Examination of witness

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:04 am on 6th July 2021.

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Dr John Tribe gave evidence.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 10:33 am, 6th July 2021

Q We will now hear oral evidence from Dr John Tribe, senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool. We have until 11.25 am for this session. Please introduce yourself for the record and make some remarks about the Bill.

Dr Tribe:

Thank you very much for the invitation and opportunity to address the Committee on this important Bill. I will address the second half of the Bill and the clauses on directors disqualification. Like all the contributions on Second Reading in the House of Commons, I welcome and support the changes that the Bill introduces to the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 and the extension of the public protection provisions in that Act to unfit directors of dissolved companies.

The measures are a welcome addition to the insolvency framework and system that work effectively and are well managed by the Insolvency Service and its diligent and hard-working staff. This new statutory addition to their armoury is a necessary power to maintain public confidence, to protect the public from unfit directors, and to maintain the integrity of the limited liability company form.

My contributions to this Committee come from an academic viewpoint, as a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool. For 20 years, I have been researching and writing about insolvency law, both corporate and personal. For much of that time, I have been interested in the role and accountability of office holders, including company directors. I have been editor of the Mithani: Directors’ Disqualification newsletter, and continue to sit on the editorial board of that publication. More recently, I have written about the disqualification proceedings in Kids Company and Carillion. I have five brief points or observations to make on the Bill: if the Chair allows, I can run through those. They are brief, if you want me to address them at this point.

Dr Tribe:

The first is on limited liability and corporate form abuse. I view the corporate form as a statutory privilege—a concession of the legislature that should be managed properly and should be used by individuals adhering to the highest standards of commercial morality and probity. Put simply, directors should know their duties and live up to them. They should be held to account if they do not, and certainly if they stray further into the realm of the unfit.

My second point is on phoenixing. Contributions from across the House of Commons on Second Reading of the Bill, the explanatory notes to the Bill, and the Parliament Library document on the Bill have all mentioned the phenomenon of phoenixing, and comments suggest that the misuse of limited liability companies and of the bounce back loan scheme is the latest example of this sort of undesirable behaviour, or “unfit” behaviour, to use the language of section 6 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. I agree with the comments that have been made: phoenixing has been a perennial problem with the limited liability form because of the damage that misuse of that form can do to creditors, and it is right that it is troubling us now in the context of the bounce back loan system as part of the Government’s package of support during the pandemic. The taxpayer stepped up and provided these bounce back loans; the taxpayer should be protected now at this point, and the Insolvency Service needs the tools and, most importantly, the funding to do that work.

My third point is on directors disqualification and public protection. Through the history of our corporate insolvency laws, we have grappled with the balance between entrepreneurialism on the one hand and the kind of behaviour we are discussing today—unfit behaviour and malpractice—on the other. Indeed, directors disqualification provisions were first introduced in the Companies Act 1928, and there have been several reforms and updates over time since then—and hopefully, in my view, also with this 2021 Bill, if it is passed.

Over the past 20 years or so, we have also gradually increased the number of entities that are subject to the disqualification regime, and dissolved companies are the latest vehicle in a long-running trend, because there will always be some misuse. We need to ensure that the relevant regulator has the powers and funding to combat that unfit behaviour when it does arise, because public protection is, in my view, the main driver of the directors disqualification regime. As we know, the limited liability form is the basis of our credit system: if it is not protected properly, the whole system could ultimately be damaged.

My fourth and penultimate point is on the dissolution statistics. We know that dissolution is an important part of keeping the Companies House register in order. Dissolution is part of the normal life cycle of the company; dissolution keeps the register tidy and up to date. It happens regularly, and it is necessary. As you perhaps already know, there were approximately half a million dissolutions per year over the past six years, and the explanatory notes to the Bill explain that in the first quarter of 2021, we saw some 170,000 dissolutions. It is appropriate that these take place, for the reasons I have outlined—namely, keeping the register in good order—but unfortunately, among those dissolutions, there could be some of the unscrupulous activities that we have been mulling over, namely the dissolution of a company that has taken out a bounce back loan and has been dissolved before the loan has been paid back to what is ultimately the taxpayer-creditor. This is a loophole, and it should be closed so that directors of live companies, directors of insolvent companies and directors of dissolved companies are all treated the same way for the purposes of section 6 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986.

In late June 2021—I think it was the 21st—the Public Accounts Committee projected a loss of between £16 billion and £27 billion of bounce back loans, from a total of approximately £90 billion that was lent by the British Business Bank via the banks. As you know, PricewaterhouseCoopers is due to report on the extent of fraud and credit failure within that £27 billion. There could be a huge loss to the taxpayer, unfortunately. Any loopholes that may have helped facilitate those losses, which, in turn, help evade responsibility for those losses, should be closed.

My final point is on funding. The Insolvency Service needs to be properly funded to ensure that this additional disqualification work can happen. Until appropriate funding is hammered out, the provisions in the Bill still provide a deterrent to those who seek to use limited liability forms in an unfit manner. The Bill’s clauses, and any compensation orders which may follow directors disqualifications, go some way to ensuring that limited liability corporate forms are protected, and that delinquent directors have an immediate, powerful deterrent against abuse of conduct, so that trust in our system is maintained. In short, the bigger the stick, the better the deterrent. That is my introductory statement.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Thank you, Dr Tribe. We will now take some questions from Committee members.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you Dr Tribe, that was a very helpful overview, and pretty unqualified support for the principle of the Bill. It did seem that your main concern is about resourcing it. You said that until appropriate funding is handed out to the Insolvency Service, the Bill will, at least, be a deterrent. Do you have a view as to the nature of the problem, and the funding that the Insolvency service would need to actually make this work?

Dr Tribe:

It is my impression that this new work to deal with directors of dissolved companies who have potentially behaved in an unfit manner would be subsumed into the general run of business of the disqualification unit at the Insolvency Service. They prioritise the most egregious cases, or those that help send out a public protection signal to the public. In the interim, I think this kind of work would fall into that part of their function. My point about hammering out or ensuring funding is in place is partly in response to some comments on funding made on Second Reading of the Bill. Since the Companies Act 1928, and perhaps most famously in the Cork report of 1982, this question of whether the disqualification regime is properly funded has always existed. Its lack of efficacy between 1928 and 1982 was put down to a lack of resourcing.

That point is very important, because in essence this is the system that protects the limited liability form, the engine of capitalism that drives through our commercial activities. Unless the Insolvency Service is able to properly resource and ensure that this work is undertaken, we have a problem when we try to pursue those who are responsible for the loss of between £16 billion and £27 billion. This potentially unknown—we will find out when the PwC report comes in—and potentially large gap will need to be addressed in terms of where the money went and who was responsible for causing that money to be dissipated.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you, that is helpful. Just as a follow-up, are you concerned that there might be a focus on making use of these new powers at the expense of current work on other insolvent companies?

Dr Tribe:

Not necessarily. Going back to my prioritisation point, the Insolvency Service obviously has finite resources that it needs to deploy in the best way possible—I suppose that is a problem for many public bodies— if other types of abuse manifest over time. The most obvious and recent problem is the bounce back loan phoenixism problem, but in due course other things might come about that require us to tinker with our corporate and insolvency law so that we have an effective system that maintains trust and confidence in it. What the Insolvency Service wants to do in terms of prioritising threats to the system will depend on its internal guidance.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q Dr Tribe, I want to ask first whether you have a view about the existing sanctions that are available to use against directors who may be abusing the dissolution process—perhaps powers that are currently available but are not used as extensively as they might be. That is one of the challenges that critics of this legislation may make.

Secondly, are there any other more general problems with the dissolution of companies that are important to discuss at this time while changes are being made? Should changes be made to the eligibility criteria on dissolutions? What steps need to be taken prior to dissolution?

Dr Tribe:

I will take the first question first. I think you are drawing attention to the compensation order regime, and you did so on Second Reading, too. There is some interesting research by Dr Williams at Cambridge in 2014, who looked—he sort of future-gazed—at how successful the compensation system might be. In that research, he highlighted that some of the directors in small closely held companies, which he argues the regime mainly targets, might end up being adjudicated bankrupt—they might go through the bankruptcy process, I should say—in due course. That would mean, of course, that any pursuit of those individuals would run into another layer of difficulty in trying to get to the value that might be there for the insolvent estate of the company or dissolved company that we are dealing with. His work future-gazed in that way at some of these issues.

It is true to say that, on the compensation regime, we saw one case in 2019, the Noble Vintners case, where insolvency and companies court Judge Prentis made a 15-year disqualification order. That is right at the top of what we call the Sevenoaks scale, after the case in which Lord Justice Dillon set out the various types of malpractice and where they fall on the scale, from two years up to 15. In the Noble Vintners case, it was the most unfit behaviour on the facts of that case that you could have —up at the 15-year period. Then, of course, that was followed by a compensation order that recouped for creditors just over half a million pounds—£559,000.

There has been some success with the compensation scheme. It is in its early days, in a certain sense. Although the reforms came in in 2015, there was a delay in implementation. You are right to say that we should pause for thought and mull over how effective that is. That takes us back to the resourcing and funding point, for one thing. Secondly, it takes us to the idea of that prioritisation agenda and how fruitful a claim that you are going to bring might be to get compensation. It is a power that exists and should exist. It goes some way—as you can see from the case of Noble Vintners—to getting value back into the insolvent estate for the creditors. It is a positive thing for creditors, and something that the disqualification regime did not do until that reform in 2015. Of course, it provided a protection mechanism, but in terms of getting value back into the estate, that is a good reform. That is your first question.

Your second question was on dissolution problems. I think you might be driving at the process of dissolution and how the registrar at Companies House deals with dissolution. After the directors have signed their form, made their declaration, paid the £10 and noted that there is going to be a striking off and that is published in the London Gazette, there is a period of two months where all the parties that should be informed—shareholders, creditors, employees and pension managers, for example—might know of this potential dissolution and should then, therefore, perhaps act on it as creditors. Some of the witnesses who have gone before me may have addressed this, particularly those from the credit community. In due course, as part of a wider analysis of what Companies House and its function is, that step in dissolution may be looked at.

As I said earlier, there are approximately half a million dissolutions per year, and many of those are for very good reasons in terms of, as I have said, maintaining the integrity of the register and getting rid of companies that have been through the insolvency processes but then get dissolved as well. The guidance for the Bill and some other sources note that among those half a million dissolutions, there could be about 5,000 that are potentially problematic that we would want the Insolvency Service to be able to investigate. Obviously, 5,000 is a lot more than the current levels of disqualification under the current provisions. Over the past decade or so, there have been about 1,200 a year, so you can see there is quite a significant upshift in the work that the Insolvency Service might have to do.

A Companies House review perhaps in due course mulling on what its function is—is it a regulator, is it a repository of information?—might look to dissolution, but in the short term I think you have this £17 billion to £26 billion problem, and there seems to be a loophole that needs to be closed.

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

Q Thank you, Ms Rees, and good morning, Dr Tribe. Following on from that last question, there are three kinds of sanctions available now: the director disqualification, the compensation order and, ultimately, criminal prosecution. Are there significant differences, first, in the burden of proof required for each of those actions, and secondly, in the cost and time taken to bring any of those actions to fruition?

Dr Tribe:

I think you are right to point out that there are different avenues that could be visited on the directors that we are talking about. We are not necessarily talking about directors in the general run of business; we are talking about people, as perhaps you suggest, who engage in criminal behaviour. For example, with the bounce back loan scheme, a form of fraud could lead to a prosecution.

What we are dealing with today, though, particularly with this amendment to the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, is a regulatory function, so we are dealing with a lower burden of proof than we would if it was a criminal sanction for any subsequent prosecution for fraud. In that sense, on the Insolvency Service’s work on what is known as a jury question in the context of directors’ disqualification, with each case being looked at on its facts, the determination whether whatever has occurred has been deemed to be unfit does have that lower evidential burden than any subsequent criminal activity that the prosecuting authorities might address. In that sense, the disqualification regime is perhaps better able to get deterrent-type results than mounting subsequent criminal prosecutions. We know, of course, that the criminal justice regime is also having some problems with funding. If the disqualification regime is able to achieve any public policy outcomes in terms of deterrent, in a regulatory manner, that is perhaps quite effective.

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

Q You also mentioned, as some other witnesses have, what is known as phoenixing. There is a variant of that practice whereby, rather than creating a new company immediately after the old one has been dissolved, you create what looks on the surface like a legitimate group company structure, and then over time, you very quietly shift all the assets over to one company, leave all their liabilities in another one, wind up the company with the liabilities, and then the directors help themselves to the company with the assets. Does this legislation do anything to address that particular loophole, and if not, what further changes are needed to prevent, or at least strongly discourage, that practice?

Dr Tribe:

That is an interesting question because it highlights the long history of English and Welsh and Scottish company provisions when we are thinking about the nature of groups of companies and then single entities, and how structures and groups are used and how we move value between one entity and another.

There is the quite interesting case of Creasey v. Breachwood Motors Ltd where, because of an employment claim, value was moved into a new entity, and of course the claim was left with the original company, meaning that that employee had an empty shell through which to pursue their claim, which was problematic. The judge at first instance was able to say, “No, in the interests of justice, you can switch your claim to that new entity.” That judgment was overruled subsequently, but it does raise an important point. Indeed, in the case that overruled it, the group reconstruction that occurred was held to be legitimate for tax reasons. There are instances of the kind of behaviour that you are talking about that can perhaps be problematic in the pure phoenixing sense, but then there are legitimate reconstructions that happen where the intentions of the directors were for tax efficiency or some other purpose that is not unfit or nefarious in the way that we are discussing.

In terms of the misuse of the corporate form, one can go right back through our company law history to recite many examples of essentially what we are talking about—phoenixing, or what has been called centrebinding—and some of the critique of pre-packaged administration is around the same point. Is it appropriate that the corporate form is able to be used in this way so that the creditors of company A are left languishing while all the value is moved into company B in the way you have described?

That takes me back to my introductory response point, which is that in English and Welsh and Scottish law, for a very long time we have used the separate juristic person—the company as a thing. It is a really sacrosanct idea that, just like I am not responsible for your debts, and you are not responsible for mine, we have that structure in place for policy reasons, and have done since the 19th century originally, to aggregate wealth and entrepreneurial activity. I suppose you as the legislature expect that, as part of that privilege that you have allowed incorporators to use, over time you will get some form of abuse, and that element, which is hopefully as small as possible, has to be dealt with, like we are trying to do today, or, to some extent, tolerated.

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

Q Finally, I want to look at the retrospective nature of some of the provisions from a legal point of view. First, do you have any concerns not about the principle of creating a retrospective offence, which the Bill does not do, but about retrospectively giving powers to an enforcement agency that we used not to have? Do you have any concerns about the natural justice issues that that might raise? Alternatively, are there circumstances where the three-year time limit is too short and where you would be in favour of allowing the Insolvency Service to go back more than three years before the dissolution date?

Dr Tribe:

On your first point, which was about retrospective activity, it is much like the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 reforms, which have successfully been passed. We have seen lots of new cases on the provisions that were in that Bill; it has been very successful. The reforms in that statute were mooted much earlier, in 2018. It is the same with this suggestion to close the dissolution loophole. Much like with the 2020 CIGA provision, the coronavirus has freed up legislative time to get both sets of provisions—the CIGA activity and the dissolution activity—in front of you to get it on to the statute book. Some of this was discussed by Sarah Olney on Second Reading.

What does it mean in terms of the retrospective nature of what you are doing? We had the idea some time ago, and corona has meant that we have had to address it against the backdrop of the bounce back loan scheme. Unfortunately, the abuse of that scheme seems to be so massive—as we have seen, there is a £16 billion to £27 billion projected shortfall, or loss—that we need to go back in time to look at some behaviour. Of course, we are not generally speaking about breaches of duty in the general sense of directors’ duties. We are talking about what could be seen as the use of the corporate form purposely to avoid the insolvency provisions and the oversight that they can give, with the powers that are currently in the Act that we are dealing with.

That needs to be dealt with, and if it is in a retrospective way—you may have seen in late June that there was a disqualification order for 12 years because of some fraudulent activity that had occurred with a Mr Khan and his Birmingham-based business, where he had forged documents to get a bounce back loan of £50,000. The Insolvency Service successfully brought that action following administration. Some Glasgow-based companies have also been wound up in the public interest because of bounce back loan abuse. To answer your question briefly, it is the bounce back loan fraud that has meant we have had to act retrospectively. No, I do not have any issues on that point.

On your question about three years, I suppose that again goes back to funding and time limits, and whether the Insolvency Service is adequately resourced to deal with the amount of dissolutions—whether it is 5,000 as predicted, or whether the forthcoming PwC report shows that it is much worse. If it is well resourced, the time issues might not be such a problem. If it is not, they perhaps will be.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Q I have just two brief questions, because you opened up and summarised well. The point about funding has come up quite a lot, and I wonder if you could expand on some of your comments. You talked about the public interest test and the prioritisation of the Insolvency Service’s cases, so that it would look at the bigger, most egregious issues first. Obviously, with the number of cases you are talking about, it would also presumably look at the ones where there is a realistic likelihood of a successful outcome, rather just investigating every case.

Dr Tribe:

In some writing on this point in relation to Carillion, I suggested the reason that the Insolvency Service might be looking at a large public limited company to bring these mechanisms to bear is because that is a pretty well known, massive liquidation, which has lots of Government contracts linked to it and taxpayer money bound up in its activities. You can see why it would perhaps be appropriate, much as with previous well-known disqualifications, for the Insolvency Service to bring the action or the proceedings if the relevant public interest tests are met. That is because it helps with the agenda of sending out the appropriate messages to the commercial community that you should use corporate vehicles and corporate forms in an appropriate way, and that you should live up to your duties in an appropriate way generally, as well as facing some of the consequences if you misuse the form and harm creditors and other stakeholders.

On the prioritisation point, you could go for good messaging, in the sense of prioritising cases. I suppose that the problem with the bounce back loan scheme and this dissolution issue that we are dealing with is that, as I think one of the previous questions hinted at, the volume of cases could be so great that with prioritisation you will need to have quite a large group of civil servants working on the issue.

As for the question of how likely it is that we might get a result in a case, and therefore whether we should bring proceedings, we have seen recently that once the Insolvency Service’s tests are met, it is wholly appropriate that it should bring these proceedings, even if in due course the result is not what it thought or what its specialist advisers—the QCs and so on who have advised it—would have predicted. Hopefully, the money will be well spent in bringing proceedings, but sometimes we do not get the result for factual reasons, basically.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Q I have a final question. You mentioned Carillion, which you wrote about and studied. Within Carillion and a number of other cases—Carillion is an interesting one, because there are a lot of supply chains in there—as I asked previous panel members, what extra confidence does plugging these loopholes bring to small and medium-sized enterprises?

Dr Tribe:

Carillion, because it is a large plc, has messaging on the plc side of our regime, thinking about how directors behave in relation to those types of companies. This perhaps goes back to Mr Grant’s question about group structures—do not use group structures in a way that is problematic. That will be interesting to monitor on what is a live case; I do not want to mull on the facts of that case too closely.

Sorry, what was the second part of your question?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Q It was about the fact that Carillion obviously has a large supply chain within it, and you have been dealing with and writing about cases with complex supply chains. What confidence can this measure to close that loophole give to SMEs in particular?

Dr Tribe:

Thanks for that clarification. If we can ensure that any vehicle that is used in any form of creditor relationship with different entities has an individual put-off effect by going down this dissolution route that we have identified, it will hopefully increase confidence in the way people use the corporate form. The more loopholes we can close down that have caused us to think the form is being used inappropriately, the better.

Unfortunately, phoenixing, as we have discussed, has been going on for literally decades, and perhaps in the future we might be back here again with some other problem that has arisen because of nefarious activity.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q I will just ask one final question. We have had some written evidence suggesting that the current regime is adequate. If you do not mind my quoting from it, it says:

“Applying the current controls properly, putting dissolved companies into liquidation and publicising that new policy will be a far more effective deterrent...That requires no new legislation at all.”

Do you have a view on that?

Dr Tribe:

The trouble is that to get to that liquidation point, you have to go through the restoration stage. I think that submission might have also talked about the idea of restoring an entity to the register and then going through that insolvency route. I think the Insolvency Service did 33 of those in 2019—pre the bounce back loan issue and pre corona, obviously. Each one of those 33 will have cost it court fees, process fees at Companies House and so on, which means there is this extra layer of procedure that it has to get through before it can ultimately investigate the unfitness activity. I think the dissolution reform in this legislation ensures that that extra layer of bureaucracy—getting the companies back on the register, through restoration, then going through the insolvency processes—is cleared out, and we move straight to the enforcement section.

The other problem with restoration is that you perhaps undermine the integrity of the register itself if you take 33 companies off it, but you then want to put them back on because you need to go through the steps that we want for enforcement and so on. It is an interesting point, but I think you have a quicker public protection mechanism process that you can do now that gets you to a less costly enforcement outcome.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

If there are no further questions, I thank you, Dr Tribe, for giving evidence this morning. It is much appreciated. I thank all the witnesses for appearing this morning.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Paul Scully.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.