Clause 1 - Determinations in respect of certain non-domestic rating lists

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 9th September 2021.

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

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

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

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

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

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

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

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

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

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

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

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

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 1.

Third Reading

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:34 pm, 9th September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:36 pm, 9th September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 1:39 pm, 9th September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

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

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Dame Rosie Winterton will now take the Chair for our important debate on the legacy of Jo Cox.