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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 69K, which contains a new clause that I believe would meet a need arising from an apparent money laundering loophole to do with Companies House. Before I get onto it, I thank the Minister and particularly his staff for the consultation periods that were made available to Members of your Lordships’ House; they were extremely well run. I have also had correspondence with his office and I found it extremely helpful, so I put on record my personal thanks.
There are two ways of registering a company in this country, either directly through Companies House or via a company formation agent. Currently, 40% of all companies are incorporated through Companies House. As we probably all know, in July this year the fourth EU anti-money laundering directive came into force. It required considerable change for company formation agents in that they now had to take out enhanced due diligence checks when registering a company. Obviously this increased their workload and indeed the cost considerably, but nevertheless it was to the credit of the industry that it welcomed the changes that came with the directive.
However, under current provisions, fraudsters can still register a business direct with Companies House, either on paper or via the GOV.UK website, and, through that, avoid all the checks now required when company formation agents carry out exactly the same process. My understanding of the rationale behind this is that Companies House is not a business provider, but instead is fulfilling a statutory duty just to register businesses and issue incorporation certificates. Legally, Companies House has to accept in good faith all documents sent to it, and has no statutory power whatever to verify or validate the information contained in them. It can act only within the parameters of the Companies Act, and it has no investigatory powers under that legislation.
In reality, that means that for just £12 someone can set up a company using entirely false details without having to go through any verification checks on beneficial ownership, and with limited checks on registered directors. Individuals who have been involved in money laundering, who have convictions or who have been disbarred as owners in other jurisdictions can therefore gain access to UK companies through Companies House. This loophole cannot be justified; by incorporating at Companies House, fraudsters are able to create the illusion of their company being financially secure and sustainable. That leaves British business, consumers and taxpayers open to abuse through fraud or money laundering.
The organisation Transparency International reports that in the UK last year 251,628 UK companies were created with no checks being made on the person setting up the company or their source of wealth. A further TI report found that there were hundreds of British shell companies implicated, in its judgment, in nearly £80 billion of money laundering. The report goes on to say:
“The fact that a large proportion of firms are incorporated directly through Companies House and undergo no due diligence checks creates a significant money laundering risk to the UK framework”.
That lack of checks and balances harms Britain’s reputation as a leading place to do business, and in my judgment it is essential that that reputation is protected in the lead-up to Brexit. To protect businesses, taxpayers, and the UK’s reputation, it is essential that this loophole is closed.
I do not necessarily expect the Minister to take the precise wording in my amendment. It was written largely by myself with the help of the Public Bill Office, so in a sense it is a probing amendment, but I believe it is one with such depth of information that I would be enormously surprised if Her Majesty’s Government did not respond to it and come back with something similar on Report.