Examination of witness

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:59 am on 6th July 2021.

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David Kerr gave evidence.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 10:04 am, 6th July 2021

Q We will now hear oral evidence from David Kerr, a fellow at the Chartered Institute of Credit Management. We have until 11 for this session. Could the witness please introduce himself for the record and make a few remarks about the Bill? Thank you.

David Kerr:

Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to join the proceedings today. My name is David Kerr. I am a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Credit Management, the largest such body for credit managers. It was formed approximately 80 years ago and provides professional support, training and representation for credit managers and the creditor community.

The CICM contributed to the 2018 consultation and broadly supported the proposed measure in relation to director disqualification. Creditors have often raised concerns about directors leaving behind unpaid debts; whereas in a formal insolvency process, there will be some inquiry by an insolvency practitioner, when a company is dissolved ordinarily there is not. As we have heard, at present, the Insolvency Service will rarely look at those cases because it would potentially involve the cost of restoring a company to the register. The Bill therefore plugs an important gap, as others have commented.

It is probably important to make the point that this was first considered as a suitable measure and had support back in 2018, and while the urgency to bring it in now is understood, this measure is not solely for the purposes of chasing after directors and recouping funds in relation to covid debts but potentially has wider implications as well. There has been reference to the fact that 2,000 or 2,500 companies with unpaid bounce back loans may have been dissolved over the last year or so. I do not think there is any suggestion that every one of those will be investigated, but presumably the Insolvency Service will apply the same public interest criteria as it has hitherto in relation to insolvent companies. That would certainly give it the power to investigate those companies where directors have left behind debts, whether they are bank or Government debts or any other. That should act as a deterrent, one would hope, to directors using this route to avoid liabilities, and will perhaps also restore some confidence in the creditor community, provided that the action taken is publicised and therefore serves its purpose, both in the compensation orders that might be made and the deterrent factor. Broadly, the CICM supports the Bill. With that, I will be happy to take any questions that Committee members may have.

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

Q Thank you for giving evidence today, Mr Kerr. You talked about restoring confidence to the creditor community. Would you say that there has been a loss of confidence in the creditor community? In relation to the 2,000 or 2,500 dissolved companies that you mentioned as having received covid-related loans, would you say that a high proportion of those may require investigation? Based on your experience of the creditor community, do you think that there was the means to repay those loans that those companies then tried to avoid?

David Kerr:

In relation to confidence, I would not go as far as to say that there is a lack of confidence in the system, but in order to enhance confidence this is a suitable measure. It removes one source of frustration among creditors, which is where they can see directors who are not taking steps to put their companies through a formal insolvency process and instead are seeking to avoid debts by using the dissolution route.

In terms of numbers, I have not made any inquiry into the 2,000 to 2,500 companies that have been mentioned, but there has to be a sense of realism about the extent to which any Government agency can inquire into their circumstances. A percentage of them, based on creditor inquiries, complaints or other information that may come into the hands of the Insolvency Service, would trigger some investigation.

In relation to insolvent companies, although perhaps insolvency practitioners and creditors may be frustrated from time to time about the number of cases that result in disqualification proceedings, again there needs to be a sense of realism around the extent to which that can be done. That will happen in cases where, despite all the information, there is also a public interest test that is passed to pursue those actions.

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

Q If a case passes the public interest test, do you think there should be the resources to deal with that? There is concern that the Insolvency Service may not have the resources, and therefore the ability to follow up on the expansion of powers in the Bill in the public interest. Has your experience been that the Insolvency Service has been able to resource any investigations that might be needed? What tools should the Government use to pursue directors of dissolved companies that they identify as culpable? Do you have a view on that?

David Kerr:

In terms of resources and the ability to pursue all the cases that the Insolvency Service might wish to pursue, I guess that is probably a question for the Department. Not all the cases that are investigated will pass the public interest threshold. To the extent that there are cases that pass the test but cannot be pursued for resource reasons, I am sure the Insolvency Service would welcome any additional resources that can be made available to it. From the point of view of creditors, if actions are pursued in relation to covid-related debts and not others, perhaps the measure works against them a bit.

That comes to the second part of your question. There are two elements to this. First, there is the potential disqualification of individuals who are proven to have acted inappropriately. Secondly, and on the back of that to some extent, there is the possibility of compensation orders against those individuals, with a view to putting money back into the hands of creditors. Again, I am sure CICM creditors would wish that to be as effective for its members as for any Government debt.

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

Q Mr Kerr, you said that the CICM is broadly supportive. Do you have any particular concerns about the Bill? Is there anything that you think is missing from it, or could it be improved?

David Kerr:

I think the point has been made about resource. I have heard comments from others on Second Reading and elsewhere about that. It would be unfortunate if the emphasis were entirely on dealing with bounce back loan fraud and if that took resources away from other directors’ conduct investigation cases. That point is not, I suppose, directly relevant to the provisions in the Bill; it is more a question of how it is implemented and taken forward. There have also been some comments about the retrospective element; the previous witness touched on that. I think these cases have to be taken within three years of the relevant date—the date of insolvency or the date of dissolution. I do not think the Department would be able to go back before 2018 in any event, and that was the date on which the consultation was conducted, so I suppose one could argue that directors have had notice of the intended provisions for the relevant period.

Those were probably the only points where there might be concerns to a limited extent, but generally I think the provision is a sensible one that gives the service powers that it does not have currently and which can only be helpful, I would have thought, to trust and confidence in the insolvency regime.

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

Q That is very helpful. On the three-year cut-off, are you concerned that that is likely to have implications on other investigations that the Insolvency Service carries out if it is not funded properly?

David Kerr:

I was referring partly to the point that had been made by the Committee to the previous witness about whether there would be any issues around natural justice if the retrospective provisions pre-dated the consultation. I do not think that, in practice, that would happen. Going forward, the compensation laws that might be sought can be obtained after the disqualification order or undertaking, so there may be more than three years available to the service from the date of dissolution. There has to be a cut-off. I do not think there is any suggestion that the provisions of the disqualification have to be changed in that respect, merely that they would be applied to these circumstances. They have proved to be satisfactory since 1986 in relation to director disqualification in the insolvency proceedings, so I have no reason to believe that, going forward, those time limits will not be effective in relation to dissolved companies.

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

Q Are any sanctions that are currently available to use against directors who may have dissolved companies to avoid liabilities not being used as much as they could be?

David Kerr:

None that I can think of immediately.

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

If you change your mind you can always let us know.

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

Q Good morning, Mr Kerr. May I come back to the retrospective nature of parts of the legislation? The three-year period will be permitted because that is what the current timescale is. Given the notorious complexity of a lot of financial misconduct cases and the fact that they are long drawn-out processes, is there an argument for that three-year period to be extended in cases where there is an indication that there is not only misconduct, but potentially criminal fraud? I am thinking about cases in which the potential fraud runs into the tens of millions of pounds. Is there an argument that in those cases, there should be no hiding place for criminals of that scale, simply because of the length of time they have managed to get away with it?

David Kerr:

That is a fair point. I suppose the statute of limitations could be considered a relevant backstop, but I will come back to my previous point that we have a three-year limit in relation to investigations into directors’ conduct in insolvent situations, and that has been with us for 35 years. I have not heard any suggestion from the Insolvency Service that that has proved to be inadequate. This is effectively an extension of the same power into dissolved company circumstances. I have not seen or heard any evidence to suggest that it is an inadequate period.

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

Q You say that you have not heard any such representations from the Insolvency Service. Have you had any such representations from lenders or creditors? They may take a different view from the Insolvency Service if it is their money that is at stake.

David Kerr:

Perhaps some in the creditor community would like it to be a six-year period, but I do not think they have argued strongly for it, and I do not think there is a necessarily a case made for that. From a creditor perspective, in an ideal world, perhaps it would be open ended. That may be unrealistic.

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

Q Thank you for giving evidence, Mr Kerr. Can you talk a little bit more about the deterrent that you spoke about? How much of an impact do you think the measure, and especially the threat of disqualification, will have on providing the necessary deterrence?

David Kerr:

The current disqualification provisions act as a deterrent to some extent, because directors know that, in respect of every company that goes into an insolvent liquidation or administration, there will be some inquiry. There is an obligation on the insolvency practitioner to carry out a certain amount of inquiry into the conduct of the directors of those companies and make a report in each of those cases to the Insolvency Service on their conduct. The provisions do not provide for the same report. It will have to be triggered by something else, whether that is a creditor complaint or other information, but it will provide the opportunity for the service to make the same inquiry.

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

Q You talked earlier about the public interest test and prioritisation. Obviously, we are trying to strengthen the enforcement regime to deal with the most egregious cases of fraud in relation to the financial support that the taxpayer has given throughout the pandemic. In your experience, has the insolvency practice been prioritising this work? As well as having the public interest test, or threshold, has it prioritised approaching the most serious cases at the earliest stage?

David Kerr:

Do you mean the work of the Insolvency Service?

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

Yes. We are talking about Insolvency Service resources. We would have expected the Insolvency Service to prioritise the work that it does on the most egregious cases, and that would indeed be how we would anticipate it moving forward. Have you seen that first hand?

David Kerr:

This may not be a direct answer to your question, but the concern of the creditor community might be that, if this provision were used almost exclusively for the purposes of pursuing bounce back loan fraud, perhaps it would not have the wider benefit that could come from it. Perhaps that has to be the emphasis in the short term, but in the long run—it is a provision that was considered worthy of introducing back in 2018, before covid came along—one would hope that it will be of broader use.

Quite how the service will prioritise its limited resources and decide which cases to look at is a matter for it to work out once it gets the powers. One would hope that the cases that come to its attention through the insolvency practitioners’ reports will receive equal attention and that it will not be to the detriment of those cases that these other cases are being pursued.

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

Q We heard a little bit in the earlier panel about phoenixing. Do you think this measure will help to combat that malpractice, where one company is shut down and dissolved and another takes its place, with the same directors, doing the same business from the same premises with the same staff?

David Kerr:

That can happen, whether it is through an insolvency process or a dissolution. To the extent that it has happened through dissolution, the measure plugs that gap, because it is gives the same investigative powers to the Insolvency Service. It comes back to the deterrent point that you made previously. If the service is seen to be taking action in these cases and publicising the fact that it has done so, that will, one would have thought, have a deterrent effect.

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

Q Finally, in terms of your role in credit management, what do you think this will do for the confidence of lenders and supply chains, in particular SMEs in those supply chains?

David Kerr:

Generally, if the system is seen to be working well and those who abuse it are brought to account, then it helps enhance the confidence of those engaged in providing credit, whether it is through loans, trade credit or anything else. In that sense, it is a welcome provision that, if resourced and used as intended, should have the desired effect.

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

Q To follow up on a couple of points, there have been critics of the proposals in this small piece of legislation. From your experience and that of your members, how long can it take for companies that have been dissolved to be restored to the register? In 2019, over half a million UK companies were dissolved but only 33 restored. In terms of the time it takes in practice, what could that look like?

David Kerr:

I think the cost issue is the bigger disincentive for creditors that previously might have wanted to take steps to try and get somebody appointed to investigate. The service itself has made the point that there are legal costs and other costs associated with that process, and it would not be practical for creditors to mount that kind of action alone or, in many case, at all, given the amounts of their own debts.

The bigger disincentive is probably the cost and this avoids that. You are right in the sense that if there is a lengthy time process and if it takes several months, that eats into the three-year time limit that we have talked about, so that could be a problem. I think here, with this measure, we avoid that because the Department can have the ability to make appropriate inquiries and take action, without the need to go through that process.

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

Q How much could it cost? What sort of range of costs could creditors see?

David Kerr:

I do not have those figures in front of me but I have seen the fees involved. They amount to a few hundred pounds, but that does not include the cost of a solicitor to spend the time doing the necessary work. I would imagine that it would be a few hundred running into a thousand or more pounds to get a company restored, but I could not give you any exact figures.

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

Q May I probe you a little further on the three year issue? You are right that within legislation there is provision for courts to make disqualification orders within three years after a company has been dissolved. This legislation extends that in line with that current time limit. In light of the fact that we have very unusual circumstances at the moment, with potentially thousands of companies that could require investigation, do you think that with that increased workload for the Insolvency Service, the question about available resources and the court backlogs, there could be a particular issue with directors effectively being culpable but the Government running out of time for courts to issue disqualification orders against them?

David Kerr:

We might have touched on this slightly previously. First, there is no suggestion, as far as I am aware, that the whole of the 2,500 companies that have been mentioned would be the subject of an investigation. We are talking about dissolutions in the last 15 months or thereabouts. The time limit is relevant, obviously, because the service has to work to that, but the previous witness made the point, which we should bear in mind, that the majority of the cases that it takes do not necessarily involve court proceedings. In a lot of cases, having presented the evidence to the directors and with the threat of court proceedings available to the service if necessary, many are resolved by the director giving an undertaking, which has the same effect as an order, so a lot of them will not involve court proceedings and that helps the service to achieve what it is seeking to do within that timeframe. Many of the cases in these instances of dissolved companies, I imagine, would result similarly in a relatively high proportion of those being concluded by undertaking.

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South

Thank you, Mr Kerr, for your evidence. I have two questions. These measures clearly have widespread support. Can you give us a feel for the scale of the problem with dissolved companies? We have discussed quite a lot of different figures this morning, but do you feel this is a very significant problem, or a manageable problem, just to get some more idea anecdotally on thatQ ?

Secondly, clause 2 allows “easier investigation”. Can you give us some idea of the way in which the Bill improves that process of investigation?

David Kerr:

I will deal with the second point first. We know that this provision means that we do not have to go through the process of restoring a company and instead the Department can commence an investigation in circumstances where it deems it appropriate without any barriers to doing that. In that sense it makes the process easier to commence the work it needs to do.

Many companies are dissolved every year, but I do not think there is any suggestion that all those, or even the majority, involve any misconduct by directors and by those who have opposed or supported the measure. I do not think there is any suggestion among those who proposed or supported the measure that that process should be removed as an option for companies in appropriate circumstances. The question is really how many of those represent some form of misconduct or where misconduct might be hidden, or where there is some abuse. I have not seen any statistics on that and do not know if anybody would know for certain. Again, it comes back to the point that the service would have the power to investigate in circumstances where something was brought to its attention, suggesting a need for investigation. In that sense, it is a welcome provision.

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

Thank you for giving evidence, Mr Kerr. If there are no further questions, we will move on to the next panel.