Registration of companies: anti-money laundering checks

Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 6th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

“(1) The Registrar of Companies must not register a company unless he or she is satisfied that appropriate anti-money laundering checks have taken place.

(2) The Companies Act 2006 is amended as follows—

(a) in section 9, after subsection (5), insert—

‘(5ZA) The application must provide satisfactory evidence that anti-money laundering checks have taken place.’

(b) after section 13 insert—

‘13A Satisfactory evidence of anti-money laundering checks

(1) The Registrar is entitled to accept the anti-money laundering registration number of the United Kingdom body that has submitted the application as satisfactory evidence under section 9(5ZA), provided he or she believes that number to be valid.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument specify any other evidence that the Registrar may accept under section 9(5ZA).

(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.’”—

This new clause would amend the Companies Act 2006 to ensure that the Registrar of Companies does not register a company under that Act unless the required anti-money laundering checks have taken place.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 11—Due diligence—

“(1) For the purposes of preventing money laundering, when a company is formed, any company formation agent providing formation services must ensure that the identity and business risk profile of all beneficial owners of the company are established in accordance with—

(a) the customer due diligence measures under the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 (S.I. 2017/692),

(b) regulations made under section 41 of this Act, or

(c) the Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on anti-money laundering measures.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), Companies House is to be treated as a ‘company formation agent’.”

This new clause would ensure that when a company is formed in the UK, the relevant formation services must identify the beneficial owners of the company. It will also treat Companies House as a “company formation agent”, ensuring that the data on the public register of beneficial ownership for companies is accurate.

New clause 12—Companies House: due diligence and resources—

“(1) For the purposes of preventing money laundering, the Companies Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1061 (the registrar’s functions) after subsection (1) insert—

‘(1A) Functions directed by the Secretary of State under subsection (1)(b) must include due diligence on a person wishing to register a company.

(1B) In this section “due diligence” has the same meaning as “customer due diligence measures” in regulation 3 of the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 (S.I. 692/2017).’

(3) In section 1063 (Fees payable to the registrar), in subsection (2)(a) after ‘Secretary of State’ insert ‘including the duty of due diligence under section 1061(1A).’”

This new clause would amend the duties of Companies House to ensure that any person wishing to register a company must be checked for due diligence by Companies House, in line with the measures included in the Money Laundering Regulations 2017. It also ensures that the Secretary of State can charge fees for due diligence checks to cover costs incurred by Companies House.

New clause 13—UK bank accounts—

“(1) For the purposes of tackling money laundering, the Companies Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 853A (duty to deliver confirmation statements), after subsection (1) insert—

‘(1A) In subsection (1) “information” includes such information as is able to demonstrate that the company has a UK bank account.

(1B) Any company that is unable to provide the information required in subsection (1A) is liable to a fee which may be prescribed by regulations.’”

This new clause would ensure that all companies wishing to be created in the UK must provide evidence of a UK bank account to ensure it has gone through proper money laundering checks by a UK supervising body. If a company is unable to provide proof then they are liable to a fee which will cover the cost of such checks.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is a pleasure to present the new clauses to the Committee. As colleagues will know, they all essentially call for an increase in the due diligence and anti-money laundering checks for those who register a company through Companies House.

There is a clear rationale for the new clauses. Around 40% of incorporations in the UK every year are done directly through Companies House, which in many ways offers an easy and helpful service. It is very quick; it is one of the fastest and easiest ways to form a company—it costs only £12 and takes a matter of minutes to complete the necessary paperwork online. That is all very positive, but the negative side comes from the risks that result from an approach where there is insufficient due diligence on the data submitted through that route.

The problem, as I am sure Ministers are well aware—I have asked a number of parliamentary questions to probe this—is that Companies House is exempt from the Money Laundering Regulations 2017 because of its not-for-profit status and the fact that it is not a company service provider. That means that a huge number of companies are created without any checks being made on the person setting up the company or the source of their wealth. We are talking about 251,628 companies last year.

As I said, there are very positive aspects to being able to create companies quickly, but the quality of data that results from that is potentially very poor; my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland talked of, potentially, 10% of company reports not including the appropriate information. There are some cases that might almost be humorous, but given the the circumstances they are deeply disturbing and indicate how little due diligence is taking place. An investigative journalist, Oliver Bullough, created a company called “Crooked Crook Crook Ltd.” With that name, many of us might think that this would be a company we would want to look into, but no, the confirmation documents were delivered within 36 hours. He details in an article, which colleagues can look up, should they wish, how easy it was to create that company. If he had not reported his activities in an article for a media outlet, his company could have gone on to partake in a myriad of activities, showing just how cheap, easy and disposable company formation through Companies House can be.

There are many concerns about that. We have a new regime in place now through the money laundering regulations, which covers trust and company service providers—TCSPs—as we have already mentioned. We have some amendments further down the agenda looking at some of those, because there is a particular issue around the operations of non-UK TCSPs. It is surely the case that when a company can be created through a TCSP, that TCSP has to follow all money laundering legislation, but when it does not go through a TCSP, and there is no money laundering legislation applying to it, we should be very concerned. Potentially, that money laundering regulation is undermined by having this massive loophole in place.

There are many disturbing findings from the data from Companies House that has been crunched by different investigative journalists and NGOs. We find that 4,000 beneficial owners named in the Companies House register are under the age of two. My daughter is two. She is really good at lots of things, such as climbing on to chairs. I am not sure that she or any of her playmates would be very good at being a person exercising significant control within a company. There are five beneficial owners registered who control more than 6,000 companies. Perhaps each one of those five are exercising all of their responsibilities perfectly in line with legislation and probity, but it must be very difficult for them to do that. We also have the fact that companies from secrecy jurisdictions can then be registered by Companies House through a UK company, or another formation agent, without there being any background or due diligence check.

I realise that some of these cases might sound a little bit silly, but potentially we are talking about some very worrying examples where there has not been that due diligence and there should have been. There was recently a BBC investigation—we have already referred to it within this Committee—into the case where a UK company registered at a Potters Bar address appeared to facilitate very complex financial arrangements involving the former President of Ukraine. At least £1.2 billion has been funnelled through companies registered at the same Potters Bar address, some of them potentially linked to the very complex situation where huge funds from the Eurovision song contest and lots of other activities seem to have somehow ended up in this company through very unclear routes.

It is concerning that we are in this kind of situation. Because of that, we find a number of professionals highlighting this as an area where we need to have reform. Frances Coulson, the head of insolvency and litigation at Moon Beever Solicitors, has been quoted as saying that this money is passing through Britain, through companies created with insufficient due diligence. She said:

“This is going on now and all the time…All the indicators are that it’s getting worse.”

And she said that,

“better due diligence—such as checking identification documents—by company formation agents and the UK corporate register, Companies House, would help combat fraud.”

Even if we do not manage to pass these new clauses at this stage, I hope that we will at least get some clarification on some of the rather unclear aspects of the regulatory regime. First, there is the role of Companies House. We are getting only a bit of an inkling of the role of Companies House through parliamentary questions. One response, given on 12 October 2017, said that the Government’s view is that Companies House

“does not have a front-line role in combatting money laundering”.

In the same month we were told:

“Companies House does not have powers to verify the authenticity of company directors, secretaries and registered office addresses. However, it does carry out a number of checks on all information received; ensuring it is valid, complete, correctly formatted and in compliance with company filing requirements.”

However, when we try to find out what this verification process involves, the picture gets rather complicated. Is any automated verification of beneficial ownership information occurring? I tried to find out in February, and no, there are “no current plans” to undertake that; however, Companies House is, it seems, undertaking activities, including,

“contacting companies where they believe the company has misunderstood the requirements…pursuing companies that have not provided PSC information”— it seems that there is a huge number it will have to pursue, given the statistics discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland. It is also

“following up with companies and PSCs where they have issued notices to their PSC (asking the PSCs to provide them with information)”—

PSCs being “people with significant control”—and

“seeking compliance from companies where there has been a complaint about missing or incorrect PSC information.”

This was where the picture got more confused. [Interruption.]

I may have heard the Minister suggesting that I was rabbiting on. I am terribly sorry, but some of us are concerned about these matters and a number of professionals have contacted us about their concerns, so it is absolutely right that we deal with them in this Committee.

I tried to find out how many reports have been made about money laundering through the “report it” facility that Companies House has set up. The Minister of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), responded to me on 19 December, stating:

“Eight reports about money laundering have been made through the Companies House report it facility.”

However, I was then told on 20 December that the new “Report It Now” feature had led to Companies House

“receiving between 180-200 contacts a day through this service.”

That seems like quite a big gap. Will the Economic Secretary please indicate how many of those reports are about money laundering? Is it eight, or is it 180 to 200 a day?

I have been very concerned by the Government’s claim, in the same written answer:

“Higher risk company formation activities in the UK will generally be done via Trust or Company Service Providers, who are subject to the Money Laundering Regulations.”

I want to illustrate that with one last example, which I was told about yesterday and is quite concerning. It is the case of an individual who has previously described himself as “The Chicken Thief”. That is his name as a person of significant control within the Companies House database. His real name is thought to be Antonio Righi—a mafia kingpin in Italy. If someone searches for his name on the Companies House website, as an academic did yesterday before informing me about this, they get a link to Business Bank Italy Ltd.

All banks should be regulated through the FCA nowadays. We are supposed to have that proper approach in place. The use of the word “bank” in a company name is restricted. Any would-be bank has needed to obtain a letter or email of non-objection from the FCA before being allowed to operate as a bank. Yet we see this company still apparently registered with Companies House.

That is deeply worrying because the individual concerned has been named as an active member of the Camorra—a very problematic criminal network that operates in Italy, with links in many other countries. The revelations about “The Chicken Thief” are not new, so one would have thought that Business Bank Italy would have been looked into carefully by the Government, but apparently not, and it still appears to be registered on the Companies House website. I hope the Minister can indicate why that is and whether he will look into this matter, if he has not done so already.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:00 pm, 6th March 2018

I support the new clauses proposed by the hon. Member for Oxford East. They flag up a huge loophole in the anti-money laundering regime, which is the inability of Companies House to do anything about what comes through its door. By not acting on information, and expecting company formation agents to behave in a different way from the way the Government’s own agency behaves, the Government become complicit in the money laundering that is clearly going on through companies that are registered for only £12.

The situation is curious. Last week I sat on a delegated legislation Committee that discussed passport fees and the need for full cost recovery of those fees by the Government because the Passport Agency wants to ensure that it is not making a loss. There is an argument about whether passports are too expensive, which I think they are, but it costs £12 for the registration of a company. If Companies House is not getting full-cost recovery for that, and that is the reason for not carrying out the due diligence that ought to be done on anti-money laundering, that is an argument to find a reasonable cost of registration that would allow Companies House to operate, make money and have sufficient funds to carry out the due diligence it ought to. If there is an incentive not to play by the rules, and the Government are incentivising that through the operation of their own agency, that is nonsense. That is highlighted in Global Witness’s “The Idiot’s Guide to Money Laundering”:

“Step 4: open your company direct with the corporate registry—they don’t do any checks on you!”

It seems ludicrous that the Government are going to encourage agents who want to set up companies for people to do that and go through the anti-money laundering things that they have to do, but the Government are not enforcing that. That seems absolutely ludicrous. I cannot for the life of me think how the Government will defend that unjustifiable loophole.

Transparency International reported that in the UK last year, 251,628 companies were created with no checks being made on the person setting up the company or their source of wealth. It is a scandal that these companies can be set up, facilitated by the Government, because Companies House has to accept their documents in good faith without doing due diligence checks that we would expect of other agents. If they are not going to support the new clauses, I urge the Government to propose a measure themselves, because this simply cannot continue.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The new clauses are broadly similar in purpose and intention. Each would expand the role that Companies House plays in relation to anti-money laundering checks, whether by conducting due diligence directly, confirming that due diligence has been carried out, or confirming that a company seeking to be incorporated has a UK bank account.

I will turn to the practical difficulties of these proposals in a moment, but the first point to make in connection with each is that the UK’s anti-money laundering regime is undergoing an assessment by the Financial Action Task Force. The FATF is the international standard setter in this area and will report publicly later this year on its findings. The report will consider matters, including the effectiveness of how the UK prevents the misuse of legal persons, such as companies, for money laundering purposes. Hon. Members will appreciate that this report will greatly inform the future of the UK’s anti-money laundering regime, including in relation to how we can best prevent the misuse of legal entities, some of which have been described in the course of this debate.

Once the FATF has reported, the Government will actively consider its conclusions, including those in relation to any areas in which the UK’s anti-money laundering framework can be improved. These new clauses pre-empt the review process already under way. It would be more sensible to allow the review to identify specific areas where action is necessary before making further changes to our AML regime.

New clause 10 would require anti-money laundering checks to be undertaken before any UK company can be incorporated by preventing the registrar of companies from registering a company unless she is satisfied that such checks have been carried out. It then says that the registrar is entitled to accept the anti-money laundering registration number of the UK body that has submitted the application as evidence that such checks have taken place. The effect would be to require all incorporations to be made through a UK body regulated for anti-money laundering purposes. This would prevent people from applying directly to Companies House to register and set up their own business; any person seeking to set up a business would be required to use the services of a professional agent that is also regulated for anti-money laundering purposes, and pay for those services, which will in turn increase the cost of setting up businesses.

The proposed new clause assumes that all bad companies are set up directly with Companies House, and that only companies set up through the agency of a regulated professional can be trusted. That is simply not true. Only the simplest companies—those using standard-form constitutions—can be set up directly with Companies House online in the way described by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. Typically they are self-standing, family-run and family-operated businesses. More complex corporate structures will, in contrast, frequently be established through trust or company service providers. The UK’s national risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing noted last year that

“While companies can be registered directly with Companies House, criminals continue to make use of third party TCSPs, to establish the structures within which illegitimate activity subsequently takes place.”

The fact that TCSPs are legally required to conduct customer due diligence does not in and of itself solve the problem. The new clause would therefore impose an across-the-board administrative burden on individuals seeking to establish companies, without adding any significant new obstacles to money laundering. Companies incorporated directly through Companies House are overwhelmingly likely to interact with the UK regulated sector, and so face anti-money laundering checks either by having a UK bank account or through having a UK accountant.

We discussed in the previous debate the 22 different regimes, and this speaks to the necessity for some degree of complexity to minimise the risks as far as possible. New clauses 11 and 12 are similar in outcome to new clause 10: they would require company formation agents—defined for these purposes as including the UK registrar of companies at Companies House—to conduct customer due diligence to establish the identity and risk profile of all beneficial owners of such companies registered at Companies House. The key difference is the reclassification of Companies House, which would now be required to deliver its statutory duties as if it were a private sector business. The accompanying explanatory statement suggests that these clauses will identify the beneficial owners of a company and make information held at Companies House more accurate. Although similar to the proposed new clause 10, these new clauses would go further in imposing expansive new obligations upon Companies House, requiring significant changes to the UK company law system.

Given the overlap with the lead new clause in the group, I will focus on the most novel element: the proposal that Companies House be treated as a company formation agent. Since the registrar of companies was first created, it has been required to accept any application that is validly and correctly submitted, and to duly incorporate the company as requested. Companies House does not help customers through this process, and is responsible solely for conducting the process of company incorporation. Company formation agents, known as TCSPs, are entirely distinct from Companies House. They are already subject to due diligence obligations through the Money Laundering Regulations 2017, and these extend to being required to terminate any existing business relationship when they are unable to meet their due diligence obligations. In contrast, Companies House has no legal right to refuse or decline a request to incorporate a company if the application is valid, and therefore it does not have the ability to decline a business relationship in the way that TCSPs must when they cannot discharge their due diligence obligations. If accepted, these amendments would essentially require fundamental reform of the Companies Act 2006.

To emphasise the scale of that proposed reform, 3.9 million companies are currently registered at Companies House and approximately 600,000 new companies register each year. The impact on resource to carry out due diligence on that number of companies would be considerable. The burdens and cost would fall on those 3.9 million companies, and specifically on the vast majority of legitimate companies, many of which are very small businesses. They would be forced to pay to duplicate the cost of due diligence checks that are already conducted by banks and other regulated professionals. The overall cost to the UK economy could run into hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

New clause 13 would amend part 24 of the Companies Act so as to require UK companies to establish a UK bank account and evidence that to Companies House on an annual basis or pay a fee or financial penalty. As with other new clauses in this group, new clause 13 will not achieve its stated intention. The wider purpose behind that part of the Act is to provide a simple mechanism for companies to confirm that corporate information registered with Companies House, as required under other obligations, is accurate and up to date in relation to company share capital, business activities and the address of a company’s registered office.

That is not to say that the new clause’s underlying principle does not merit further consideration. Evidence of a UK bank account is intended to demonstrate that a company has been through proper money laundering checks by a UK supervising body related to the financial activities of that company. However, the practical implications need careful consideration. To make the proposal operational, Companies House would require new systems with access to UK and international banking information. The costs associated with the development and operation of such systems would inevitably be large and would need to be recovered from UK businesses. Once again, that would necessarily establish a new reporting burden that would essentially target the overwhelming majority of law-abiding UK businesses.

The new clause suggests that companies that cannot provide evidence that they have a UK bank account would be liable to a fee, although that could better be characterised as a penalty—its purpose is not specified. If it is intended to incentivise companies that are established to launder money to open a UK bank account, it would need to be set sufficiently high to achieve that objective, which would be disproportionate to the notional offence of not providing evidence of a UK bank account.

The Government are already active in that sphere. Under the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017, regulated bodies such as banks are obliged to carry out CDD checks on their customers on an ongoing basis. That is a rich field of data, and the regulated sector is already closely engaged with UK law enforcement to identify and report suspicious behaviour. In parallel, Companies House has an extensive outreach programme to the regulated sector to promote use of its data and encourage bodies to report possible errors back to it.

To sum up, a simple demonstration of a bank account is a blunt instrument. As drafted, the new clause simply adds a burden to UK companies to report more information. We should not proceed down that path without being much clearer that the information we require them to disclose is valuable, that it is necessary and that it cannot be achieved by other less burdensome means. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Oxford East to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to the Economic Secretary for those clarifications. He made several helpful points, but some concerns remain. He mentioned the FATF process, which the Committee has discussed previously, and seemed to suggest that we should not make alterations in this area of anti-money laundering activity because of the ongoing FATF assessment. Of course, that argument could stop action in any other area, because the FATF is looking at anti-money laundering and anti-corruption provisions across the board, so it is not clear that it is completely convincing. Furthermore, I understand that representations have been made to the FATF as part of its review that change is needed in this area, which suggests that the argument is the other way round. The Economic Secretary also suggested that there would be a much higher cost for those that want to incorporate through a TCSP. In practice, as I understand it, the cost may not be substantial—only a couple of pounds more in many cases.

I return to the point about who assesses and how they conclude that those companies formed only through Companies House are necessarily lower risk. The Minister threw it back at me and said and I was assuming that all those companies formed through routes other than Companies House were perfect. I do not say that, and that is why we have other amendments about TCSPs coming up soon. As I understand it, there have been many concerns about fraudulent companies set up through Companies House—for example, offering to do work on people’s houses: there by day, off by night, do a bad job, and run off with the money. It is easy to do if no one is checking that you are who you say you are.

Some of the checking that has been talked about is not necessarily as onerous as the Minister suggests. I am sure many of us will be familiar, if we try to buy tickets—something like that—with having to put in basic identification information. We have to put our name in; the system will check that our postcode matches our address. Currently, you do not have to go to those lengths with Companies House.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade and Investment) 4:15 pm, 6th March 2018

Does the hon. Lady agree that we are letting our citizens down if we do not legislate properly and close these loopholes? I am sure we have all had constituency cases where people have lost money to unscrupulous companies and company owners. We have an opportunity to take action, and we must take it. The Government are letting citizens down if they do not accept the new clauses.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making the point clearly that our proposal has been portrayed as only a burden, when it could help to prevent our constituents from being ripped off by unscrupulous individuals who are able to set themselves up as a company with only minimum requirements for due diligence. As I said, they can be there by day, fly off by night, and leave the unfortunate person who dealt with that company in a very difficult position.

To end my remarks specifically on the Minister’s comments on new clause 13, many of us are worried that, in practice, there are TCSPs that offer UK company formation with a range of optional services, including setting up bank accounts in other jurisdictions such as Latvia, Belize, Switzerland and Cyprus. That would not necessarily be a problem, were it not for the fact that, time and again, we have seen in the cases we have discussed in this Committee that reliance on the third parties—the banks in those other countries—does not lead to a real assurance that money laundering provisions are being followed. The reality is quite the opposite.

In the Russian laundromat scandal, which we have already talked about, of the 440 UK shell companies used in the scheme—in itself, a staggering statistic—392 of them had Baltic bank accounts, with 270 UK firms using Latvian banks and 122 using banks in Estonia. It may be that we are fully confident in every case that anti-money laundering regulations were followed in those countries, but given some of what came out of the Russian laundromat scandal, it could be suggested that that is not the case.

We do need to get at this problem through another route. We need reform of the Companies House system, but we also need the use of another prong, which is requiring a UK bank account.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division number 15 Caledonian Pinewood Forest — Registration of companies: anti-money laundering checks

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 11