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New Clause 16 — Names and addresses of members of companies: company application

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 18th October 2006.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 4:15 pm, 18th October 2006

The principle the hon. Gentleman's invokes is that we should not publish any information about anything or anybody. In relation to his fishing activities, I picture him in his waders in the rivers of north Wales, which is a touching spectacle—but that that must be kept from the public eye, and that his name and address should not be published because he goes fishing, would be to go to extreme and silly lengths to avert something that is haphazard and low in incidence. The people we are discussing should be dealt with by the law for threatening behaviour, rather than by us closing down all access to information that they might use.

The same principles that are being used to invoke this closure of information could be used to close the electoral roll, which might be used by people to enable them to send out bumf, go out knocking on doors, check people's credit or even check their existence. Because the electoral roll could be used in that fashion, should we not publish it? We cannot negate a fundamental principle of shareholder democracy to avert the action of a few people, which is wrong and which can be prosecuted through other means.

The fundamental principle is that the list of shareholders should be published. That is what gives this corporate body that we have introduced an identity. For instance, my amendment No. 758 would stop the use of nominee names. Shareholders in Huntingdon Life Sciences could have used nominee names if they did not want their names to be known, but I would stop that practice entirely, because if people use nominee names, what is the use of a register?

The principle of a joint stock company is that there has to be a register, so we know who is investing, what the company is about and who supports it. If we remove that principle, we attack the fundamentals of the joint stock company and the principles on which such companies were granted their corporate identity in the 19th century. Anonymity will always be abused.

Under new clause 16, a company could designate itself as conducting undesirable activities. It could say, "We have something to hide. Let's keep our registers secret so that no one knows who is investing in us." That principle would apply not only to Huntingdon Life Sciences, but to the arms trade or the tobacco industry. It could be very wide ranging, and any company in an industry that is subject to public criticism could designate itself as doing something shady, so that it has to hide its operations. If we had legalised brothels, as in New Zealand, the companies running those brothels, which might indeed be indulging in nefarious activities, would want to hide in the same way.

We are obviating any principle of shareholder democracy. If shareholders want to mobilise and organise themselves, and want to try to gain some countervailing power to the power of the directors, they must be able to find out who the other shareholders are. That is a big job when the company is a multinational or a bank with thousands, or possibly millions, of shareholders. It is an enormous job for shareholders to organise themselves against directors, given the weight and strength that directors have as a result of all their proxy votes, which they accumulate and use, ad lib, to crush the emergence of any shareholder opinion. That is an impossible job unless the names of the shareholders are published.

If we want to encourage investigative journalism—there is not enough investigative journalism in this country; things are handled far better in America—journalists must be able to investigate who the shareholders of the company are, so that they know what the company is about and what it is doing.