Examination of Witness

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:27 am on 6th July 2021.

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Stephen Pegge gave evidence.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 9:32 am, 6th July 2021

We are now sitting in public again, and the proceedings are being broadcast. Before we start hearing from the witnesses, do any Members wish to make any declaration of interest in connection with the Bill?

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

Q So noted. We will now hear oral evidence from Stephen Pegge, managing director, commercial finance, at UK Finance. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I should like to remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 10.30 am.

Stephen Pegge:

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to come along today. My name is Stephen Pegge. I am managing director, commercial finance, at UK Finance. UK Finance is the trade association for finance and banking. We have around 300 members, many of whom provide services to companies, and we are involved more widely in supporting small and medium-sized enterprise policy.

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

Q Do you have any general remarks about the Bill?

Stephen Pegge:

Yes. This is an important Bill, and one that certainly has the support of many in the business community, including lenders. I know that the consultation had widespread support. It does appear that closing this loophole should be beneficial in terms of the enforcement of good practice, the prevention of abuse and a certain degree of deterrence of the misuse of an important and useful facility that allows companies to be dissolved quickly and cheaply, where that is appropriate and justified, as an alternative to liquidation.

There have been instances over the years where companies have been dissolved with outstanding liabilities, as a result of creditors or those who are owed money. I should stress that it is not just a question of banks, but others who may be owed money and indeed consumers who have perhaps paid deposits on work that has not been done or who are unable to recover those funds, because there has been a deliberate attempt to avoid debts by seeking dissolution.

It is possible in current circumstances for action to be taken, but it can be time consuming and costly, and would usually involve restoring a company to the register if it has already been dissolved. The particular arrangements here will make it possible for the Insolvency Service to investigate directors where there is evidence of abuse, even in circumstances where the business is not insolvent, but instead has been dissolved. That is the loophole that the Bill is looking to close and one, as I say, that we would very much support being open.

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

Thank you, Mr Pegge. We will now take questions from members of the Committee, if you would be so kind as to answer. The Opposition traditionally go first, so I call Jeff Smith.

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

Hi, and thanks for coming to give evidence. I am just trying to get a picture of the scale of the problem. To what extent do you think this is a problem? Are the measures in this legislation adequate to deal with the scale of the problem that you think is out thereQ ?

Stephen Pegge:

To put it in context, the Insolvency Service estimates that there is currently evidence of misconduct or misuse of dissolution process in only 1% of cases. Given that there are something like 500,000 dissolutions a year, that might amount to only about 5,000 cases. There is some evidence that it is a rising problem and, given that the average company that is dissolved might have a loan of say £200,000, even 5,000 cases could amount to a risk to creditors of up to £1 billion. It is significant in scale because of the large number of companies, even if it is not currently a high level of risk in proportionate terms. I would emphasise that the vast majority of businesses are honest and straightforward and are not abusing this scheme.

The other factor that members of the Committee may be interested in is that quite clearly over the last year, during the covid crisis, there have been a significant number of companies that have taken finance. Given that the Government, through the British Business Bank, have provided guarantees, there would be an impact on the taxpayer if those loans were not repaid and a claim for repayment were made. Again, that is relevant to consideration.

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

Thank you for your evidence today, Mr Pegge. I understand that you helped to establish the covid-19 lending schemes. The Government have suggested that some companies have been dissolved to avoid paying back Government loans given as coronavirus support. Have you seen any evidence of that? If these measures go through, do you believe, from your experience and what you have seen, that the Insolvency Service is adequately resourced to deal with the expansion of powers it would have through the BillQ ?

Stephen Pegge:

Yes, we have seen instances of this practice being used to try and avoid liability under bounce back loans. Back in May 2020, UK Finance with the British Business Bank established the bounce bank loan fraud collaboration group. It involves attendees from the Cabinet Office; CIFAS, the UK fraud prevention service; the Treasury; BEIS; and the National Investigation Service—NATIS. The aim is for intelligence to be shared, good practice to be developed and a threat log to be maintained and fed into the National Crime Agency and the National Economic Crime Centre. In fact, this was one of the practices which had been identified through that and has led to some efforts more recently to try to intervene and intercept these cases of dissolved companies involving Companies House and BEIS.

In the meantime, it is always possible that these cases may well have got through and there is some evidence—again, reported by the Insolvency Service—that there could be around 2,000 such cases which are dissolved and where currently the powers to investigate do not exist, so it is a real problem. If it were to become a more popular route for fraud, while there are mechanisms to deal with it and creditors can object when they get notice through alerts when these situations are gazetted, unscrupulous individuals can still get through and it is important that it is closed as a loophole.

As regards the resources of the Insolvency Service, we have all been conscious that, while the number of insolvencies has been low during a period of suspension and the generous support that has been provided to businesses through public agencies and the finance industry, we would expect that to rise significantly in this next period. There is already some evidence that it will do so. It is important that the Insolvency Service is resourced sufficiently to be able to deal with this. The evidence at the moment is that they have been involved in disqualification of directors in something like 1,000 or so cases across the last year, so it is quite possible that there might be a rise in the amount of work that they will need to do. We would certainly support any investigation into what additional resources might be necessary.

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

Good morning, Mr Pegge. You have described the loophole of company directors being able to dissolve the company in order to avoid their liabilities. Another way that directors can act is to set up two or three companies, transfer all the assets out of a company, dissolve the company with the debts and retain the companies with the assets. Is that a loophole that will still exist, even if the Bill goes through? If that loophole continues, is there a danger that that then becomes the route of choice for dodgy directors to avoid their liabilitiesQ ?

Stephen Pegge:

I think the practice you are describing is sometimes called phoenixing—setting up a company in the same location with the same assets purporting to be the same business with the same directors. It has certainly been a matter of concern for some time. Putting in place these measures should help to discourage and mitigate the risks of phoenixing: I do not think it entirely removes it. As you say, it is possible, even without these additional powers of investigation, for that to take place, but certainly where there is evidence of abuse, the fact that the Insolvency Service will have powers under the discretion delegated by the Secretary of State to investigate the directors, take action against them in terms of disqualification more generally, and seek compensation from them personally for losses suffered will discourage the practice of phoenixing, which I know is a concern. As I say, I do not think that it entirely removes it, but it certainly will discourage it, and to some extent remove some of the possibilities of it taking place.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

Welcome, Mr Pegge. Do the Government proposals address all the problems that have been identified with the dissolution process in relation to liabilities and directors’ conduct?Q

Stephen Pegge:

This is certainly a very important contribution to addressing major issues, and it is the one that we have been most concerned about recently. We have seen, as I mentioned, real evidence of dissolution being used as an attempt to avoid liability, but I stress that in many cases dissolution is an efficient and appropriate way for companies to be removed from the register where there is no money owing and that business is ceasing, without going through the time and cost of liquidation, which obviously is available as an alternative—for solvent businesses through members’ voluntary liquidation, or in insolvent situations through creditors’ voluntary or compulsory liquidation. I am not aware of significant other means by which we need to deal with abuse of dissolution. This is the one that has been most to the fore in the evidence that we have seen of abuse, certainly through the fraud group.

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

Q I am trying to get a picture of the scale of the issue. You mentioned that the Insolvency Service was involved in about 1,0000 cases in the last year. I appreciate that you said that that is a low number for the year. Then you said that there may be around 2,000 cases where the powers to investigate currently do not exist. That sounds like a significant increase in work for the Insolvency Service, and I wonder whether you think that it will be able to cope.

Stephen Pegge:

I am not close enough to its work and resource. One thing that I would say is that the Insolvency Service has very good experience in these sorts of investigations. I would also say that the other element of work, if it has found problems that meet the threshold of evidence and it takes action to disqualify a director, does not necessarily need to involve a court process. In most cases, the Insolvency Service will be successful in getting an undertaking from the director involved to be disqualified. It then has the powers to put that into effect, but certainly people may want to consider whether the resources are sufficient to deal with the case.

The other point is that these are situations where dissolution has been successful. We are also looking to these measures to act, to a certain extent, as a deterrent, in order to make it less attractive for those looking to abuse the system to try it on, as it were. So it may be that this event becomes less frequent in due course.

In fact, one of the processes that is clearly available is for creditors to object to an application for dissolution—and, indeed, the Insolvency Service at the moment is also able to object—on the basis of complaints at that earlier stage, where they have evidence of doing so. And because of evidence of significant numbers of attempts here, those objections have been done on a mass basis.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Good morning, Mr Pegge. Clause 2(14) states that the provisionsQ

“have effect in relation to conduct…occurring, and in relation to companies dissolved, at any time before, as well as after, the passing of this Act.”

Do you support making these provisions retrospective and, if so, how should the Insolvency Service make use of these retrospective powers?

Stephen Pegge:

As I understand it, the support for this measure was confirmed as early as 2018 and it has really been a lack of parliamentary time that has made it difficult for it to be put in place. Given that we are aware of abuse that has happened in the meantime, I support this measure being retrospective. I appreciate that that retrospectivity is not often applied to such Bills, but we are talking about a fairly high evidence threshold and about situations where natural justice would support this measure being made with retrospective effect.

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

Q It is good to see you again, Stephen. That is an interesting point about the retrospective nature of the measure, given what you were saying about businesses taking on more debt throughout the pandemic. Obviously, the insolvency practitioners will work through things, as you have rightly said, in order of public interest. What do you think they may look to do to give lenders confidence, by approaching the pandemic response finance first?

Stephen Pegge:

Clearly, when lenders are undertaking a credit assessment, they will consider both the willingness to repay and the ability to repay, the probability of default and the loss in the event of default. All those could potentially be, and I would say probably at the margin, factors that could be influenced by the use of dissolution as a means of avoiding liability.

Quite clearly, it is very difficult for a company that has been struck off the register to make payments under a loan, so there will be the avoidance of debt in those circumstances. Given that currently there is time and cost involved in restoring a company to the register, the ability then to take this action against directors after the event both to deter and, if the activity should still carry on, to investigate and take action against directors in a more timely and cost-effective way should reduce the ultimate losses to creditors. I think there has been an estimate that creditors could be saved around £1 billion as a result of this measure, which would be significant in terms of credit assessments.

The net effect is the ability to provide more finance with less time having to be spent on assessment up front, on better terms, and in circumstances that should help the recovery. However, I will emphasise, Minister, that this is only one factor and it is all operating at the margin. Nevertheless, it is certainly something that during the past year has become a matter of concern, especially in relation to bounce back loans.

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

Q It is a complicated scene, as you say, and this is only one part of it. I think you are, therefore, suggesting that strengthening the regime in this way will give further confidence to lenders, and especially SME companies within the supply chains.

Stephen Pegge:

Yes, exactly. It will, therefore, be possible to focus more time and support on those who deserve the finance, without the distraction of those who are abusing the process.

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

Q Finally, what effect do you think there would be on lending if this regime did not come into place or the loophole were not closed? Would there be a chilling effect?

Stephen Pegge:

As you say, it is a matter of a chilling effect. It is one other factor that would weigh on finance providers’ minds when making lending decisions. This is a crucial time for lenders to provide finance. If you look at the latest Bank of England figures, for May, which were published last week, some £7 billion of new lending was provided to SMEs.

Latest surveys suggest that high proportions of loan applications are being sanctioned—something like 85%—and we want that to continue. The expectation that this sort of loophole is being closed should build confidence. It will ensure that there is discouragement of bad actors, so that it does not grow out of proportion, which we fear might otherwise be the case.

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

Q Good morning again, Mr Pegge. I apologise because I think I mispronounced your name earlier because I tried to read it without my glasses on. In an earlier answer, you referred to the retrospective nature of parts of the Bill. You indicated that you supported them. In particular, you referred to the fact that the Government had made it clear since 2018 that the legislation was coming.

Clearly, we are not creating a new offence that was not illegal at the time. We are considering legislation to make it easier for the authorities to act against people who may have committed offences, which I think is an important distinction. Even given that, is there an argument that the retrospective power should apply only to the date when the Government first published their proposals to legislate? Would you still support the Insolvency Service if it wanted to take action in relation to things that had happened in, say, 2015 or 2016? Would you have any concerns about that?

Stephen Pegge:

As you say, this is essentially a technical loophole, which the Bill seeks to close. All it does is confer powers of investigation, with significant and rigorous practices in terms of investigation. The risk of miscarriage of justice is relatively limited. I do not have a particular date in mind. The point I was trying to emphasise was that this has widespread support and has had for some time.

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

Thank you for joining us today, Mr Pegge, and taking the time to give evidence to the Committee. We are grateful.

We should be moving on to the next panel now but apparently the next witness is not ready. I will adjourn the Committee for a short time. We will reconvene when we have the next witness online. Thank you.

Sitting suspended.