government brought in the suite of changes that allowed urgent sanctions, they were very careful to narrow down the potential liability that the Government might have in relation to sanctions, if they were challenged. I have not given it attention, but maybe it is worth having a look at whether there are equivalent protections for the police. The seizures can be very high in this field—they can measure many millions—so the potential liability of the police could be quite high. We would not want the police to be too disincentivised by the risk that they would be on the hook for damages, if everything goes wrong.

In terms of the balance, it may be that ultimately one or other party—the person from whom the assets are seized, or the police—is going to suffer some sort of loss. The key thing is to make sure that people have access to the courts. The courts will have to generate their own sort of expertise and case law over when you should convert a currency. I can imagine that someone will come to the magistrates court saying, “My assets have been frozen. Now is the time for converting them from Bitcoin into Ethereum”, and the court says, “What? How do I determine that?” There will need to be a body of expertise. This is a minor point, but it is something that I support: one of the intentions is to allow quite a wide range of law enforcement personnel to be responsible for the court proceedings, precisely so that you can develop a cadre of people who have got that sort of expertise.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q I want to ask about Scottish limited partnerships, particularly given their involvement in sanctions busting and various other things. Do you share my concern that they can exist in the Companies House register in a sort of zombie form and can be reanimated? Is there more that the Bill could do about that? If the use of SLPs is being tightened up, if you were looking to abuse corporate structures where would you go next?

Jonathan Hall: I do not want to say. The key thing is that I am not a Scottish lawyer, and I am not going to try and opine on whether there is a legitimate use of them. The key thing is basic enforcement. You made the point that there are zombie companies. Well, someone in Companies House needs to follow these things up. I am sure they will, but the resourcing of Companies House is where I would put my money.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have just heard some very powerful evidence about the relationship between organised crime groups operating in this sphere of crime, and state threats. Have you any other observations about the relationship between economic crime and national security threats as we face them today? Is that a serious problem that we need to be worried about?

Jonathan Hall: It is a serious problem. I would say that the reason we have not faced the wave of mass casualty terrorist attacks in the UK, in contrast to America, is the lack of readily available firearms. That is the key thing. It is why the growth of the extreme right wing and all these ideologies that inspire mass killings, the obsession with Columbine and so on, have not resulted in mass shootings. From a national security perspective, the real concern is the alignment—if it happens—between terrorist organisations and those in organised crime, who do have the capacity to source firearms. That is a really important point.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Second sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Second sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree. Thank you.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

Q How exactly will the verification scheme that you propose work?

Martin Swain: At the moment we are in the design phase for verification. I should say first of all that we will not do the ID verification ourselves; we will outsource that.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q To who?

Martin Swain: At the moment we are looking at two options. We are working closely with Government Digital Service and others on the potential for the Government solution. We have been clear with them about our requirements with them. We are separately looking at market options, whereby we would go to the private sector and outsource via that route, where a number of providers can do identity checks.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Okay. How are you weighing up the balance of those two?

Martin Swain: It goes back to some of the things that I said about ease of doing business. There are two key parts of our specification: whether we can make it really efficient, and fast and easy for people to do, and whether it is at an equivalent standard to the industry standard. We are very clear that we are operating along the same lines as others in the system.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q We heard from UK Finance earlier that currently the proposals are below industry standard.

Martin Swain: I heard that, and I am surprised that they are saying that. I will have a conversation with them about where that has come from.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Okay. Will there be verification of the links with shareholders and owners as well, and the control that they have?

Martin Swain: People with significant control will be subject to verification—beneficial owners, but not shareholders who have less than 25%.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Why?

Martin Swain: It was a decision by the Department and Ministers, post consultation. They consulted on the whole area of shareholders, and the information that they hold, and verification. The decision was that they would not be subject to verification.

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Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

And to address some of the questions we heard earlier—if you can act more quickly and establish whether a crime has been committed, that is clearly more efficient.

Michelle Crotty: It is more efficient and means that, if we follow the money and there is a reasonable explanation, we can screen a case out more quickly, rather than committing more resource and taking longer to reach that decision.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q The Home Office report, “National risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing 2020”, states:

“Company formation and related professional services are therefore a key enabler or gatekeeper of”

trade-based money laundering. Is there enough in the Bill to remove that risk?

Simon Welch: It is difficult to say. We have heard about the verification processes going on. With the authorised corporate service providers, if we strengthen all that and make things more difficult, we target harm. At the moment, you can register a company from abroad, and there is little opportunity for us to follow that up, especially in a jurisdiction that it is difficult to get information from. The idea of having ACSPs in this country, where we can see them and start the inquiry from the UK, would be very desirable. I am not sure whether the Bill goes that far; I have not read that bit too much.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Sorry, you are going to have to speak up. We all wish to hear the answer.

Simon Welch: Sorry—I appreciate that. Authorised corporate service providers, if they are based in this country so that we have a starting point for our inquiry, would be something that we would welcome. That would make it easier for us to start an inquiry. At the moment, if it is coming from a jurisdiction that is not particularly co-operative with us, it might be difficult for us to get that information, so, clearly, we would want to see that.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Michelle, you were nodding. Do you have anything to add to that?

Michelle Crotty: No. Anything that will help us to identify suspects is welcome, as my colleague has said.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Okay. Are the measures in the Bill enough to disincentivise the use of shell companies, limited partnerships or Scottish limited partnerships for criminal purposes?

Simon Welch: If they can still get the companies and they can still make them work, they are going to make them work. It is if we make it prohibitively difficult for them to do that—if we make it difficult for them to create their verifications, because they will have to work harder to get the verification sorted out to make sure they have got the IDs sorted out. We have talked about the fee of £12.50 for registering a company. There are lots of arguments about that—frictionless trade and things like that—but we have the lowest price for registering a company pretty much anywhere in the world.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Yes—by some margin.

Simon Welch: So is there a view for increasing that and using it for Companies House to invest in verification? That is something that could be looked at.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Do you have a view about where you would like the level to be? The Treasury Committee suggests £100.

Simon Welch: I do not know. If you were to ask a businessman what they were prepared to start a company for—how many companies they are looking to start? At the end of the day, if you were just building a couple of companies and you knew you were going to get a really good service, you might be quite happy to pay £100 or whatever. I do not know what is a reasonable price.

Commander Adams: One of the challenges for us in our investigations is how desirable shell companies are to criminals who want to create a legacy pattern that an organisation has been running for many more years than it actually has. Of course, if you are then into a large-scale boiler room-type fraud, whether you are paying £12, £100 or £1,000, it is simply a drop in the ocean compared with the amount of money you are going to make at the end of that. Making it harder for people to inappropriately and unlawfully use shell companies in the way they are at the moment is what will help us ultimately.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q There has been a growing trend of people setting up companies using someone else’s address and name. Presumably those will still exist on the register after this legislation comes into force. What would you like to see happen to clear out the fraudulent things that are already on the register?

Commander Adams: If I am right, the Bill allows for retrospective work to take place. However, as you have alluded to, there are simply millions of entities on there. As you heard from colleagues earlier, the resourcing of those retrospective checks, given all the work that has to be done—there are something like 1,500 companies registered every day in the UK; it is phenomenal—is going to be a real challenge. We would want to see resourcing to do those retrospective checks, to remove those companies from the register as quickly as possible.

James Daly Portrait James Daly
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q What is your view of how clauses 1 to 98—part 1 of the Bill—regarding Companies House reform can assist law enforcement to tackle economic crime more effectively?

Commander Adams: Again, you heard from colleagues earlier about this. The big thing for us is making sure that checks are undertaken to ensure that individuals who are setting up companies or have a significant stake in them are verified, to give us, as Adrian said, those investigative lines of inquiry into individuals. For us, that is the biggest game changer in what we are currently seeing, but of course it will require the right level of scrutiny and adequate robustness in those checks, and the capacity to do them at speed.

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Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is helpful.

John Cusack: I will just add to Thom’s point about clause 88. The language concerns me greatly. This will be dependent on the registrar’s diligence and, essentially, on the financing that the registrar has in order to carry out their activities. The language—that the

“registrar must carry out such analysis of information within the registrar’s possession as the registrar considers appropriate”—

is extremely timid. If there is no money for it, the registrar will not be doing anything. That is really problematic. We would not apply that in any other circumstance; we would want to set out the obligation—the expectation—and to fund that appropriately, not the other way around.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q I have some questions about whether the Bill is sufficient to deter the abuse of shell companies, limited partnerships or Scottish limited partnerships.

Dr Hawley: We focused more on what is not in the Bill. I do not know whether John or Thom want to address that.

Thom Townsend: I would hand over to John on this one.

John Cusack: The Bill is positive. It is one of the contributions that will definitely help, and it is trying to fix a long-standing problem. At the end of the day, however, if we want to deal with financial crime, economic crime, we need convictions—investigations, prosecutions and convictions—and asset recoveries. That comes from resourcing the public sector, as well as demanding high expectations from the private sector. I am worried that in the UK the financing of law enforcement, and of the FIU in particular, is insufficient to assure the objectives that we all want, which are to mitigate, manage and reduce harms from economic crime. This is a long-standing weakness in the UK, as it is in many other countries, and that would definitely help, but let us not kid ourselves that it will make a material difference to the economic crime situation in the UK.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Do you share my concerns that previous Bills to tighten things up—for example, for Scottish limited partnerships—have not been met with enforcement action? Since the changes to the persons with significant control regime came into force, only one fine has been issued, to the value of £210. Would you like to see more enforcements and more follow-up of those who are not applying the current rules?

John Cusack: Yes, of course. I would support that. However, I would also say, with respect, that the idea is to do prevention with the changes. When we put a lock on the door of an aeroplane, the fact that no one has stormed the cockpit is not how we judge whether a lock on the door is appropriate. We are tightening things up and preventing financial crime, but yes, absolutely, we need to see more enforcement. You would hope that these measures will mean that people will no longer necessarily look to UK companies and Scottish limited partnerships as the vehicle of choice for abuse, and they will look elsewhere.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q May I ask about the issues with the register as it exists? There are lots of things on it that are inaccurate, deliberately false or involving the misuse of people’s personal information and addresses. How much do you feel that Companies House has to go back actively into the register to figure out what is wrong with it and to put it right?

Thom Townsend: When this legislation passes, there will be a lot of remedial work to sort out what is there—there is no doubt about that. Everything that you have just described is true, and it is probably a lot worse even than we are aware of. As you just mentioned, we are clearly starting from such a low bar that any legislation will have some kind of deterrent effect, but it is important to think not just about ensuring that we hit the gold standard with a piece of primary legislation. It is also the resourcing, but ultimately nothing that we can do will create a 100% perfect system.

Essentially, we are trying to remove as much noise as possible from the system to give law enforcement the best possible chance of focusing its resource where it can make the most difference. It is important not to think about this in zero-sum terms of: is it possible to commit crime or not? It is really just about making an environment where it is somewhat more manageable to detect, and then enforce. As it stands it, is the wild west on that register. If you wanted to do enforcement, we would be here until the end of time.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Yes. Finally, can I ask you, John, whether there is any particular recommendation that you would like to make on the register of overseas entities section of the Bill?

John Cusack: Not necessarily, because what I am most interested in is getting the Bill out in its current form with a financed and adequate registrar with obligations, and resolving that underlying issue. One of the reasons people use UK companies is not so that they can open UK bank accounts, because then you go through the gamut of UK obligations in the regulating sector, even though that happens occasionally when buying real estate and other things. Actually, people buy and acquire UK companies and Scottish limited partnerships so that they can open accounts abroad, because the UK is seen as a first-class jurisdiction. That means that when they open those accounts abroad, not many questions are asked, or not as many as would be if they were acquiring a Nigerian company, for example, which would ring all sorts of alarm bells. The interesting thing about the companies registry is that the abuse by foreigners does not necessarily translate into a UK economic crime issue per se, even though it is something that we also all want to address.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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Q Indeed, it can sometimes lead to terrorism as well as other crimes. May I ask one short question of you all, and then a longer one? We have talked about the importance of looking at persons with significant control. Do you think that we should reduce the threshold of having a 25% shareholding to 5%? Would that help?

John Cusack: For my high-risk customers, I always had it at 10% in my financial institutions, and 25% for non-high-risk customers, because I really wanted to ensure that I had almost everybody who could possibly be interested in the company or a relationship. I stuck at 10%, but you can always argue it lower or a bit higher.

Thom Townsend: Yes—whether it should be 5% or not, it needs to be lower. There is an argument to be made between 10% and 5%. My sense is that we have a 25% global standard on this because it is a sort of round number.

Dr Hawley: It is really interesting to look at what Jersey and Guernsey are doing on financial crime. They have a 10% threshold, and they are introducing a lot of other very interesting economic crime measures that go far further than we have in the UK, including a failure to prevent money laundering offence. They also have a measure to forfeit accounts based on a suspicious activity report, so they are really looking at very radical measures in Jersey and Guernsey that will make the UK look quite behind.

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Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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Q I think we all share the frustration that there are existing powers, and hopefully a few new ones, and they are just not implemented. We have discussed whether that is because of a fear of costs coming back to us, or because of the lack of funding for the enforcement agencies.

Let me put to you another issue. If we strengthened accountability, those working in the Executive agencies might work a little harder at putting into effect the laws that we parliamentarians pass. Bim Afolami has an idea of establishing a Select Committee of the House that would look at the regulators—the enforcement agencies—and could ask for individual cases to be heard by the Committee in private, to see whether there are systemic issues at play, which could lead to public reporting on those issues.

That is one idea. There are others around. Do you think the lack of accountability, particularly for the enforcement agencies, could be a contributing factor to the fact that we just do not do enough—that we do not use our existing structures enough—even without the money and even with the cost issue?

Bill Browder: I think so. This is not the first time I have had this conversation with Members of Parliament. I have been in front of many Committees—the Home Affairs Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, this Committee and others—to talk about this lack of enforcement, and I have talked with many Members of Parliament. There is no disagreement with me. Every political party supports the idea of not having London be the money laundering capital of the world. I think everybody agrees. Many good Members of Parliament have put pressure on different Governments, put questions to them and had conversations, and I have seen many Government Ministers agree. Then, all of a sudden, we get to this total disconnect: law enforcement cannot be instructed by Parliament or the Government to open or pursue a criminal case or explain why it has not done so. It is living in its own world.

The only thing the Government can do is replace the people in executive positions in law enforcement; that is the only sanction. There has to be a better way. There are arguments about not wanting to politicise law enforcement and I totally sympathise with those, but at the same time if it is completely failing it needs root-and-branch reform—whether parliamentary oversight, Government oversight or some other mechanism. It is just failing and it has continued to fail in a way that is totally unacceptable. I would hate to be sitting here a decade from now having the same conversation.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Can I ask Oliver first whether the Bill could do more to deter the abuse of UK corporate structures such as limited partnerships, including Scottish limited partnerships, and shell companies? What more would you like to see in this area to deal with this issue? In your book, you talked an awful lot about the use of such structures for property and other things. Can more be done here?

Oliver Bullough: It is probably fine. Hopefully, if things are actually enforced and Companies House is given the money it needs to do the job and it is ambitious about that, this may work. Personally, I would like the threshold for a person with significant control to be reduced significantly: perhaps to 10% or 5%. Perhaps there should not be a threshold at all, but if you control you need to declare it.

The Bill is potentially an improvement. I still do not think it is the kind of root-and-branch re-evaluation of Companies House that we need. An amazing variety of corporate structures are available in this country. I do not think anyone has stopped to say, “Do we really need limited liability partnerships and limited partnerships? Why do we have both?” Does anyone stop to think about why they exist at all? Limited partnerships were created as a bit of a strange afterthought back in 1906 anyway. Why do they even exist?

I would like to see discussions like that, personally, but as it stands I think that bit of the Bill is probably okay—certainly if it is enforced properly. If there were an Oliver Bullough-ocracy, there would be all sorts of different changes to how companies could be used. I would not allow people to use foreign companies to own UK property at all; you would have to own it via British companies if you wished to use a company. But that is not going to happen so it is silly to talk about it.

On Margaret Hodge’s point, in the Oliver Bullough-ocracy I would definitely like to have something similar to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, with the power to investigate whatever it likes and do really forceful, well resourced investigations into Government agencies or anything at all. That would really help to cut through some of the failures to understand why the failures are happening and to really bring accountability to these bodies, which have been able to hide behind the lack of oversight for a long time.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q What more would you do to tighten up the company verification scheme proposed for Companies House? Would you put in place more measures to make sure that those registering companies were real people at real addresses?

Oliver Bullough: I heard the Companies House official talking earlier; I did not join at the beginning so I did not catch his name. He was saying that there would be difficulties with resourcing the verification of all that, particularly when it comes to the issue I wrote about recently in my newsletter, about what I call “offshore shell people”—people essentially acting as a kind of shell company. It is noticeable that while the number of offshore companies owning property in the UK has flatlined over the last decade, the number of people with overseas addresses has increased by 250%. Clearly, scams can always be used and things are always coming in. Making sure that Companies House can have the resources to do all that is a tough ask.

This is perhaps stretching way beyond what is in the Bill, but I am not sure that it would not be a good idea to have what the British Virgin Islands has, which is that an ordinary person cannot just file things with Companies House; they have to go via a lawyer or another registered professional. I am not sure that that would not be a bad idea, because then you would not have this issue at all of people being able to log on.

Just to show how absurd it is, I was at a conference the other day and a participant from Canada could not believe me when I said how easy it is to file things at Companies House, so we logged on together and she created a company then and there. She is a tax consultant; there was no “tax consultant” option on the dropdown menu, so she called herself a taxidermist. That is how absurd the system is. There is a lot of scope for improvement before we need to worry about fine-tuning the details.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Thank you. Bill, is there anything that you would like to add about how Companies House is being abused and what could be tightened up there?

Bill Browder: One of the things we have seen is that the same individuals—these money launderers—will find a drunk Latvian person, get their passport and then register them in hundreds and hundreds of companies. If those companies get shut down, then they can register them as the directors of other companies; they then become directors of those companies.

Why is it okay to have a person be a director of 400 companies? That does not make any sense to me. Why should there not be some limitation—maybe 10? Ten companies is a lot of companies—but 400 companies, or a thousand companies? That limitation would be an easy thing to put in here, and that would make it harder for the criminals, because there are not that many people who are ready to give up their passports to do money laundering. The number of people who are involved in this is quite small when you actually look at it, because most people do not want their names being used for these terrible schemes.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q You also have multiple companies —in the hundreds—registered to single addresses. Would that also be an issue that you would like to see tackled?

Bill Browder: In theory, yes. This whole post-box idea just lends itself to anonymity and so on. Why do people not just register their companies at their own home or their own business address if there is a legit company? What is this business with 2,000 companies in one strange industrial park in Glasgow?

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q And Scottish limited companies have been used for various—

Oliver Bullough: I did an investigation a while ago and there was a woman who was a director of four companies, I think, despite the fact that she had been dead for five years. Clearly, someone had been using her signature to sign off on the companies, and that is clearly a misuse of information. Clearly, that is falsifying company information and is already a criminal offence. Despite the fact that I had written about it, nothing was done; no action was taken. As I say, there are a lot of easy wins here before we need to worry about the details.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q I want to ask about Scottish limited partnerships, the implication being that they are used in sanctions-busting and various other things to do with the war in Ukraine and Russia’s activities around the world. Does that misuse cause a reputational damage to the UK and to Scotland?

Bill Browder: Well, Scotland is so dwarfed by London that you do not have to worry about your reputation, because the reputation is so bad here that no one will even be paying attention.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q Coming back to law enforcement, the Bar Council has suggested that the new regulatory objective that the Bill will add to the Legal Services Act 2007, focused on promoting the prevention and detection of economic crime, is incompatible with barristers’ duties and may confuse the role of lawyers. What is your view on that?

Bill Browder: I have written a whole book about this. The bad guys in Russia are a big part of the problem, but you cannot export this type of corruption and money laundering unless you have somebody doing the importing. And who is involved in the importing? It is the western enablers—the lawyers.

I have had shocking experiences with western law firms that are benefiting from this. If there were some kind of duty whereby they had to actually look into the source of their funding or the legitimacy of the business, I think that would be an extremely powerful thing, if it was actually enforced. There is a whole other long discussion of law that one could have about the role of western enablers, and particularly the lawyers.

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Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
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Q So transparency will have no teeth without greater focus on enforcement.

Thomas Mayne: Yes.

Professor Heathershaw: Yes, I would agree with that statement entirely.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q I will pick up on a couple of the recommendations from the “The UK’s kleptocracy problem” report. You were calling for the investigation of and penalties for those who submit fraudulent information to Companies House. Would you like to see Companies House doing that retrospectively with the new powers that they take, by actively going back through that register to prosecute people who have submitted fraudulent information in the past?

Thomas Mayne: I think so. Where do you cut it off? It certainly should if there have been large-scale, egregious actions. Oliver mentioned somebody registering companies in the name of a dead person, and I found an example of that in an investigation years ago. People should be penalised for really fraudulent misuse and prevented from registering companies again in the future.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Should there be limits on the number of companies a person should be a director of, or registered at a particular address?

Thomas Mayne: On the point about directors, there certainly should be; it is crazy that you have these people with 1,000 companies. I am not sure on your point about addresses. If you are an investigative journalist or a freelancer and you do not want to register a company with your home address, for example, or if you are the PSC and you have your name on the company, is that enough? Perhaps there needs to be some provision about having an office where you have to physically be and sign your name. I am not sure about the proxy address, but certainly, on your point about proxy directors, limiting the number would be a good idea.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q You talked about persons with significant control and whether or not they are really the person controlling that company. There has been only one fine issued to somebody for not registering a person of significant control for Scottish limited partnerships since that was brought into force. Do you think a lot more needs to be done to interrogate those persons of significant control, and assess whether or not they are accurate and the filing has been done properly?

Thomas Mayne: I think so. Obviously it is difficult with PSCs, because I can say I am the PSC of a company and there could be an agreement written in a safe in Liechtenstein somewhere that says it is actually a Kazakh politician or whoever it may be. Certainly, there are probably egregious examples where it is clear that the person is not the PSC. You can do some research on them. There have been some examples today where there is clear evidence that the person is not who they say they are. Yes, there need to be fines, and the fact that there has been only one so far again goes to the point on lack of enforcement over fraudulent information submitted to Companies House.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q You talk in the report about AML controls. Would it be useful to have Companies House be an anti-money laundering supervisor in its own right?

Thomas Mayne: Possibly; maybe that would overburden it. There are already talks, with the verification coming in, about ramping it up.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q In the sense that the trust and company service providers and other supervisors are not doing their job properly, so that would stop those who are registering directly.

Thomas Mayne: It is an option.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q One of the ironies of this Bill is that it is called the corporate transparency Bill, but it says very little about two kinds of people who maximise corporate transparency. One is whistleblowers and the other is journalists, or indeed writers of think-tank reports. That is a shame, because we have courts in this country that are being systematically used by rich individuals to silence journalists and sometimes think-tanks. I can speak under privilege in this hearing, so I can talk about Dmitry Leus forcing Chatham House to amend one of its reports, and I can talk about Chatham House agreeing to that because it did not want to confront the legal bills entailed in going to court with Mr Leus. If we are serious about corporate transparency, should we not be introducing anti-SLAPP measures that would enable a judge to throw out a case that was transparently focused on trying to stop people revealing the truth?

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Third sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Third sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Q This is just a quick follow-up for clarification. The Bill arguably makes shareholder information less transparent, because it takes away the opportunity to put information relating to shareholders on the central register.

Duncan Hames: A lot of information was collected on shareholders when this register was developed six years ago, and in many cases companies have been able to say, “There have been no changes.” That means there is a risk that information on shareholders has become quite dated, and finding what information there is involves tracking down PDF format documents that were uploaded a long time ago. There is an opportunity, whether in legislation or in practice at Companies House, to make sure that shareholder information does not become much less usable for investigation and due diligence.

On the third thing you asked me about, we think it is very important that Companies House has the powers and uses them to check the information, where it thinks necessary, that has been used to verify information by trust and company service providers, and not simply take that on trust where it has concerns or suspicions.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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Q I want to ask Duncan about Scottish limited partnerships and limited partnerships more generally. The Bill does not really crack down on the opaqueness of ownership. Could you explain a wee bit more to the Committee why that is a particular issue?

Duncan Hames: Limited liability partnerships have been a company entity available for the last 20 years or so, and 200,000 have been formed. We noticed that they kept appearing in revelations about major money laundering scandals. In the Danske Bank scandal, for example, the investigations found that UK limited liability partnerships were the vehicle of choice for the non-resident clients of its Estonian branch basically to hide their identity from those conducting compliance checks.

There are 1,600 LLPs that have appeared in these various scandals, but there are thousands upon thousands of UK limited liability partnerships that share the same offshore corporate partners. A pair of corporate partners registered in Belize are the controlling corporate partners of over 2,000 UK limited liability partnerships.

What is bizarre is that MPs have thankfully legislated to end secretive ownership of UK property, but we do not have the same requirements for overseas entities that control UK limited partnerships. As a result, we still have a veneer of UK respectability presented over what is essentially a secretive corporate network.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Helena, in terms of tightening up Companies House registration, is there more that needs to go into the Bill to prevent abuse of the system?

Helena Wood: There are some fundamental flaws. Although this is a significant step forward from where we are, as we all recognise, there are some flaws in the model that has been designed. When the consultation was put out three and a half years ago, we advised against outsourcing ID verification checks to the trust and company service provider sector.

Our evidence for saying that was that there was an assumption in the model being developed that these sectors were largely compliant with money laundering regulations, but we know from the various scandals that Duncan has pointed to and the great investigative work by Duncan and others that that is not the case. I have referred publicly to some of that sector as a bunch of cowboys, and I would gladly go on the record to say that today. That comes from poor levels of compliance, which is the result of poor Anti-Money Laundering Council provision in the sector.

If we are to go ahead with this model where we outsource those checks to a sector that hitherto has not been known for its compliance with the standards, we need to do something outside the context of this Bill to really hammer that home. I particularly point to HMRC as the supervisor of the standalone TCSP sector. We really need to hammer down on compliance in that sector to raise standards overall so that HMRC can properly take on the role, although I restate that we initially advised against it taking on that role, given the current state of compliance in the sector.

None Portrait The Chair
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I call Eddie Barnes—[Interruption.] Sorry, I mean Eddie Hughes.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q First, thank you for coming to give evidence today; it is much appreciated. We have had some discussion on information-sharing; I think you overheard that. If there is anything that you wanted to add, rather than repeating what we may have heard, that would be useful.

I want to ask you a bit more about the lack of transparency when it comes to shareholders. How much do you see that as an issue? Can you suggest any specific measures to increase shareholder transparency?

Chris Taggart: I will maybe talk about the information sharing after. First, shareholding data is not even data. It is just a name; it is just some letters put together. We have opened the gates by allowing it to be just a transient historical record—you know, somebody owns shares in a company. They make a report. They put down a name; we assume that they put down their own name, but of course they can put down any name. But the shares are transferred the next day—maybe into a trust, maybe to somebody else—and there is no record.

At the moment, I think we have that with shareholding, particularly given the international context of cross-jurisdictional context networks and so on. Shareholding actually matters. If someone who runs a chip shop in south Wales or is a mechanic in Estonia, or wherever, owns the shares, they own the shares. That matters. We are not recognising this.

I absolutely welcome the Bill and think it is a huge improvement on where we are, but I think the shareholding is a particularly strong example of how there is essentially still the same problem, which is that Companies House is a historical record of information submitted by people, and the bad actors will always lie. We need to change things, so that it is much more difficult and risky for the bad actors to lie. I think that is the fundamental criticism of the Bill, which, by the way, I think is entirely welcome. It is an incredibly thoughtful and well-drafted Bill, but it is fundamentally coming from a different era. The Bill is a better horse and cart, and the criminals are driving around in fast cars.

Elspeth Berry: On the shareholder transparency point, I noticed that the identity verification is not being applied to shareholders and I think it could be, possibly subject to some de minimis requirements. If they come in as PSCs, which is possible, that also brings us to the problems with the PSC legislation, because the thresholds are, depending on which view you take, either woeful in terms of not catching enough people or should just not be there at all.

The third thing is that, for reasons I do not fully understand, I see that the central register of members is going. Some things now have to be central and some things cannot be central, and shareholders will not be central. I would also point out that the unique identifiers are not being applied to shareholders, although, in any event, they are apparently they not going to be made public. I am not a journalist, but I rely on the work of some fantastic investigative journalists and organisations to dig through that stuff and find out, “Well, that shareholder is appearing here as a partner, there as a director and there as another shareholder,” but that cannot be done.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q First, I want to follow up on that point about unique identifiers and how those would help. I have looked myself up in the Companies House register, and I appear as three separate people. Can you tell us what the benefits of having a unique identifier would be?

Elspeth Berry: The idea is that the John Smiths, the J. Smiths and the Mr Smiths can be linked. Where it is a common name—or an overseas name, where a person like me who was looking at this would not know it was a common name and might assume, “Well, that must be the same person,” when actually it is not, because it is such a common name—it is important to find links. I can see that it is important for Companies House as one of their red flags, and they are going to be able to operate this system, but only partly, because it will not apply to shareholders or partners. But outsiders—people who do fantastic work that Companies House can’t, doesn’t or won’t—are going to find it difficult, or at least as difficult as it is now, to do the work of trawling though everything.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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Q Do you think it would be necessary for Companies House to set about the work of going backwards through the register? There are companies being registered every single day. The legislation comes into force and things going forward will be registered, but how much work does Companies House now need to do to go backwards through the register and get rid of all the guff information in there?

Chris Taggart: Perhaps not as much as you would think. Companies House currently has a thing called the personal ID, which is sort of inferred. It is not that somebody has confirmed they are this person, that they are the same as that person and that it has been identity-verified. By looking at the home address and other information that has been supplied and that they have, Companies House create a personal ID. We actually pull in information from the API and from various dumps. In some of those dumps, that information exists, but not in the normal stuff. So that information is there.

I would just back up what Elspeth said: not only is it essential, but I see no benefit otherwise. If you are a business trying to understand whether you want to do business with another company—this is not just about crime; this is about creating a great business environment—you can go to a director page on OpenCorporates and see other people with the same name. Okay, that is useful, but do you really want to be trawling through that and making a judgment call? It is almost like sending investigators off to try to understand whether they are the same. If this person has three other companies that all went bust owing money, you do not want to do business with them. I see no public benefit at all to keeping this identifier private and a secret.

Elspeth Berry: In terms of historic information, I think that has changed over time and gone in a bad direction. As I understand it, Companies House is now restoring some of the historic information, and it is important that that is available.

I would also raise the issue that there are provisions here for limited partnerships to be deregistered or dissolved. I think the provisions themselves do not do what it was hoped they would do. We also need to know how those are going to appear on the register, because that has been a problem with—shall I say—shady limited partnerships appearing and disappearing.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Is there an amendment you would make to make that clearer?

Elspeth Berry: In terms of the historic record? I would think 20 years; I understand that has been done for a lot of company information. If we are now going to have a registry power to dissolve and/or deregister, it is a little problematic. All of that needs to be clear. We know that there has been a pattern of limited partnerships appearing and disappearing, perhaps ceasing to trade and perhaps coming back. We know that that is a pattern, which we want to see, and if 20 years has been the standard at various times for companies, why not for everybody?

James Daly Portrait James Daly
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to pick up on the question about Companies House. On Tuesday, Companies House described themselves as a passive organisation at this moment in time; potentially, they are now turning into—I do not know if this the correct word—an investigative or certainly proactive organisation. All that we have heard so far, which I fully accept, is that it has to be resourced. How do you think this change of culture and investigation will work with some of the problems that you talked about?

Chris Taggart: That is a good question. Certainly, we have been dealing with Companies House on quite a close level since we were founded 10 years ago. I have huge respect for them; they do really good work incredibly efficiently and so on. The challenge is that they are good people, but the people we are trying to stop are not good people, and they think in a different way.

What Companies House think they are doing is creating companies—when people think of companies, they think of a factory, a shop, a company providing services or manufacturing things, and so on—but what they actually do is create legal entities; they create things that have a distinct legal personality and limited liability. The criminals know that, they are using it and they are using networks of these things. More than that, we are talking about a situation where you start to think about things from a traditional company point of view—what we all used to think of as companies—but, actually, the legal reality is one of legal entities, so you need to start thinking about this in an entirely digital way, an entirely data way and an entirely legal way.

I will give you an example. Where a company has got assets—it has got things—there is a downside to it being struck off. If you are overseas and you create a UK company, and the company is struck off, as long as the money has come in and out before that, that is fine—you have done the job for the company. We need to have a change of mindset, and that change of culture will be as important as the powers that Companies House actually have.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Mr Barrow, for giving evidence today. To pick up on your point about becoming obsessed, I think that is an understatement of the contribution you are now making, which seems to be identifying so much more than Companies House is doing itself and documenting the flaws in the current system. Why do you think that is the case? You have played a very important role in documenting some of the most blatant abuses of the Companies House registration systems. How concerned should we be about the large number of companies you have identified that are incorporated in offshore jurisdictions with weaker money laundering laws than we have?

Graham Barrow: Thank you. Let me pick up on both of those questions. I think the reason why I have been successful is because I have a mandate to go wherever I want to and do whatever I want to. I also ought to congratulate Companies House because a lot of what I now know is through the release of its advanced search function, which has transformed our ability to understand networks of suspicious companies.

I really want to emphasise this idea of the network. No criminal ever set up one company. It is just not how it works. They work in networks of companies. At £12 a go, it is probably the cheapest way of organising a criminal network. Of necessity, they leave company DNA behind them. I guess I have a capacity for identifying that DNA and extracting it from the background noise at Companies House.

Your question about offshore entities is really interesting. I came into this five years ago very much thinking about what you have just been talking about—limited partnerships and limited liability partnerships. They feature prominently in a lot of the reporting. I think part of the reason for that is that they are, by and large, a very small subsection of the entirety of what is incorporated in Companies House. Therefore, the focus has been on some of that DNA that is exhibited by LLPs and LPs.

Before now, we have had very few tools that could establish the role of limited companies. To give that some context, since 1 January 2000, about 10 million companies have been incorporated at Companies House, of which about 5 million are still active. The loss rate is very high; it is consistently 50%. Nine and a half million of those companies are limited companies. That is an exceptionally difficult body of data to trawl through to establish suspicious activity.

I think one of the reasons why perhaps some of the stories I now re-tell on social media are novel is simply because we have never been able to extract those signals from the Companies House data before. For whatever reason, I appear to have a brain wired in a particular way that allows me to do that, and I have a very good relationship with Companies House. We share information quite regularly.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Thank you, Graham, for coming to give evidence and for all the work you have been doing on the Companies House register. You have exposed quite a lot of companies that are essentially fake. They do not really exist—they are not real companies. Some of them are set up to imitate existing companies. Can you tell us a bit more about the extent of that and the scale of the work that the Companies House register will have to undergo to have a register that has integrity?

Graham Barrow: Where do I start? The scale is enormous. Even today, I have been looking—I have a company that tracks new company registrations. I can tell you that 20 or 30 companies have been set up in Leeds and in Birmingham today that have used real peoples’ names and addresses, some of them for the fifth, sixth or seventh time. One gentleman is 92 years old and has just had his name used for a second time. It is an absolute scandal what is going on. I would say that at least 1,000 people every week have their names used as directors on companies without their knowledge or permission. You are talking about potentially 50,000 people a year. It is on an unimaginable and wholly unreported scale.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Presumably very little of that gets picked up by way of an offence. It is an offence to make a false filing to Companies House.

Graham Barrow: No, and there are a whole range of reasons why, one of which is that you would need to identify the problem in the first place in order to understand that it is an offence. How do you deal with thousands of weekly company registrations that are clearly breaching the false declaration rules? It would overwhelm you. I think one of the conversations we probably need to have is that you are not going to address the problem instantly.

One of the things that will happen when this legislation is enacted—and I am massively supportive of it—is that company registrations will fall off a cliff to begin with. At this point, I do not think people realise just how many registrations currently would just not go ahead because it is not worth meeting, or they will not meet, those requirements. Will it have an economic impact? Absolutely not, because none of them were ever set up to do anything commercially relevant in the first place. I would not worry about it, but I do worry that the reaction to potentially a 30% or 40% drop in company registrations may force people to start rethinking the tenets of this, but they should not. I do not think you will see any economic consequences.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Are there additional measures in the Bill that you think would be useful to shut that door on new companies?

Graham Barrow: I think there have been a couple of opportunities missed. You have been talking about PSCs, but what I have not heard yet is the fact that there is no minimum age to be a PSC. That is an issue, because you can be a shareholder and PSC at the age of zero. I do not know how you going enforce the identification verification for somebody who has absolutely no documentation. I do not see that addressed in the Bill. That is my first point. Secondly, I see nothing in the Bill to address statements of capital. I think that is problematic. At the moment the record is held by a gentleman from Equatorial Guinea who registered a company with £670 trillion of capital. That is a pretty neat trick, because that is 10 times the global GDP.

The other one that worries me, and this is something that I would like to talk about, is burner companies. That is a phrase that I have come up with; it means companies that start out with no long-term use whatsoever. There are elements within the Bill that allow grace days for conforming with requirements. If you are a burner company, it is fantastic because you have no intention of conforming. All you need, effectively, is to get that registration document to do whatever it is you want to do with it—and there are a range of things that you might what to do with it—and then you have no further use for it. Allowing grace days for conformance is potentially problematic. Those are my top three. I am not going go down the route of allowing CSPs—that has been done to death. It is obvious that it is a difficulty because you have no history of assertive regulation outside of the FCA and banks. We are aware that has not worked desperately well by the level of fines that are being administered. I think there is a bit of a hit-and-hope model, which in the end is unlikely to translate into any sort of useful outcome.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I have asked for the volume to be increased, because I know that some Members are struggling to hear.

Graham Barrow: I will move my microphone closer.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Fourth sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Fourth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q That is very useful. Finally, the folks from Lloyds bank, and others, described how easy it is to move money through a network of banks and then consolidate it into a final bank, from which bad people may take their money out. We were worried about the way in which proxies in particular could be used by bad people to help with this kind of mechanism. In the Bill, we have a definition of “person with significant control”, which is someone with about 25%. Is that too high?

Angela Foyle: It is based on the Financial Action Task Force standards on beneficial ownership, which looks to people who own 25% or more, in some cases, or more than 25% in others. It is one of those challenging issues because, in relation to things such as proxies, often it is not the about the levels that a person owns, it is the fact that x purports to be the person who holds it, when actually they actually do so on behalf on y, which can be very difficult to track through.

Many people look below 25% in any event just to make sure. Particularly with sanctions, they will have a look there. But 25% is a global norm and changing it might cause other challenges. This is the question: are you satisfied that you understand who the people that you are dealing with are, and who is behind them, at all times? It is not necessarily a question of whether it should be 20%, 5% or 25%. It is a hard one for me to answer because I work with 25%, but I will generally have a good look around to see what else there is.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

Q In your evidence to the Committee, you said that you wanted Ministers to amend the legislation to ensure that accountancy firms are in the scope for indirect information-sharing provisions. Will you tell us a bit more about why that is important?

Mike Miller: Indirect information provision essentially relates to a third-party database which would allow the easier sharing of information between financial firms. The ones that are already mentioned include banks, crypto exchanges and various different entities that could be privy to malicious financial movements, essentially. The accountancy sector has not been included in that, so for the purposes of a lot of the work that we are doing about the open sharing of information with law enforcement, between bodies, between other firms, it would be helpful for the streamlined moving of information. It would certainly help accountancy firms to identify more quickly, and thus reduce the likelihood of, any bad transactions taking place. An accountancy firm could avoid getting embroiled in things it does not wish to get embroiled in if it had pre-emptive access to any intelligence—that may have been discovered by a bank, for example, looking in more detail at specific financial transactions than accountancy firms tend to—that indicated that it should not be doing business with particular entities.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Thank you, that is useful. As one of the organisations under the OPBAS umbrella, how do you feel that is going with anti-money laundering supervision because there has been some criticism of that regime and its efficacy? Looking at the 2019-20 figures, I understand that you cancelled 10 memberships and issued 39 fines totalling £117,000 to members. What does that stand at now, and is it an effective deterrent?

Mike Miller: I do not have the up-to-date figure with me today, but I can come back to the Committee with that in writing. Generally, in OPBAS, we are obviously very supportive on the need to have professional bodies for oversight of regulation for anti-money laundering. There is obviously a Treasury consultation going on into the potential restructuring of OPBAS. We have been working closely with it to ensure that our members are represented, but also so that it will be the most effective oversight that it can be.

ICAEW is the largest supervisory body in that space. We are very proactive in taking a risk-based approach. We cover a lot of firms, and it is necessary that a lot of those inspections are carried out based on where we assume there is a higher level of risk of illicit financial transactions. Whether that should be changed is obviously something that we will come back to in the consultation.

We have been speaking regularly to Treasury and other groups. They are collecting intelligence to try to determine, I think, some concrete proposals before they put it out to consultation, but we are very supportive of OPBAS. We continue to work closely with it and have a strong supervisory body in place for the PBSs.

James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Under the Bill exemptions from the main money-laundering offences would apply in two sets of circumstances. One is when a regulated business ends a business relationship with a client or customer and hands over property worth less than £1,000 for that purpose. The second is where a regulated business is dealing with property for a client or customer and prevents access to property of equivalent worth. Do you have any view on those exemptions and how they would potentially affect your profession?

Angela Foyle: I am not so sure the first one will affect us, at £1,000. The second one may facilitate certain activities for our insolvency practitioners, particularly where they are appointed in circumstances where they know that there has been some form of fraud—be that tax fraud or what is often called “fresh air invoicing” or invoice discounting fraud, where there is a set amount of money that is known to be tainted—because, currently, all of the assets of the insolvent entity can often be tainted, and defence against money laundering applications have to be made for each and every transaction done. By having that, they will be able to ringfence certain amounts that they know to be tainted—they would obviously do investigations to ensure that they have got that amount correct—and then deal more quickly with creditors and others with the remainder of the funds. In that sense, we certainly welcome that amendment. It is one that we raised with the Home Office, alongside the banks and, I believe, the Prison Service may have wanted it as well.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q To be a bit more specific, what more do you suggest should be in the Bill?

Peter Swabey: For me, it should reference the role of the company secretary. I have a slightly wider issue than that. The Companies Act 2006 got rid of the requirement for a company secretary in all companies. That was deregulatory—that was fine—but we now rely much more on the reporting that companies do and the filings that companies make, so I believe there should be a requirement for a company secretary, not just in public companies, as there is now, but in larger private companies that also have to meet some of these requirements.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q We heard earlier about some of the deficiencies in the way that documents are delivered and uploaded to the Companies House website, and how they can be used thereafter. Are there practical improvements that could be made to improve that situation, both at your end of the process, in the filing, and for the use of those documents at the other end of the process?

Peter Swabey: Yes, I think there are. We have regular engagement with Companies House and that is one of the things that it is seeking to tackle already, but will also seek to tackle through the powers and resources that it will hopefully get as a result of the Bill. It would great if everything that has to be filed at Companies House can be filed electronically. There are still a number of things that cannot be. Again, that may be changed as a result of the changes that Companies House are making to their system but, as we stand at the moment, there are things that cannot be filed electronically.

In terms of use, there is a question that companies sometimes get feedback on from shareholders, which is on the availability of information, particularly about retail shareholders, and particularly for those companies that have large registers of members. Individuals on this Committee, or me, or whoever—their name and address might be at Companies House in respect of a holding of 100 shares in a company. If it is a big public company with millions and millions of shares, that is probably not that helpful. There are people who buy copies of the register for commercial purposes. It would be quite useful to tighten that up.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q We have heard an awful lot about deficiencies in the register in terms of the information that is on there and the practical difficulties that that causes for companies who wish to interrogate the information for their own due diligence. Is that an issue you have come across?

Peter Swabey: Yes, I think it is. It is an issue in a couple of ways. We just heard about the challenges in correcting deficient information. There are a number of plcs that have reported that their registered office address has been used for companies of whom they have never heard. If you are a plc with a large number of subsidiary companies, that could quite easily be overlooked by people. As somebody said in the last session, that is then used to give credibility to the potentially fraudulent company that is being set up. Being able to fix that more quickly is certainly an advantage.

James Daly Portrait James Daly
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q One of the things we have talked about with every witness—you will probably give a similar answer, Mr Swabey—is that we all want to see Companies House resourced to be able to carry out the requirements in the Bill. One witness this morning made reference to the sheer volume of companies and legal entities that are registered at Companies House on a daily basis. If one of the consequences of the Bill is that registration at Companies House takes longer because people have to go through the regulations and comply with other duties, is there any consequence to that?

Peter Swabey: I think it makes it a little more difficult for some people. I am a company secretary, so I would argue that you simply have to plan it all a bit better, and perhaps think about some of that a little more in advance. It will mean that some corporate transactions that you can currently deal with very quickly by simply having a meeting in a room and agreeing that so-and-so and so-and-so are the new directors will now have to go through a process. We are all hoping that, as promised, Companies House will manage the verification process for new directors expeditiously so that that will not hold things up unduly, but it is an additional factor to bear in mind.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much, Ms Belton, for joining us to give evidence today, and thank you for all you do as well. In terms of the scale of economic crime and how much needs to happen nationally and internationally, what gaps do you see in the legislation as it currently stands that stop the UK from being able to tackle economic crime on the scale that we need to?

Catherine Belton: There is a very simple answer to this, though I should basically preface all my answers by saying that I am not an expert on the Bill like some of my colleagues, such as Oliver Bullough. I have not studied it deeply, but what I can speak to is the urgency of these reforms, because of the threat posed to our national security. There is also a dire need to push through the anti-SLAPP legislation.

All these deep-pocketed oligarchs are essentially taking advantage of our system and are able to outspend not just journalists but financial watchdogs acting in the public interest. They are outspent and intimidated out of pursuing any real investigation into financial misconduct. They know from the outset that they may lose.

You only have to look at the example of the Serious Fraud Office and its battle against ENRC, which was once listed on the London stock exchange, then delisted and owned by a trio of Kazakh fraudsters essentially. The amount they spent annually on legal cases in the UK was £89 million, which is over the annual budget of the Serious Fraud Office. Though the Bill is of dire importance, without greater spending and funding for our public watchdogs—the National Crime Agency, Serious Fraud Office and other entities—we are going to be stymied from the get-go.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Thank you very much, Catherine. Could you tell us a bit more about why the UK has become the destination of choice for people wishing to use corporate structures for money laundering and other purposes? Could you tell us about the impact that has internationally?

Catherine Belton: The UK, like many other countries, has welcomed capital from places such as Russia with open arms for the past 20 years. It is certainly a place that Russian oligarchs have flocked to, not only because they want to be part of the UK establishment but because they have clearly taken advantage of our lax legislation and regulation compared with the US, for instance. If you are listing a company in the US you face the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations, and you have committed a crime if you are found to have lied on your financial disclosures. Here, there seem to be so many loopholes; people can get away with everything.

We only have to look at our Companies House institution to see that there is very little scrutiny of filings that people are making. We have all heard the obvious examples of people not disclosing anything. I think you are a great expert in the use of limited liability partnerships by Russian money launderers. UK LLPs have seen tens of billions of dollars’ worth of illicit Russian cash move through them over the last decade or so.

Most of those money laundering schemes have been overseen by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. It has a money laundering department called Department K, which has overseen all those schemes and has had an involvement in each and every one of them. I am told by security officials in Moldova—where one scheme used LLPs to move tens of billions of dollars of cash into the UK—that essentially the schemes are used not just by Russians seeking to move money to evade customs and tax, but by the Russian Federal Security Service itself, because it sees the greater flows of cash as cover for it to move its strategic cash into our jurisdiction.

I must again point to the need for SLAPP legislation and ask whether that could, or should, be attached to the economic crime Bill as it stands. If we do not enable journalists and financial watchdogs to look at those entities without fear of getting crushed by enormous lawsuits that will cost more than anyone’s budget allows, then we are going to be open to this type of abuse of our system forever. It was only July when Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, finally and wonderfully—it seemed like a miracle at the time—forwarded that anti-SLAPP legislation. It was going to allow for an early dismissal mechanism for cases that were clearly an abuse of the law, and aimed at intimidating journalists and financial watchdogs out of reporting matters of public interest—whether financial misconduct or something else. There has been a great deal of turmoil in Government since then, but we are seeing that SLAPP cases have very much not gone away.

The esteemed Chatham House think-tank recently had to remove the mere mention of a Tory donor, who had previously been convicted of money laundering, from a report on the abuses of the UK system by kleptocrats. The past of our Tory donors is something that we should know about, yet Chatham House had to erase its mention of that donor from its report. Staff looked into how much it was going to cost to defend, even though it was clearly public interest reporting. There was not really much to dispute about it, but they found it was going to cost them £500,000 before the case even got to trial, which means there is something so deeply wrong with our system, and we cannot even begin to combat any of these issues without having these anti-SLAPP measures in place. That is not just for journalists but for the Serious Fraud Office and for other public interest watchdogs.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q Thank you; that is very helpful. I just wanted to ask about something else. Bill Browder had suggested a sort of “adverse costs” amendment, to prevent law enforcement companies from not being able to afford to take a case against these people. Would you support that?

Catherine Belton: Yes, for sure. Obviously, the companies pursuing these abusive cases should face having to carry the full cost of the case. I have a colleague at the Foreign Policy Centre, Susan Coughtrie, and she and Charlie Holt of English PEN have been working on a new Bill for this SLAPP reform, and I very much recommend that you speak to them as well. That Bill would provide even tougher requirements for cases to really show a likelihood of success.

What the Ministry of Justice proposed was like a three-step set of criteria for judges deciding whether a SLAPP case is a SLAPP case, and whether it should be dismissed before the costs racked up too highly. One of those criteria was whether the case being pursued had a realistic chance of success and it is very clear that this type of criterion needs to be toughened up. I certainly recommend that you speak to Susan Coughtrie at the Foreign Policy Centre about ways in which to do that.

However, I guess that my question to you would be: “Do you think there is a significant possibility that the anti-SLAPP Bill could be attached to the Economic Crime Bill? Is that something that will this speed up?” It is so vitally needed—more than ever. I mean, it is completely—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Catherine, I am really sorry to interrupt you—

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I think my colleagues and I are interested in hearing this.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On the attractiveness of the UK, you have mentioned enforcement, but from your research in this area, what would you highlight as being the weakest points in enforcement?

Professor Jason Sharman: The UK has a combination of a good reputation and lax enforcement. From the point of view of a launderer, that is a bonus: you get double. You get the appearance of probity—other people have mentioned the use of UK companies to open foreign bank accounts—with not much scrutiny and even less enforcement. Transparency is all good and well, but more information by itself does not lead to stronger action against money launderers or corrupt officials.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q There has been a lot of discussion about anti-money laundering supervision, and the effectiveness of the agencies that the Government expect to carry out those duties. Are they the weakest link in the chain, and could more be done to tighten up that anti-money laundering supervision, to shut the door, and to stop these companies from beginning their business here?

Professor Jason Sharman: There is certainly more that could be done. Some of it has been mentioned by other people; more money is the obvious one, but that may be necessary but not sufficient. In some ways, the career structure and career incentives for people who work in these agencies needs reviewing: if they start an investigation and it goes well, they get a small bonus to their career. If they start an investigation and it goes badly, they get a very big, indelible black mark, so in terms of career progression, it is safer for them not to investigate things.

One of the main sources of support has not been fully used: there are a lot of people outside the formal enforcement agencies who are very keen to help in this cause, including journalists and those in non-governmental organisations, as well as in the for-profit sector. That potential has not been tapped, so there are certainly things that the Government and the state could and should do, particularly in terms of regulatory agencies; but the area where I think it is possible to make most progress is probably beyond that.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q That makes sense. Certainly, there have been lots of times when I have been in rooms with a group of people who have solutions to tackle this, and Government should be doing more to make sure that they are listened to. Could I ask about the abuse of limited partnerships, secrecy jurisdictions and things like that? Could more be done to tighten up those rules? It feels as though there is an awful lot of abuse of those corporate structures, and very little scrutiny.

Professor Jason Sharman: It depends what you mean by “secrecy jurisdiction”. A person who has studied this for a long time said this: “People are not surprised when I tell them that the most important tax haven in the world is an island. People are surprised when they hear that the name of that island is Manhattan. People are not surprised to hear that the second largest tax haven is a city on an island. The city is London, and the island is Great Britain.”

We recently formed a shell company with co-authors Michael Findley and Dan Nielson in the United States. It took 137 seconds to incorporate that company. Here, it would probably take you a little longer—it might take you as long as 10 minutes—but you do not really have to show ID in any case, so the barriers are pretty low. If you do not want to use anything as fancy as a limited liability partnership, you can just use a plain old company, and that works pretty well for holding a bank account overseas.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Q The Government have talked up the benefits of being able to incorporate companies fast. Do you think there needs to be a bit more grit in the system to allow for scrutiny, rather than speed?

Professor Jason Sharman: I think so. For me, it is telling that in jurisdictions for which incorporations are their lifeblood, such as the British Virgin Islands, it is much slower to incorporate. It takes close to two weeks to incorporate in the British Virgin Islands, and it takes about $1,000. The British Virgin Islands get half of their Government revenue from incorporation fees. They have a real interest in making sure their company registry works well. No one likes red tape and filling out forms, but the idea that you might have to spend a couple of hours instead of 15 minutes, or £50 instead of £12 is, to me, not unreasonable.

James Daly Portrait James Daly
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for that, Jason. You have given an example already, but I was wondering about the international context. We have Companies House. Can you give me an example of the equivalent in European countries or America and the difference you perceive between our Companies House and theirs?

Professor Jason Sharman: I feel sorry for British Companies House, because it has been given a lot of work without the resources to carry it out. The mismatch between what is expected of an institution and the resources it has to achieve those ends is greater. Company registries are passive, archival organisations.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Fifth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On this occasion, having heard what the Minister has said, I think that this is an ongoing debate. We will want to have some further discussion and perhaps come back to the issue on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move amendment 71, in clause 1, page 2, line 10, at end insert—

“(4) The Secretary of State must ensure that the registrar has sufficient resources to fulfil the objectives set by subsection (3).”

This amendment would require Companies House to be properly resourced in line with its new responsibilities.

Much like with the previous amendment, it seemed sensible to bring things to the attention of the Government right at the very start of the Bill, because matters can get diluted over time. If we put this issue front and centre of the Bill, and say that the Secretary of State must ensure that the registrar has sufficient resources to fulfil the objectives set by subsection (3), that puts an obligation on the Government, and on future Governments, to follow through on the recommendations regarding the very worthy legislation in the Bill.

We heard a lot of evidence about earlier legislation. I served in Committee on some of it, such as in the evidence sessions for the Joint Committee on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, and in Committee for the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Over the years, there has been much legislation, but, as Bill Browder said in his evidence, without any enforcement of that legislation, and without the resources to ensure it is followed through, the Government can write as much law as they like but it does not actually matter.

We want to see resources put front and centre of the Bill, right up there at the start, and to hold future Governments to the important principle of funding this work. If the registrar is not funded to carry out the work it is being given to do, it just will not do that work. That has been the evidence of Companies House over many years. If it is not funded as well as empowered to do the work, it seems very unlikely that it will complete the tasks that the Government and all of us in this room expect of it. I therefore think the amendment is important and urge the Minister to accept it.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The amendment tabled by our SNP colleagues would amend clause 1 to require the Secretary of State to ensure that Companies House is adequately resourced to achieve its objectives. I raised the matter on Second Reading, and I am sure we will come back to it.

On Second Reading, the Minister himself talked about legislation with implementation, and I am sure that he will have some sympathy for the sentiments of the amendment. As Jonathan Hall said in his evidence:

“The one thing that I think would make all the difference would be to resource Companies House.”––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 25 October 2022; c. 34, Q70.]

We support the principle of the amendment, but we are looking to address the same issue in our new clause 26, which we will discuss later. It is right to put the issue on the radar today and have it on there as we proceed through Committee. I look forward to coming back to further discussions on how we ensure that Companies House is adequately resourced.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Robertson. I think it is wrong to put a figure in the Bill. Do I believe that Companies House should be properly resourced? Absolutely, but we need to ensure that that happens through this process and through Companies House’s plan. I can reassure the hon. Lady on one thing: Companies House is supposed to get paid by the fees that it collects to cover its activities. It is not like the Treasury, which goes and nicks some of the money. It does not want that to become a tax; the organisation is funded by its fees. I think we would all agree to ensure that it is self-funded to the level that it needs to properly deliver on its duties. For all those reasons, I hope the hon. Member will withdraw her amendment.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I would like to press the amendment to a vote because it does not set a figure or commit the Government to any particular sum of money, but guards against the under-resourcing that has plagued Companies House for many years. According to openDemocracy, economic crime costs the UK £290 billion a year, whereas Spotlight on Corruption tells us that the Government spend only £852 million on enforcement, or 0.042% of GDP. A lot more needs to be done. I am not committing the Government to any figure whatsoever, but the amendment would ensure that the register has the resources to fulfil its objectives. It is a simple and neat amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clause 2 is important, and we have no concerns with it at all. It amends section 8 of the Companies Act 2006 to state that, for individuals, “name” means a forename and surname, and it goes into further detail. It is another example of an area where it is extremely surprising that our system has lasted for so long while being so feeble in the extent of the information it requires of company subscribers. Subscribers are initial shareholders in the company when it was set up: those who sign the important memorandum of association in forming the company.

Currently, information about subscribers is extremely limited, and there is no verification or definition of what constitutes a subscriber’s name. That relates to the deeper issue, to which we will continue to refer in Committee, around the transparency of shareholders. Alongside our discussions of directors and officials, we must ensure that we keep shareholder transparency very much centre stage. Not having clear names affects the reliability of the subscriber information held by Companies House.

We welcome the clarity provided by clause 2, but we believe that the Bill could go further in requiring information from company subscribers. That is why we tabled amendment 85, which would insert a new provision that would require the memorandum on company subscribers to include the nationality of each company subscriber and the country in which the subscriber is ordinarily resident. Without that information, which should be verifiable, the formation of a company that registers with Companies House could be questioned by the registrar.

Transparency International has remarked that the UK has a terrible reputation as a hub for dirty money. That is something we do not even need to keep saying, because we are so used to hearing it. That is exacerbated and enabled by a lack of transparency about those who own and control UK-registered companies. If the Bill is to fulfil its ambition of clamping down on dirty money flowing through our economy, the Minister should support the amendment, which would provide that greater transparency and scrutiny of who owns companies registered with Companies House. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I rise to support this useful amendment. It is fundamentally about enhancing the transparency of the register and what we know about the people on the register. It is also about tracing control: who owns what and where they happen to be. That is useful. Those are things that the Bill should look to fix. The Bill is about putting right things that are not quite right. The amendment adds to the richness of the information that is available to people. It seems perfectly logical that the Minister should support it.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I can see the officials writing like mad. I am sure that they will have picked up on that. I am happy to look at this as well. I reassure the Committee that the affirmative procedure is required, so that we can ensure sufficient scrutiny of exemptions from the obligation on directors to verify their identity, and so that Members can see why those exemptions are proposed.

We will come to other identity verification clauses later in Committee, but I am confident that Members will agree that clause 5 is vital. It improves the accuracy and integrity of the companies register by allowing the registrar to refuse incorporation of a company if the directors are neither ID-verified nor exempt from the requirement to be ID-verified.

Clause 6 requires a company’s subscribers to provide a statement when an application to register a company is filed confirming that none of its proposed directors is disqualified or ineligible to be a director. Disqualified or ineligible people include undischarged bankrupts and individuals subject to asset freezes. The clause allows a registrar to reject an application to register a company if a proposed director is disqualified or ineligible for appointment. The registrar’s rejection prevents the company from being formed. If the statement confirms that a proposed director who is disqualified has received a court’s permission to act, the registrar will accept the registration. The clause helps to ensure that disqualified and ineligible directors do not make it on to the companies register.

Clause 7 requires that applications to register a company include a statement that none of the people with initial significant control is a disqualified director. People with initial significant control are individuals or legal entities that will own or control the company once it is registered. The clause will ensure that the registrar has the necessary information and power to reject an application if the person with initial significant control is a disqualified director.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

This is about new registrations. Will the registrar go back through the Companies House records to find people who may still be on the register but ought not to be, because they have been disqualified?

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We support clause 9. We recognise that it amends the Companies Act to give the Secretary of State the ability to prevent registration of a company if they think the name of that company is intended to facilitate dishonesty or deception. Companies House deals with up to 100 cases of corporate identity theft every month, and given that this form of fraud and others are starting to become more prevalent, it is right that there be these new powers to prevent registration, stemming—we hope—the flow of new fraudulent registrations. An incredible amount of distress arises from the impact of that dishonesty and deception.

Clause 10 inserts into the Companies Act a new section prohibiting company names falsely connected to foreign Governments and international organisations, and the Minister has spoken about why that section is important. It gives the Secretary of State the ability to prevent the registration of a company with a proposed name that, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, suggests a connection with a foreign Government, its offshoots or international bodies where none actually exists. As has been mentioned, that could be the UN or NATO, or any other body. Of course, we support the principle behind that measure, but in the interests of transparency about the use of that power, could the Minister clarify whether, when the Secretary of State is asked to make a judgment in such a situation, he expects that the judgment will be publicly shared—that, for example, Companies House might report on the uses of that power as part of its reporting?

I also want to clarify how the power will be used. When a company is formed that the Companies House registrar suspects is not actually connected with a foreign Government or other international body, but looks like it might be, will the registrar have a duty to flag such instances with the Secretary of State? That is important, because it comes back to the question of the proactiveness of the registrar’s duties, so it would be helpful to clarify it. What about the scenario where an attempt is made to register a company with a proposed name that, were it to be raised, would go through that process and very correctly be stopped by the Secretary of State, but it is not picked up by Companies House? If that situation arose for any reason—it could be new staff, or it could be the pressure of time because of insufficient resources; mistakes can be made in those circumstances—could a third party then apply for the name of that company to be changed? How would that work if it were an international organisation?

If uses of the power were reported by Companies House, would we be able to search and see that a number of people had sought to set up a company called United Nations Associates, or something like that? Would we be able to have a sense of how Companies House is perhaps being used in that way?

Should a company that has had its name changed by direction of the Secretary of State continue to seek to trade under that company name—perhaps in an overseas jurisdiction, if the name is falsely connected with foreign Governments—it would be helpful to clarify what measures could be taken, and by whom, to seek to put an end to that. There may be an obvious answer.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I want to highlight again to the Minister the issues in these clauses that Graham Barrow raised in the excellent evidence that he gave to the Committee last week. He said:

“The Bill does include the ability for Companies House to reject similar names, but if you have 3,000 companies a day—and that extends to companies across the world that may have similarities—I do not see how you are going to enforce that reasonably. There is just too much volume and too many potential comparative data points to compare them to.”

His suggestion was that the system needs to have

“a little bit of friction”.––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 27 October 2022; c. 109, Q204.]

Instead of Companies House turning around an application in less than 24 hours, a little bit of time should be taken to assess and analyse it.

The human element of this process is also important. Some of it may be possible to achieve with clever computer algorithms to sift out any companies whose names are too similar to existing ones, but there needs to be human judgment as well. This goes to the point of Companies House resourcing and staff being able to understand what they see in front of them. That will take expertise and long-term knowledge, not only of the company in front of them but of the existing companies on the register—and they are there in their millions.

I will address a point that has not really been raised before about clause 11 and names containing computer code. When these kinds of things come up, I reach for the expertise that I have pretty much at hand. I went to my husband and asked him about this, because it is his profession—he is a computer coder by trade—so I thank Mr Joe Wright for his assistance. I said, “Is this really a problem, and what does it actually mean?” My understanding is that the clause is to guard against SQL injection into the Companies House register, because anyone pulling that out of the register can have their systems corrupted by companies that register with computer code.

My husband directed me to a very useful article, which people should have a wee look at, by Neil Brown on decoded.legal that looks into this in some detail. A company has been registered using computer code. It was registered under the name ; DROP TABLE "COMPANIES";-- LTD, which has some computer code around it. Dr Michael Tandy registered that company name, but Companies House did not publish the name on its register; it said that the name was available on request. Can the Minister clarify whether the clause will deal with that specific case, or whether it is broader than that?

The article by Neil Brown raises some questions. What exactly would be prohibited? The Bill does not define computer code; it prohibits the use of names that

“in the opinion of the Secretary of State”

are computer code. I do not know whether the Minister knows his SQL from his JavaScript, but that seems like a big judgment and responsibility to put on Government Ministers. In its very essence, computer code is just an instruction to a computer, and that instruction can be in plain English text as well. Can the Minister tell us exactly how this will be assessed and what systems will be put in place at Companies House to define what computer code is, in practice? That, again, comes down to the human element—someone understanding exactly what is in front of them.

I urge the Minister to give a wee bit more clarity about what is code, what is not code and what exactly the clause is intended to catch. There are such companies on the Companies House register, and because code can be in text that we would understand—rather than a series of numbers, letters and symbols—it might be more difficult to enforce this. I would be grateful if the Minister could help us understand a wee bit better how the Secretary of State’s complete discretion to define what is and what is not computer code will be used in practice.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Sixth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This important amendment seeks to clarify the Bill’s definition of an appropriate address for a company’s registration. We have talked many times, both in this Committee and elsewhere, about red flags in company formation and registration. It must be an overriding aim of the Bill to ensure that any indicators of suspicious activity can be swiftly and easily identified in order to ensure that the appropriate investigations and, where necessary, enforcement actions are carried out at the earliest possible opportunity.

One thing is glaringly obvious from the many recent reports on how criminals are able to exploit weaknesses in the company registration system. The widespread, unchecked use of false addresses for criminal purposes is surely one of the most urgent problems for the Bill to address. In evidence to the Committee last week, there was a high degree of consensus from all our witnesses that the fraudulent use of addresses is among the most serious problem within the current register.

Bill Browder provided a cogent summary of the issue. I will not quote him in his New York accent, but I am sure you can imagine it. He said,

“This whole post-box idea just lends itself to anonymity and so on. Why do people not just register their companies at their own home or their own business address if there is a legit company? What is this business with 2,000 companies in one strange industrial park in Glasgow?”––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 25 October 2022; c. 74, Q152.]

Though all due respect to SNP colleagues—I am quoting, Ms Bardell, please don’t shoot the messenger!

It is now a well-established fact that there can be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of different companies registered to a single address. It is hard to think of a more obvious red flag. Ensuring that Companies House can more quickly and easily identify and investigate specific addresses used illegitimately by multiple companies is a vital prerequisite for better enforcement of laws on economic crime.

There are other fairly basic steps that the Government could take to tighten up rules on the kinds of addresses companies can provide as part of the registration process. Amendment 86 provides some specific examples of how that could be done. We hope that the amendment can serve as a starting point for efforts to ensure a much more rigorous set of registration requirements than those currently in place. An obvious place to start is to tackle the apparent overuse of PO box addresses. They have been linked with fraud and other criminal activity in several high-profile cases highlighted in recent media reports.

The FinCEN files also provide evidence of the scale of the problem in the UK. In its February 2022 report on economic crime, the Treasury Committee also described how PO boxes provide many criminal enterprises with a highly convenient way to establish a front for illicit activities while making detection and tracing of those involved much more of a challenge for law enforcement. Amendment 86 would seek to tackle the issue by establishing a general presumption against allowing companies to designate PO box addresses when registering, while leaving open the possibility for exceptions to be made in some cases where there may be legitimate reasons to do so.

Our amendment also goes further by introducing a general requirement for companies to provide a UK address where it actually conducts its business on a regular basis. The absence of such a requirement under the current rules makes it much easier to obscure the true purpose of a company and much harder for law enforcement to trace that and control it.

In part 2 of the Bill, the Government are seeking to strengthen requirements for limited partnerships to provide an address that is its principal place of business in the UK. The Opposition welcome that approach and believe that it could and should be applied more broadly. Therefore, amendment 86 proposes that the address requirement for all companies should be brought closer in line with those of limited partnerships under part 2, as proposed by the Government.

The amendments are all designed with our shared aims and values at heart. I hope that the Minister will take time to reflect and consider their worth.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Aberavon, and that tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking, because a lot more needs to be done to regulate what is an appropriate address and to verify it in the real world.

In his evidence, Graham Barrow mentioned a 92-year-old gentleman whose name has just been used by scammers for a second time. People fraudulently use names and addresses that belong to real people to set up companies and those people have no idea that their names have been abused. Graham Barrow also highlighted a piece on “You and Yours” on Radio 4 where a lady who had had Asda Limited registered to her terraced house in Huddersfield received 7 kg of post, and all kinds of other threats from bailiffs and others who turned up at her door. That goes to show how the current system is not working. I seek to be reassured by the Minister that the proposed clauses will be sufficient to deal with the problem.

Over many years I have been familiar with problems associated with Scottish limited partnerships—SLPs. The Ferret reported in October 2021 about a company named The Edinburgh Office—a company formation, agent-type of business—which had registered 2,000 companies at their registered address of 101 Rose Street South Lane in Edinburgh—there are no such things in Glasgow, obviously, but these things happen in Edinburgh. Perhaps they do not happen in Aberavon, but they happen in many, many places around the country. Such companies hide behind mailbox addresses. Many of them were at best iffy, others involved outright criminality and all kinds of nefarious activities.

There was a photograph in The Ferret article—I cannot pass it on to include in Hansard—which showed a boarded-up building. That should be a red flag: 2,000 companies registered to a boarded-up building that does not look like a working building at all, but those companies were allowed to carry on their business. I do not know whether the clauses will make a real difference and people will be empowered to check whether those addresses exist in the real world and are being used.

There is also the issue of companies abusing actual companies’ real addresses too. David Leask and Richard Smith, who have been excellent investigative journalists, taking Scottish limited partnerships to task for many years, reported in The Times back in April this year that an SLP in the name of Alexey Krapivin called Clover Consulting Partners gave its listed address as that of the Edinburgh legal firm Burness Paull. Burness Paull said that it knew nothing about it. Clearly, it had been receiving mail, so I do not know the extent to which it checks such things, after receiving mail for a company that does not exist. In any event, it ceased to offer services for company formation to companies of that kind back in 2018.

This company had been using Burness Paull’s address with absolute impunity, and it was not new to dodging the Companies House rules. The company was formed in 2005 and made no meaningful filings to Companies House until it was forced to register a person of significant control in 2017. That was 12 years of non-compliance with the existing Companies House rules, yet there was no comeback on that. I seek from the Minister provisions in the clauses around enforcement, which is not happening under the current rules. I need to be convinced by him that it will happen under the rules that he is laying out.

The clauses talk about fines on a standard scale, and all those kinds of things. Those fines are not even being issued. I have asked parliamentary questions about that. Since the rules came into force only one Scottish limited partnership has been fined for failing to register a person of significant control, and that fine was £210—nothing, in the scheme of things. I ask the Minister whether the rules will be enforced. Will addresses be checked, to ensure that they are real businesses, carrying out real work, with real companies and real people? If not, will he accept the amendment, which goes some way to ensuring that the companies exist at the addresses that they say they do. Without boots on the ground to check such things, it does not matter whether we set it up in Aberavon, Glasgow or Edinburgh; nobody will know that it is not true.

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Let me turn to amendment 86. I fully support the motivation behind ensuring that such addresses are always appropriate. Clause 28 introduces a revision to section 86 of the Companies Act 2006 to better define what constitutes an acceptable and effective address. Hon. Members will be pleased to note that the definition already prevents companies from registering with PO boxes, which is an aim of this amendment. A PO box would not satisfy the requirement to reassure the sender that their delivery would reach the hands of a company representative, and it would certainly not be capable of acknowledging delivery.
Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

What happens to all the companies that currently have a PO box, and how long do they have to comply with this measure?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As for the period of compliance, we will let hon. Member know. There is a huge volume of records. We want Companies House to be more proactive. We do not want it to be swamped by information being supplied to it all at once. We need to make sure that the commencement order is carried out sensibly. Red flags could well be applied to a company address that has many other companies attached to it. If a company had registered multiple company directors or persons of significant control or had recognised multiple companies at one particular address, that should be the kind of red flag that, following a risk-based approach, would require checks and balances to be put in place. Those companies would be struck off the register and other actions would be taken against the individuals.

The new definition in clause 28 negates the need to include the reasonable suspicion element of amendment 86. Where the registrar, informed by the intelligence and information available to her, has reasonable grounds to suspect that the company does not have permission to use the address, she may come to the view that in the ordinary course of events, the appropriate address conditions will not be met. The registrar will then either reject it or change it according to the circumstances.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Seventh sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister; I think he has just provided clarification that he is confident that there is now a ban on the use of nominee directors as a front to obscure true beneficial ownership. We are grateful for that absolute reassurance. There was perhaps a misunderstanding on our side of some of the technicalities in the Bill that I am seeking to probe, so I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification.

It is worth noting that the World Bank published a report just a few months ago that explained how, under current UK law, nominee directors of UK companies can neglect their duties by failing to submit accounts and certify companies as dormant, even though tens of millions of pounds are passing through those accounts. A crucial point is that the impunity of delinquent nominee directors is especially pronounced if such nominees are not UK residents. On the rare occasions that they are questioned, such directors tend to make the legally false argument that because they are only nominees they have no responsibility to know anything about the company, let alone control its actions.

The lack of progress on this issue—certainly until the Bill’s introduction—has raised concerns with us. Again, perhaps the Minister will say a little more about the Government’s thinking. What does he think has been the impact of not implementing the regulations from the 2015 Act? Can he reassure us with absolute confidence that the issue of delinquent nominee directors will be eradicated by the passing of the Bill?

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point about nominee directors. Is he aware of a “File on 4” programme —I believe it was aired last year—about nominee directors being recruited via Facebook groups and paid to take on that role? Is he concerned that it may still be possible to do that? Does the Bill need to do more to clamp down on the recruitment of nominee directors who get some money for taking on that role?

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point and illustrates the absurdity of the situation we have got into. There seems to be a “wild west” approach to running corporate affairs in the UK and it is simply not acceptable. I thank her for that intervention and reiterate my hope that the Minister can give us an absolute reassurance that the issue of nominee directorships will be dealt with firmly and clearly in the Bill, without any loopholes. I also hope he will share any other thoughts he may have on the matter.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A change of directorship, yes, but I do not think that is the situation the right hon. Lady was describing. She was talking about a movement of assets, as I understand it. I do not know the detail of the case she is talking about—[Interruption.] May I finish? If she is trying to prevent a person from moving assets around on the basis that Companies House needs to know about that as it is happening, that situation cannot be delivered. Companies can move assets around without asking the permission of Companies House or notifying it, so her amendment does not serve any purpose in that regard.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that any information that Companies House is made aware of and deems to be pointing to some kind of risk should be shared with the relevant agencies. We all agree with that point, and the Bill allows Companies House to do that for the first time. That is what we are trying to facilitate, but directing it to act in a certain way on a certain piece of information will lead us down a million rabbit holes, and we do not have the time or the ability to implement that through the Bill. We have to give it the powers and then let it get on with it while holding it to account against those broader objectives.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

My reading of the amendment is that it relates to a person changing any details relating to any company in the register in the three months prior. One of the red flags that Graham Barrow raised when he gave evidence was companies that switch their name backwards and forwards multiple times within a short space of time. Surely that would be a useful red flag for Companies House to report on, and the amendment would empower it to do that.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That situation would be covered under the Bill because company naming is part of it. That is a different thing from what the right hon. Member for Barking was describing. She was taking about the movement of assets, and Companies House would not have access to that information on a dynamic basis. It clearly would have information on a name or director change, and it can act as it deems appropriate, in terms of notifying authorities or making further enquiries about what the company is doing.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Eighth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister asks a fair question. He is not necessarily stating a cap. Given what has come out in the consultation, and what has been in the articles about whether there should be a cap and what would be right for British companies, it is certainly open to further conversation. It is interesting that in the Government’s consultation many were suggesting between 15 and 25, which is in the ballpark of what has been happening in other countries. The make-up of our economy could be slightly different. We have to understand it in the round, and in the context of our economy, but it is a question of a scale of 400 to 1,000.

If the Minister is saying that there might be a level at which there starts to be a red flag, and implicitly that Companies House may implement the legislation, perhaps Companies House and the registrar will say, “Maybe we’ll just do a procedural check if we have 25-plus directorships.” I do not know. That is where data and analytics help, rather than a ballpark figure. It must be within a considered understanding of how our economy works, and how and where legitimate business is carried out, with a view from directors as well. We might find that it is an easier answer to reach, because it does not have to be one that only we, as Members of Parliament, comment on; it has to be informed.

We are not arguing for a hard cap. We are saying that, as the logic of the SNP amendment outlines, rather than managing on a case-by-case basis, having a way to manage risk structurally and procedurally is an important response to the evidence, the nature of use that we have seen and the situation we find ourselves in today. There is room to learn from the experience of other countries.

Amendment 69 would insert a provision into schedule 2, requiring that:

“On receipt of notification of a person becoming a director, the registrar must allocate that director a unique identification number, unless such a number has already been allocated to that person.”

Amendment 70 follows from that, and would provide penalties for anyone failing to provide their unique identification number to the registrar. We support the spirit of the amendments, but I refer the Committee to our amendments 102 and 103, which we will be speaking to in later debates. Our amendments take a slightly different approach and place a duty on the registrar to give every director a unique identification number, which is published on the registrar’s website. I think that approach is tighter.

I hope in his response that the Minister will be clear about what the registrar is required to do versus what they can do, and what will be and will not be published on the unique identifiers for directors.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I rise to speak to amendments 69, 68 and 70. These are connected amendments to schedule 2. I appreciate the point about clause 66, but we will get to that when we get to it, and we are here now.

The evidence from various witnesses last week, which I have heard over many years, is that the Companies House register is a mess. The amendments seek to tidy it up to some extent. A unique identifier that follows a person all the way through, from becoming a director of a company to perhaps resigning as a director of that company and going on to be a director of a different company at a later stage, would help to trace that person through the Companies House system.

I have mentioned in previous debates that there are three Alison Thewlisses on the Companies House register. They are all me, but they appear three times, and nobody would necessarily know that they are the same person. It would make sense to have a unique identifier attached to me as a person so that people can easily find and trace my history as a company director.

I looked up the Minister on the Companies House register. He is there five times. There are five Kevin Paul Hollinrakes out there in the world. It would be useful for companies doing due diligence or for people seeking to look at somebody’s directorship history if there was only one Kevin Paul Hollinrake on the register and we could see a complete picture of all those registrations over the course of his life and career.

That is the main purpose of the amendments—to make registrations traceable and to make the system easier for users and for me, if I want to be a company director, to provide the correct information. I could say, “I am already a director—here’s my number; just add it on to the previous things I have.”

Amendment 70 seeks to prevent people getting around that system and trying to register themselves perhaps by using their middle name or a different name, as if they were a different person. The unique identifier, once allocated to a person, should always follow that person through the system. If I try to register with my middle name or a married name rather than my maiden name, the system should pick it up. That is often an issue for women in the system. They might look very much like two separate people, with a married name and a maiden name, but they are in fact the same person. That unique identifier within the system would help trace people through, simplifying it for everyone.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady has obviously read clause 66, “Allocation of unique identifiers”, which I think is what she is seeking to achieve. What about that clause does she not like?

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Broadly, I support clause 66. The amendments are not to that clause, but to schedule 2, to tighten it up and to improve it in any way we can. I accept what the Minister says. Labour, too, has an amendment to tighten the provisions, and I dare say I will support that as well, when we get to that stage, because all such amendments are to press the Government to tighten things up and to improve the Bill.

On amendment 68 and the number of directorships held, in evidence we heard Bill Browder suggesting the scenario of a drunk Latvian having their passport taken and being registered as a director in hundreds and hundreds of companies. Bill Browder said rightly:

“Why is it okay to have a person be a director of 400 companies?” ––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 25 October 2022; c. 74, Q151.]

Clearly, that is ridiculous. There is no way that someone could fulfil their obligations as a director if they were the director of 400 companies at once. It would be impractical to suggest that anyone could.

Also, Thomas Mayne said:

“On the point about directors, there certainly should be”

a limit—

“it is crazy that you have these people with 1,000 companies.”––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 25 October; c. 79, Q162.]

It really is.

I do not want to put a specific number in the Bill—that would be something for Companies House and regulations to decide—but we clearly all understand what an excessive number of companies is. Four hundred is excessive and 1,000 is ludicrous. Perhaps the cut-off could be at 20 or 30, although even at that I would struggle to say that someone could make a good job as a company director keeping an eye on all those companies. It is worthwhile looking at the issue, because it is a red flag in the system: if one person is registered to multiple companies, that is a red flag, and it should be something that triggers Companies House to look into them in more detail.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady is making a powerful argument. The Minister asked her what she thought was not sufficient about clause 66. Does she agree that arguing for a unique identifier is about ensuring that it actually happens? The wording of proposed new paragraph (d) in clause 66(2)(c) is to

“confer power on the registrar…to give a person a new unique identifier”.

It is a power, rather than a duty. That seems to be at the heart of the disagreement—is it a power or is it a duty?

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I agree. I do not want to go too far on clause 66, as we have not reached it, but this is about ensuring that something is in the Bill, that it is hard and fast that it happens, rather than having a suggestion, something that the registrar might like to consider, or some kind of “have regard to”. It needs to be there and specified. That is what we are trying to achieve.

Proposed new subsection (3) in amendment 68, on what Companies House should take into account in making its determination under the clause, specifies the “experience, expertise and circumstances” of a director. If someone has long-term experience of running companies that actually existed and have filed accounts, there is something tangible there and then Companies House can say: “Oh yes, that person has 30 directorships, but they are active in all those directorships, and we know what they are.” However, if someone has no active activity that Companies House can fill in, that becomes a red flag under amendment 68. It would give Companies House a degree of discretion. Wherever it might want to put the number is also a factor.

The Minister is trying to suggest that having such a check would be an inhibition to business. I do not believe that, and I am interested to hear what evidence the Minister has to suggest that such a limit on directorships would inhibit businesses in any way. As the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, mentioned, other countries have such a rule. Those restrictions are in place elsewhere around the world, so the comparison would be interesting: do they feel that businesses, directorships and the involvement of people in companies are inhibited by having such a rule? We are proposing a change to the Bill to help Companies House do its job, to help it with the red flags and to give it an action to take once it has seen the red flags and identified them through something such as holding multiple directorships.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Let me quickly respond. The shadow Minister wanted to know the date of the consultation that the three out of four figure came from. It happened between 2019 and February 2021, so it was pretty recent.

The issue of whether there should be a cap and where it should be set has been raised by both hon. Members. We think it is wrong to set a cap. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central asks the interesting question of, “Why do we need all these companies, and why do they need to be registered?” We believe that it is ours not to reason why. We believe in freedom and that people should be allowed to live their lives as they choose. We do not seek to put restrictions on people for no good reason.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will go on. We think there may be a nefarious reason why a person is a director of many companies. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned red flags in her speech, and that is exactly how we see this operating. It may well be that Companies House determine that there is a cap of 20, and when somebody gets to 20 directorships, then they become a risk. It may then look further into what that person is doing and share that information with law enforcement agencies. We would rather leave it to the discretion of the registrar to determine where the red flags should be, rather than impose it through the Committee.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central took the opportunity to google my directorships, and she found that incredibly easy to do. Just type in “Kevin Hollinrake directorships” and it lists all my directorships.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

indicated dissent.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is my name and all my directorships are listed underneath.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

But they are separately listed.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. One at a time.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sure it is on Companies House right now. There are 20 records. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central would maybe say that I cannot be director of any more companies, as I am already director of 20, but I have valid reasons for being directors of all those. I can promise her that none of it was for criminal purposes. The hon. Lady may say there should be a limit, but we think that basically we should leave it to the discretion of Companies House and the registrar to do the right thing—set the red flags where most appropriate and then identify risk and act accordingly.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

The Minister talks about not wanting to look at someone’s motivation for having, say, 400 company directorships. It is really is a case of, “There might be a reason, but we’re not going to ask about it. Why should we?” I think Companies House should be inquisitive about somebody who has 400 directorships, but the Minister is not tasking it to be inquisitive through the legislation. Tasking Companies House to be specifically inquisitive on that point is important, because the Bill does not put a duty on it or give it the right to be inquisitive.

Looking at the Companies House register, it appears that the Minister is listed five separate times—with one appointment, with zero appointments, with one appointment, with another appointment and with 18 appointments. They all appear as separate entries, not as one single person. A unique identifier would seek to grab those entries and put them in one place. That would make more sense. It would make it more traceable. I gave the example of myself being in there three separate times with three separate directorships, which are from very different points in time. If the entries were all in one place, it would be a neater and tidier way of logging them.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Does the Minister wish to speak again? No, okay.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 50 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2

Abolition of certain local registers

Amendment proposed: 69, in schedule 2, page 148, line 40, at end insert—

“167GA Unique identification number for directors

(1) On receipt of notification of a person becoming a director, the registrar must allocate that director a unique identification number, unless such a number has already been allocated to that person.

(2) Any information supplied to the registrar under or by virtue of this Act about a person who has been allocated a unique identification number under subsection (1) must include that number.”—(Alison Thewliss.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

--- Later in debate ---
Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Chair.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I wholeheartedly support Labour’s new clause. There is an awful lot more that needs to be done to tighten up the measure on verification. Nick Van Benschoten, in his evidence, said:

“On the verification measures, one of the key points is that they fall short of minimum industry standards. Verification of identity is necessary but not sufficient. A key thing we have noted is that the Bill does not provide for order-making powers to allow Companies House to verify the status of directors or beneficial owners, and for that sort of requirement on company information agents and so on. That seems an odd gap.”––[Official Report, Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Public Bill Committee, 25 October 2022; c. 7, Q3.]

I wholeheartedly agree with that. It is the key part of the Bill. If we are not going to verify people on the register, there is almost no point in having the legislation. It is the verification that is crucial.

Hand in hand with that are the fines for not complying with the verification. I draw the Minister’s attention, again, to the people with significant control over Scottish limited partnerships. There has been one fine of £210 since the rules came into place. That is no kind of deterrent whatsoever. The rules need to be here, the verification needs to be right, and the sanctions for not complying must be enforced. I would say that even the sanctions are far too low.

Leaving trust and company service providers to verify identity leaves the door wide open to abuse. There is already abuse, and the Government’s position in the Bill is to continue to allow that to happen. As the hon. Member for Aberavon said, trust and company service providers have been identified in numerous Government documents as being the gap that allows money laundering and international crime. That cannot be allowed to continue in the Bill. If the Government leave the door open for the trust and company service providers, they will continue to abuse the system and the register will continue to be full of absolute guff.

I raised the issue of verification in the House, albeit, I appreciate, with a different Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). He suggested that a decision had not yet been made on how the verification system would work. My suggestion was that it go through the UK Government’s existing verification scheme, which is used for passports, driving licences and tax returns, because that system is already up and running. The response suggested that that had not yet been decided.

However, it was drawn to my attention today that Companies House has already put out a tender for a verification system. A tender went out on 10 October and closed on 24 October for an “authentication digital delivery partner”, looking for people to come and work on this system. I am curious to know why, when we have not yet got this legislation in place, the Government have tendered the contract and closed the application process for the company to build the system.

I would be grateful for some clarification from the Minister on exactly what the status is of that £3.7 million contract, which Companies House has already put out to tender. Why has it gone out before the Bill has concluded if Companies House does not know what it is building yet, and when amendments are still being tabled? I appreciate that the Government want to move at speed, but putting the cart before the horse in this way seems quite wrong.

We would like the verification to be strengthened, but if the Government have already instructed a contractor on what it will build, why are we even here this afternoon?

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I seek your guidance, Mr Robertson: we are talking about clause 60, are we not?

--- Later in debate ---
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will deal first with amendment 78, tabled by the right hon. Member for Barking. As she knows, it would place a restriction on the permitted ID verification processes set out elsewhere in the Bill. It would allow a person such as a company director or beneficial owner seeking to verify their identity through an authorised corporate service provider to do so only once His Majesty’s Treasury had completed its review of the AML supervisory regime and laid the report before Parliament. I think that if the right hon. Lady thinks about it, she will probably want to go further than that, based on her remarks. I think she wants to go ahead only once the AML regime is properly supervised generally, not just to the point where we have the report from the Treasury. We are potentially talking about getting some way down the line before we are in a situation where she would be happy with the regime.

I take on board many of the comments the right hon. Lady made. Parts of the regime are not operating as they should—I quite agree. We absolutely need to fix that. As with other amendments proposed today, I am sympathetic to the intention; however, I think that there better ways to do it.

The practical effect of the amendment would be to place a temporary restriction on the functions that legitimate businesses may carry out. That restriction is unrelated to and may be unaffected by the publication of the review to which it is linked. It is anomalous and unfair that those businesses affected will still be subject to their current regulatory obligations to carry out ID checks. However, they will be prevented from making a statement reporting to Companies House that such checks have taken place, effectively delaying the whole regime. I also draw attention to the impact of the right hon. Lady’s amendment on those people who use agents to manage their interests. I accept that some are shady characters, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North stated, the overwhelming majority are not.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

The Home Office report, “National risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing 2020,” states:

“Company formation and related professional services are therefore a key enabler or gatekeeper of”

trade-based money laundering activity. Should that not raise more concerns for the Minister?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady is mixing up two different things. I am not saying that some company formation agents are not shady—I have just said that. However, not all service providers are company formation agents. Many are bona fide solicitors or accountants that are household names. I think we need to keep this in perspective. The hon. Lady cites statistics on the capability of some of the sector in terms of proper supervision. According to OPBAS, 50% of professional body supervisors were “fully effective”. I think that figure should be much higher, but in its opinion 50% are fully effective, so it is not as if there are not some actors in this area that are doing the job absolutely right.

Many company directors and people with significant control that are currently registered at Companies House, all of whom will need to verify their identity under the transitional provisions post enactment, would prefer to do so by using their professional adviser. They will suddenly find that their long-established legal adviser is deemed fit by the Government to verify their identity for money laundering purposes, but unfit to report that to Companies House. The amendment would therefore create considerable inconvenience to individuals, as well as to corporate service providers.

I can assure the right hon. Member for Barking and the Committee that I will urge my counterparts at the Treasury to bring forward their consultation as quickly as officials can ready it. I also point to the powers in the Bill that will enable the registrar to keep an audit trail of the activity of agents to support the work of supervisors both immediately and following any changes from the Treasury’s review. I hope my explanation has provided reassurance.

Let me touch on one or two of the right hon. Lady’s other comments. On the light-touch financial services regulation that I think she was suggesting was responsible for the global financial crisis, this is not deregulation. This is the opposite of deregulation; we are making regulations about the verification of ID. I would also point to the penalties for wrongdoing. In certain circumstances, if someone is found guilty of the aggravated offence of false filing under these rules—I think some of the examples she gave would constitute that—the sanction would be two years in jail. That is not for fraud, but for the false filing. There are real teeth to this legislation, which will reduce the likelihood of this stuff happening in future.

The right hon. Lady’s amendment would effectively delay the whole regime we are talking about. She talks about Transparency International. As I said earlier, TI welcomes the reforms to the operation of Companies House that will effectively help to prevent money launderers from abusing the UK’s system. We need to ensure that this happens as effectively as possible. I agree with many of the concerns that she raises, but it is wrong to delay implementation as she suggests.

I turn to amendments 107 to 112. I thank hon. Members for their contributions. The procedure for ID verification, including the evidence required, will be set out in secondary legislation under the powers in new section 1110B of the Companies Act 2006 inserted by clause 62 of the Bill. The regulations will set out the technical detail of ID verification procedures, which will reflect evolving industry standards and technological developments. The regulations can specify the process of ID verification and the evidence of identity that individuals will be required to provide when verifying their identity with the registrar. The amendments, particularly amendment 107, would limit the documents acceptable for the purposes of ID verification to photographic IDs issued by Government agencies and identity documents issued by a recognised official authority. That would exclude individuals who do not have a photo ID, such as a passport, from verifying their identity.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Ninth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Right, her name is registered three times, rather than having one entry noting that she has three directorships. With identity verification and the issuance of unique identifiers, Companies House will know exactly how many directorships an individual has. Companies House may plan to update pages showing people’s total directorships once it issues unique identifiers, but that certainly is not clear.

An alternative is to have some form of proxy ID, which is becoming increasingly common. That is a unique ID linked to the director’s unique ID, which can keep the director’s ID itself private, but has a unique public identifier that is searchable and uniquely linked to the underlying identifier. That happens increasingly for email addresses, for example, when someone may not want their email address to be public, so a pseudo or proxy address is created so that the one that someone might publicly enter and others might publicly see is not the underlying email address, but is uniquely linked to it. There are ways in which technology can be used simply and easily. That is not a high-cost option and it can be built in to have what we need for public purposes—a unique identifier for a director that links all their directorships, if published, and is searchable.

I hope that those constructive suggestions and the way we laid out our reply when the Minister asked in a previous debate what we were not fully happy with in clause 66 mean that things are perhaps clearer. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

--- Later in debate ---
Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I support the excellent amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston. It is incredibly important that clarification is given through the register, for a number of reasons. A unique identifier that follows a person through their whole life as a company director is important. I mentioned before that I appear in the register three separate times. It would make sense for that to be consolidated in one entry so that people could see the course of that.

The identifier should go through all of the directorships that people have. We know—it has been raised previously in Committee—that some directors have many hundreds, or even thousands, of directorships to their name. It seems sensible to have clarity to ensure that they are the same person. A name such as mine is reasonably unusual—it is quite easy to find—but if a John Smith is on the register, it is much more difficult to establish that they are the right John Smith, the one who is the director of a company. Therefore the identifier becomes all the more important, particularly if that person changes their name. If Jane Smith becomes Jane Jones through marriage, it becomes more difficult to chase her through the register. It would therefore make sense, particularly for women, who are most likely to change their name, but also for other people who may change their names for a variety of reasons—perfectly honest ones, or, in some cases, to divert attention from their previous directorships, perhaps, or any previous misbehaviour—that that person’s ID should follow them around. Anybody doing due diligence on that person as a director could then find them on the register quite easily.

That goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North about phoenixing. If a company director has been involved in many phoenix companies, it would make sense for people to know that, and to know that they might well carry out that behaviour in future. It would enhance the clarity of the register against such fraud and poor behaviour. The example that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston gave, of the Charity Commission register, was a good and relevant one, because it is about somebody’s appropriateness and that wider sense of understanding somebody’s behaviour through the register.

It is very important to make the change from “power” to “duty”. A person can have the power to do lots of things, but if they have no obligation to do them, that is quite a different scenario. Lots of the issues that the Companies House register has got itself into are down to those duties not having existed. It is important that those duties exist, and that we set them down in the Bill. I am not hugely confident that what we are talking about will happen if the duties and responsibilities are not set down in law. Future Ministers may decide not to bother with them. I am sure that the Minister would; future Ministers might not.

It is incredibly important that we do everything we can to make the Bill as tight as possible, and that we take all precautions against the abuse of the register. We must get rid of those abuses. We must make a better register, and better legislation, to ensure the integrity of the register in the future.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think that we are trying to achieve the same thing, just in different ways. We discussed this issue at length in previous sittings. Companies House is already actively working on unique identifiers. It is not credible to think that, having legislated for them, we will not implement them. A basic principle of the Bill is to be able properly to link individuals on the Companies House register, so that company directors have a better experience and so that it is easier for the public to identify the connection between directors, including persons of significant control, and companies.

--- Later in debate ---
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am keen to make sure that the system works, whether by licensing or by some other means. There are lots of different options for what might be described as a system that is fit for purpose. Of course, in common with all Members of this House, we are keen to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, but nevertheless we want a system that works and that we have faith in, so, in my view, all options should be on the table.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I have a small query and seek clarification from the Minister. In clause 69(3), proposed new section 1067A(2) states:

“An individual may not deliver documents to the registrar on behalf of another person unless—

(a) the individual’s identity is verified”.

Will the identity of those entitled to deliver documents be added to the register, and will they have to be separately verified? I am not clear on the mechanism.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Lady ask the question again? I did not quite get it.

--- Later in debate ---
Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

Yes, of course. I understand that if someone is delivering documents on behalf of themselves, there will be a check to see whether they are verified, but if someone is delivering documents on behalf of somebody else, the Bill seems to say that they also need to be verified. Is that subject to a separate verification list? That person would not be registering to be a company director in their own right; they would be delivering the documents to register somebody else, so is there now going to be a separate list for that?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think I have understood the hon. Lady’s question. Clearly, all directors and company service providers need to have their identity verified too. If that is what the hon. Lady is referring to, that is absolutely contained in the provisions of the Bill.

--- Later in debate ---
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Companies House already has the capability to accept documents filed digitally—89% of companies already do that. Therefore, it is not an IT development requirement; it is just a requirement for companies to file documents digitally rather than using paper. It puts the onus on the companies rather than on Companies House itself.

In relation to authenticity, we are again back to the red-flag approach. Companies House has a requirement, an objective, to oversee the integrity of the register. There is definitely a risk-based approach to that. The aim is to try to put the red flags in place to ensure that we are identifying documents that are not authentic. Also, there are penalties for false filing of documents, which I think we went through previously.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I have a brief point on a technical issue. It was flagged in evidence that some documents submitted electronically or posted on the Companies House website in electronic format were image files rather than searchable documents. I wonder what consideration the Minister has given to mandating the type of files that can be filed electronically, because it would make sense to accept them in a format that can then be searched online.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I do not know the detail behind that, but I am happy to go away and look at that for her.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 72 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 73 to 75 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 76

Power to reject documents for inconsistencies

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Tenth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I have some questions about new clause 7. I am reading through it and trying, as I have done with many of the amendments, to put myself in the scenario of being the person who is carrying on business in the United Kingdom. It says that as that person, I am obliged to

“obtain specified information about a customer (or prospective customer)…before entering into a business relationship with them, or…during a business relationship with them”

and I have to identify any discrepancies and report them to the registrar. I get that: if I do that and I see a discrepancy, I have an obligation to report it. It feels as though the Minister is bringing forward a very soft version of a failure to prevent offence, which of course I am fine with.

I want to double-check something, however. The new clause goes on to talk about offences that might be created for failure to comply with the requirements, and I want to know what happens if I, as the person carrying on the business, do not spot a discrepancy. How is it ascertained whether I did not spot the discrepancy—whether it was a genuine mistake on my part—or whether I failed to report something that somebody else later picked up?

We are talking here about convictions, punishable as set out near the end of the new clause, and I am curious about how the regulations will work in practice. If I do not spot a discrepancy and report it, how does the law know that I did not spot it? Perhaps I ignored it because I thought it was not relevant or important, or perhaps I did it deliberately. If I come back after the fact and say, “I didn’t report it because I didn’t see it,” or “I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to,” those are two very different things.

I do not quite understand how the new clause will work. Some people might think it is good and beneficial to go clyping and grassing up people who do not comply, and that is fine, but it is quite a different thing if a discrepancy has been overlooked. I would like the Minister to explain how that will work in practice.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will first take the latter point, which covers some of the shadow Minister’s points as well. There will be more detail in secondary legislation about how new clause 7 is expected to operate, but it is quite reasonable to think that third party business entities will understand how this should work. Within that, we would expect there always to be a reasonableness defence if an error was made or something was done in good faith. We would not expect a penalty to be applied in that case, but there will be more detail on that in secondary legislation.

The shadow Minister asked what would happen if an organisation failed to comply with a notice within the 14-day period that it is given to respond. There is an unlimited fine, potentially, for failure to comply. Other situations might even lead to somebody facing a prison sentence of up to two years, in certain instances. A lot would depend on the circumstances involved. That also relates to what the hon. Member for Glasgow Central asked.

The shadow Minister asked for more detail about how the relationship between the registrar and third party companies would work. This does not just refer to the financial sector; it also refers to the legal sector. It would pertain to any organisation that is supervised by money laundering regulations. I think that is the extent to which companies would be bound by the rules on checking discrepancies.

The shadow Minister asked whether there would be a flag if a record was removed. Clearly, there will be a red flag for the registrar themselves, depending on the reason why that record has been removed, and that may be something we cover in further detail in secondary legislation. My immediate reaction is that we would not want red flags to be set against a company that had made an honest mistake, because that might unreasonably set some hares running. I am a little concerned that that might happen if we did as the shadow Minister described.

--- Later in debate ---
Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will move on to new clause 37, which has the aim of checking that the stated person of significant control really is the person who controls the company. Powers to get information, to reject documents, to require information and to remove documents all sit in the Bill. The new clause would ensure that, through a risk-based assessment—I just reiterate that for the Minister—Companies House would proactively check that the person named as the PSC was the PSC in reality. Current legislation requires the ID verification of a company owner, but not the verification of their status as a company owner, so the risk remains that nominees will continue to be put forward as owners of companies despite the real control being elsewhere. The risk is heightened if the Minister does not move to ensure that company service providers are properly regulated, supervised and vetted before the whole system comes into force.

In the current system, there are endless examples that demonstrate the extent of the problem that the Minister and the Government are trying to tackle—we are trying to contribute to that process. One is the famous dentist in Belgium. From an interrogation of the Companies House register, we know that five beneficial owners control more than 6,000 companies, which is a huge red flag. Some 4,000 of them are under the age of two, and 400,000 companies—almost 10% of the total—still do not declare a person of significant control. We have the Azerbaijan laundromat example, where a lorry driver in Baku was named as the person of significant control and had no idea that kleptocrats from Azerbaijan were taking all the money out of the banks and money laundering it elsewhere.

There is one filing in Companies House for which I thought I would name the person of significant control. The company is called Global Risks Reduction Funding Ltd, and the name is listed as—I will take a deep breath—

“Neutral-Claimant-Federal-Witness-Director-Captain-Postmaster-Bank-Banker-Plenipotentiary-Notary-Judge-Vassalee For The Vessel-Phouthone-Thone: Siharath.”

I do not think anybody has questioned that as the person of significant control. The whole thing is absurd.

An important point for the Minister is that, in 2019, Transparency International did a quick Google search and found 23 active company service providers that were offering the service of nominee persons of significant control—that was one quick search of one directory. When Global Witness undertook research on Scottish limited partnerships, it found that 40% of the beneficial owners of Scottish limited partnerships were either a national of a former Soviet country, or a company incorporated in the former Soviet Union.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

I have been tracking for some time the number of times when a person of significant control for Scottish limited partnerships has not even been registered. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is ridiculous that there are still 201 companies for which a person of significant control does not exist at all?

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes. The law is being broken but nobody is pursuing those who are guilty.

These are all reasons for closely monitoring data on persons of significant control. The measure would simply put a duty on Companies House to be proactive and to check the status of the person named on a risk-based basis, not just via their personal details.

New clause 38 deals with dissolution, which has been raised with me by a number of stakeholders. We know of numerous instances of bad people dissolving companies for nefarious purposes. The new clause would ensure that the registrar looks at the accounts of a company seeking to dissolve to ensure that no fraud or other crime has occurred. If the registrar found such cause for concern, she would have to pass the information on to relevant enforcement agencies.

We are all very familiar with the phoenixing of companies and the role that that practice has played in facilitating fraud. I have chosen as an example the case of Rodney and Pauline Williams, which is typical. They ran a company called Curio Bridal Boutique Ltd. They made false representations to take money out of the company and put it into another company in anticipation of winding up Curio Bridal Boutique. They took £111,000, of which they put £42,000 into the pockets of their own family. They were detected and convicted, but sadly the successful detection of such cases is all too rare and the practice happens all too often.

The Troika Laundromat—another of the laundromats that has hit us over the last 10 years or so—is another example of where a leak of documents showed how one of Russia’s largest investment banks, Troika Dialog, was central to the channelling of billions of dollars out of Russia. That leak covered 1.3 million transactions. It involved more than 1,000 UK limited liability partnerships, and it was found that the UK had been handling nearly £10 billion of dodgy Russian money. One UK-based company was found to have made payments totalling £360 million, although it filed accounts each year and dared to declare itself dormant. It then dissolved itself in 2014. That company was called Stranger Agency LLP.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Eleventh sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I rise to introduce amendment 115. When considering any piece of legislation that creates new criminal offences, one of the most important questions we have to ask is how confident we can be that the offences will be adequately policed and enforced. The question is particularly relevant in our deliberations on this Bill, because there is such a wealth of evidence that the laws we already have on economic crime are not being enforced as rigorously as we would hope. The reason is clear: the chronic under-resourcing of the various law enforcement bodies in recent years—or, to put it another way, under this Government.

I am sure that the Minister needs no convincing on this point. In fact, some of the most compelling arguments for greater resourcing for economic crime enforcement have been made by the Minister himself. Just over four months ago, he joined my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking in leading a debate on this issue. The motion for that debate pointed out that

“law enforcement agencies are significantly under-resourced to deal with the scale of the problem”.

In speaking to the motion, the Minister pointed out:

“We know that roughly 40% of our crime is economic crime, yet only 0.8% of our resources in man hours are dedicated to tackling economic crime, so there is a huge disparity.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 1042.]

Those figures are striking, and it should alarm Committee members that the Bill is likely to widen that disparity even further. The reforms to Companies House set out in part 1 of the Bill represent

“its biggest upgrade in 170 years”.

Again, I am quoting the Government’s own words. It is still the case today that if someone goes to the official Companies House website to search the register, they find a disclaimer stating:

“Companies House does not verify the accuracy of the information filed”.

Of course, one of the most important goals of the Bill is to change that, through new requirements on Companies House to verify the accuracy of new filings, and to continuously monitor and update records; but despite that fundamental shift in the scale and scope of its responsibilities, there is nothing in the most recent corporate plan for Companies House, published in July this year, on increasing either its budget or workforce in the light of those changes.

Not only is there unlikely to be additional Treasury funding for Companies House, but it appears there may even be cuts. Given the repeated warnings from the Chancellor to expect “eye-watering” decisions on public spending in this week’s fiscal statement, it seems unlikely, to say the least, that Companies House can expect a financial settlement that is even remotely commensurate with its obligations under the Bill. If the Minister could provide any reassurance to the contrary, it would certainly be welcomed by the Opposition—but we are not holding our breath.

In the absence of more resources from the Treasury, we are left with just one option, which is for Companies House to generate more income from registration fees. The case for higher fees is compelling. Not only is there the increased workload that the Bill will create for Companies House, but it has been abundantly clear for some time that the fees charged for registration are ludicrously low. The Minister is aware that it is undeniably too cheap, quick and easy to form a new company in the UK; there is minimal to non-existent verification or oversight.

For evidence of what appears to be emerging cross-party consensus on the necessity for higher fees, we need look no further than the exceptionally thoughtful and balanced report on economic crime published by the Treasury Committee in February this year, which stated:

“The low costs of company formation, and of other Companies House fees (such as filing fees), present little barrier to those who wish to set up large numbers of companies for dubious purposes…The Government should…review…Companies House fees to bring them closer to international standards.”

As a member of the Treasury Committee at the time of the report’s publication, the Minister presumably agreed with that statement back in February. I see no good reason why the position would have changed since then.

It is striking that the Bill does not address the question of fees payable to Companies House until clause 89. Even then, the clause sets out what costs may be taken into account in setting future fees, but avoids the next logical question of what an appropriate fee might be. Like so many fundamental details of how the legislation will work when in force, that has been left up to regulations that will be made at some indeterminate point in the future. It does not seem unreasonable to expect, or at least hope for, more detailed provisions on the subject in the Bill.

Clause 89 refers to the need for future regulations setting new fee levels to reflect the expanded responsibilities of Companies House under the Bill and other recent legislation. That is welcome as far as it goes, but unfortunately it does not go far enough. Through amendment 115, the Opposition seek to fill some of the gaps left open by the Bill by introducing an explicit requirement for the Secretary of State to consult with the registrar before changing fees. It would also require the Secretary of State to set out explicitly in writing the justification for any changes to the functions and workload of Companies House.

The amendment would provide a stronger statement of the necessity of setting fees at a level commensurate with the actual day-to-day needs of Companies House in carrying out its responsibilities under this and other relevant legislation. It should go without saying that fees should not be set at such low rates that we become a magnet for dodgy business dealings by criminals in search of the weakest possible regulatory environment; but it is not by any means clear that we can trust the Government’s wisdom in determining appropriate fees. A clearer, stronger set of criteria for such decisions should be incorporated into the Bill. Amendment 115 provides what we hope is a useful way forward.

Turning to new clauses 25, 33 and 40, there are strong arguments in favour of setting a specific level of fee as a baseline for any future changes. We should all be in agreement by now that the current fee—it is just £12 to register a company—is far lower than it should be. Certainly, that was the message from the many expert witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee last month. I recall in particular the testimony of Nick Van Benschoten of UK Finance, who pointed out that the UK’s £12 fee puts it in closer alignment with countries such as Benin and Turkmenistan than with comparably well-developed economies in Europe and North America, where fees roughly in the range of £50 to £100 are the general rule.

New clause 25, tabled by Scottish National party Members, suggests a minimum fee of £50. That would certainly be a good start, but the Bill could and should go further. New clause 33, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, would require a fee of at least £100 to be charged for company formation, with annual increases based on inflation. On behalf of the official Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston and I are pleased to add our names to the proposed new clause, which we believe is a necessary and proportionate solution to the problem at hand.

It should be pointed out that the figure of £100 has not been plucked out of thin air. It is useful to return to the report that I mentioned by the Treasury Committee, of which the Minister was a member at the time. It concluded that a £100 fee for company formation would not deter genuine entrepreneurs, and would raise significant additional funding for Companies House and the fight against economic crime. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm whether that remains his view. If he has changed his mind, he may wish to say a little about the basis on which he has done so.

New clause 40, also tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, would add a further requirement on the Government to review and report on the case for measures to ensure that any future revenue from fees can be retained by Companies House for reinvestment in its work to police and enforce our laws against economic crime, under its remit as set out in the Bill and elsewhere. Again, this is a common-sense proposal that we should all welcome. It should not continue to be the default position that either all or a large part of any fees payable to Companies House go straight to the Treasury, with no guarantee that there will be any reinvestment into efforts to tackle economic crime. New clause 40 would make an important contribution by addressing that problem. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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New clause 25 is a probing amendment. I am minded to have a higher fee than £50, but what does the Minister think the baseline ought to be? Is it £100 or £50, or is he not prepared to put a number on the minimum price for registering a company? By way of contrast, a provisional driving licence fee application is £34, a passport is £75.50, and citizenship is £1,330 pounds. The Government are prepared to levy a whole range of fees for a whole range of privileges to do with living in this country; £12 to register a company seems miraculously low in comparison to all the other fees that the Government are willing to charge. In all those cases, I am sure that the Government would say that they are trying to recover costs, but they are not prepared to say how much it would cost to run Companies House in such a way that it can prevent economic crime, although that is pretty crucial to the whole endeavour.

I agree with everything the hon. Member for Aberavon has said, and I support the amendments from the right hon. Member for Barking, who is, I am sure, absolutely correct in everything she is about to say; I often agree with everything she says. I draw the Government’s attention again to the written evidence from UK Finance, which says:

“Clause 89 should be amended to ensure an initial increase in registration fees within six months of commencement, and to ensure annual reporting on planned investment, fee increases and scheduled implementation of new powers.”

If we set a minimum in legislation and do not update it, the problem is that often prices increase—mostly artificially, but also through factors such as the runaway inflation that we see in the UK at the moment. It is important to commit to an annual increase and annual reporting to ensure that fees keep pace with changes in a way that is considered reasonable.

Twelve pounds to register a company is really nothing in the grand scheme of things. I ask the Minister to consider how we can better ensure that the Companies House registration scheme forms part of the deterrent. Rather than allowing the bulk creation of lots of small companies at £12 a pop, we can ensure that people say, “This is a real company. There is a real financial commitment to it.” I do not think that any company will be deterred by a fee of £100 rather than £12.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Mr Robertson. Why is new clause 29 not included in this group?

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Better information sharing is surely a prerequisite for more effective enforcement against economic crime. The intelligence gathered by councils in Westminster and elsewhere could play a vital role in supporting enforcement action at a national level, while information held by Companies House, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and others would undoubtedly make a huge difference to councils’ efforts to deal with such problems as the phoenixing of companies in local communities. As things stand, there does not appear to be an adequate framework for a joined-up approach to economic crime across central and local government. New clause 36 would be an important step toward addressing this challenge.
Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I very much agree with the hon. Member for Aberavon. As a former local government councillor, I can confirm that there definitely needs to be an interface between central Government and local government and it needs to look at economic crime. I was curious about previous discussions we have had about fit and proper persons. The fit and proper person test applies to parts of licensing within local government, but there is not necessarily any way of linking that with Companies House information.

The point about phoenixing is also important. Local businesses often come to local government for support, particularly during the pandemic or other times of crisis, and quite rightly so. Councils may hold information about the legitimacy of companies that have perhaps phoenixed many times—they applied for Government grants but the previous directors of the company dissolved it when business rates were due. Local government will have information, but there is not necessarily a place for it to reside. The Government need to think about how that information goes between the two levels of government.

With companies involved in property or homes of multiple occupation, there may be concerns about the fit and proper persons test and how that interacts with the companies engaged in housing provision. There needs to be some thought as to how those bits interact. We very much encourage the Minister to look at how the Government can be involved in that, and we support the Opposition new clause.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I shall respond briefly to the queries raised. All the information must be handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018. The way the Bill operates is consistent with similar legislation that deals with data sharing.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston raised the issue of the protection of information. The provision applies in a situation of risk of harm or serious risk of violence or intimidation—for example, in respect of domestic abuse victims.

Data sharing was raised by both shadow Ministers—the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston and for Aberavon. It is permitted to assist public authorities when they exercise public functions, such as confirming the accuracy of data or providing intelligence to law enforcement agencies.

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Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I am glad that an aggravated offence is included in clause 94, on general false statement offences, because quite clearly there are some people who are absolutely taking the piss in terms of their company registration.

The false filing bit leads me to the topic of enforcement, which is the other side of the puzzle. Out of interest, I tabled a written parliamentary question to the Minister to ask

“how many fines have been levied in each of the past ten years for the offence of false filing to companies house, and what estimate he has made of the value of those fines.”

His response was quite interesting. In 2012, the number of fines levied was nil, as it was in 2013. In 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 it was also nil. In 2018, things got slightly better, because one fine of £1,602 was levied. In 2019, there was a much better £15,000 fine for false filing. In 2020 and 2021, the number of fines was nil, and up to 31 October 2022 there was one fine of £500.

I guess there have been far more instances of false filing to Companies House in the past 10 years than those fines suggest. I do not believe that there have been only three cases of false filing to Companies House, because all the evidence suggests that it is absolutely rife. Will the Minister tell us more about how, in looking at the false statement offences, the aggravated offences and the fines that will be levied for non-compliance, he intends to pursue those who file false statements? Currently, they are not being pursued at all.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon, had two main queries. On the type of circumstance in which a certificate would be issued, it is impossible to predict other than to say that it would be when it is in the interests of national security or in the case of a serious crime, which is defined in the clause. The actual circumstances around that are incredibly difficult to predict. It is fair to say that we expect such a certificate to be issued on extremely rare occasions, but we cannot rule out the possibility of our needing to do so. Ultimately, it has to be a judgment for the Secretary of State.

On false filing, I well remember responding to the written question from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. It was a very fair question. That is why we are in this Committee Room: it is about not just legislation but implementation. There have to be the proper resources for Companies House to do that job and I absolutely want to make sure that it has not just the powers but the resources to interrogate the database, make sure it is accurate and share the data information, because it is critical to look at the context. A number of things align in this respect: it is about the powers, the resources, the data-sharing capability and, for the first time, the sanctions of up to two years in prison on individuals who file falsely.

We absolutely want to ensure that the figures improve. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that there will be many more cases of false filing than those that have been identified, but to be fair to Companies House, without the resources to do it, which it has never been given before, that is a pretty difficult job for it to do. Companies House does publicly report annually, and I would very much like to see that kind of accountability in future reports, in terms of its efficacy in this area.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 94 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 95 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 96

Financial penalties

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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The clause inserts the definition of limited partnership into the Bill and makes clear that the registrar is obliged to maintain only those limited partnerships registered under the 1907 Act within the registrar’s index of names.

Limited partnerships are a specific type of business structure in UK law that confer limited liability on some partners and therefore have to be registered with Companies House in line with the Limited Partnerships Act 1907 and the Partnership Act 1890, but numerous reports and consultations by the Government have identified the risk of economic crime through limited partnerships and Scottish limited partnerships. As I know the Minister will be well aware, the consultation in 2018 also emphasised the apparent attractiveness of such partnerships as vehicles for organised crime, and I am sure we will come back to that when we consider amendments to this part of the Bill. The consultation noted specifically that the National Crime Agency reported a high volume of suspected criminal activity involving Scottish limited partnerships. It also referred to claims made in an investigation that 113 SLPs were involved in a much larger money laundering scheme that transferred more than $20 billion out of Russia between 2010 and 2014.

Limited partnerships and Scottish limited partnerships have been identified by the Government for some time as high-risk corporate structures when it comes to facilitating and enabling economic crime. It is positive that we have reached this point, but it is disappointing how long it has taken. The clause is important, as it ensures that the registrar is obliged to maintain those limited partnerships that are registered as such, thereby ensuring that the registrar is not under any obligation to maintain names of defunct limited partnerships.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
- Hansard - -

My views on the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships are on the record, and the Minister is well aware of them. Anything that will help to tighten up protection against that abuse is welcome, but again, a lot of this goes to enforcement. It is not good enough just to legislate. There has to be enforcement, and the current enforcement has been absolutely woeful, with just one fine for failing to register a person with significant control. When the legislation started in January 2018, 7,078 people were not registered as they should have been as persons with significant control. That now stands at 201, but 201 is still too many, and the Government are still not issuing any fines for not complying with the obligations under that law. As with all the measures within this part of the Bill, my concern is about enforcement and making sure that everything is absolutely watertight, because if there is no consequence—at the moment, there is no consequence for non-compliance—people will continue to abuse the systems.

I caution the Minister also that when the rules around Scottish limited partnerships were tightened, people just moved to the next structure, and the next structure was limited partnerships in Ireland. Ireland has seen a huge surge in people abusing its corporate structures, which are similar to ours for historical reasons, but nobody warned the Irish that this was coming. I would be interested to know how the Government intend to monitor the tightening up of this legislation so that we are not just pushing down the bubble in the wallpaper for it to come up somewhere else.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Twelfth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I thank the Minister for his remarks. I have some brief comments to make about clauses 103 and 104 stand part. The Minister has outlined what the clauses do. Clause 103 inserts a new section into the Limited Partnerships Act 1907 that establishes on general partners of limited partnerships a duty to ensure that the firm’s registered office is at all times an appropriate address at which to receive correspondence. The clause introduces a new power for the Secretary of State to make regulations giving the registrar the power to change a limited partnership’s registered office address. The appropriate address is supposed to be within the original jurisdiction.

While new regulations on the addresses of limited partnerships are needed, Elspeth Berry, a legal expert on limited partnerships, set out in her written evidence to the Committee concerns about this element of the Bill. She said:

“The requirements for an “appropriate” registered office address or email are an improvement but do not guarantee a genuine economic link to the UK…The “appropriate” address for the registered office, and email address, ensure that the address is used with consent, and someone will answer. However, the provisions still lend themselves to maildrops, with no real economic presence. None of the options intended to link an LP to the UK demonstrate a real economic link. Option 1 is apparently already complied with by most rogue LPs already, because they have no real place of business in the UK, so anywhere can be the “principal” place. Option 2, the usual residential address of a partner, can be redacted, so redaction must not apply if it is also chosen as the registered office. Option 3 is the address of a corporate general partner, with all the lack of transparency that entails. Option 4 is an ACSP address, which can be a maildrop.”

Will the Minister respond to those concerns? What assurances have the Government received that the provisions in the clause will genuinely guarantee the economic link to the UK that is intended? If not, will he look again at this part of the Bill? It would be a shame to get to the point of the Bill becoming an Act without it being able to do what is intended.

Clause 104 provides for a six-month transitional period during which the general partners of existing firms must submit a statement specifying the firm’s registered office, per the regulations set out in clause 103. Will it really take six months to specify an address? Is that not something that the Minister can look at? Other provisions of the Bill refer to 28 days, so why this six-month period? Perhaps six months emerged from a consultation as the most effective option, or it has simply been passported into the Bill because that is in alignment with some other regulation. Was it just cut and paste? If, however, not much thought has gone into this transition period, and if there are no downsides to doing so, we have an opportunity to amend,. Again, I will be grateful for the Minister’s response.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I very much agree with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston. Without rehashing our previous arguments about addresses—checking whether they are real addresses and whether someone can pick up mail there, which requires people going to make such checks—I note the concerns of the Law Society of Scotland that “principal place of business” could still be a bit unclear. It points out in its briefing that a number of other concepts already exist in legislation, such as “head office”, “establishment” or “centres of main interest”. That makes things confusing and more easy to get around if people wish to do so.

The society believes that another issue has emerged, in part owing to covid: not everybody has a principal place of business as we used to understand it—a head office with a sign above the door. That is what we were used to seeing, but now that people work remotely, sourcing a principal place of business might become more difficult. Businesses have adapted, so it will be useful to understand from the Minister whether such things will be caught by the legislation. Someone might not have a traditional headquarters in the old way, and so might not be caught by the legislation. I seek his assurance about the intention of the Bill.

The Law Society of Scotland briefing also points out that members of a management team might not all be based in the same location; they might be working remotely or in different countries around the world. Again, sourcing that person who has responsibility at a principal place of business has become a little murkier as a result of changes in working practices. We need to ensure that legislation keeps pace with that and that there is not a workaround for those who want to avoid scrutiny.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A few minor points have been made additional to the ones that have been discussed before. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, asked about the corporate general partner. Clearly, there is still a person behind a corporate general partner—an officer has to register their identity behind the corporate general partner, so there is an actual person behind it.

The shadow Minister also referred to the six months. As I said, I think that is a reasonable period, but she might think differently and seek to amend it on that basis. To me, it is not just about the time period, but about the other points—the foundations of the Bill, which are the sanctions, the red flags and the sharing of information. Those are the important things. The downside she mentioned is the impact on legitimate businesses, for which the time period may not be sufficient.

Clearly, there is a link to the UK in terms of how the entity is established. The limited partnership is established and has to maintain its registered address. I do not think that any of these measures contain a requirement to have an economic link to the UK, but I will discuss that with officials.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Fifteenth sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (Fifteenth sitting)

Alison Thewliss Excerpts
Committee stage
Tuesday 22nd November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Public Bill Committees