Q As we have concluded the second panel slightly earlier than scheduled, we move to the third panel. I welcome Andrew Agathangelou. This session can run until 4 o’clock. I ask our witness from the Transparency Task Force to introduce himself for the record.
Good afternoon. I am Andy Agathangelou, the founder of the Transparency Task Force. The Transparency Task Force is a certified social enterprise dedicated to helping ensure that consumers are treated fairly by the financial industry. I should also mention in passing that I am involved with two all-party parliamentary groups: one on pension scams and the other on personal banking and fairer financial services. My involvement is as the chair of the secretariat committee to both those APPGs. If the Chair would like, I would be very happy to elaborate on the work of the Transparency Task Force and our particular interest in this matter.
Q Welcome, and thank you for being with us. Following on from your last comment, it would be a helpful start if you could indicate your particular interest in this legislation, to what extent you welcome it and what the concerns around it are.
The Transparency Task Force is all about trying to bring about regulatory reforms so that consumers get a better deal from the financial industry. An increasingly large proportion of our time and effort goes towards trying to sort out the terrible mess that occurs when people are scammed. We are very interested in cases such as Blackmore Bond, London Capital & Finance, Connaught, Lendy and Ark. There is a very long and very sad list of scams that have affected quite literally thousands of people in our country.
The reason I am particularly interested in the Bill is that we have noticed over many years that a colossal amount of carnage is being caused by a relatively small number of criminally minded individuals. It will not surprise you that one of their methodologies—one of the ways that they work—is phoenixing. As soon as they start to feel the temperature rise around them, they close down shop and reappear somewhere else. These individuals tend to be highly intelligent, very sophisticated and very good at planning and strategising their next step. They always have a plan B, C, D, E and F up their sleeves. Frankly, they have been running rings around the regulators and enforcement agencies. One of the most powerful weapons they have is the ability to dissolve their organisations and pop up somewhere else. That is why the Bill is of real interest to me. It will also be of enormous interest, I am sure, to the many tens of thousands of people out there who have lost as a consequence of criminal activity.
I do feel the need, if I may, to elaborate on the loss. When somebody finds that they have lost their entire life savings, quite literally in some cases, when they are in their 60s—in other words, too late in their life to do much about it—the financial loss is absolutely horrific, but the emotional consequences, the shock to the system, can be so bad that they find themselves self-harming. People find themselves under huge amounts of emotional stress and strain. It is particularly bad when, let us say, it is the husband who has had his entire pension savings taken from him by crooks; he is so fearful of the situation he has created for himself and his family that he has not even told his wife that it has happened. There are people out there who are living day by day with a horrific secret—that they have lost a lot of money—and they have not quite got it in them to tell their partners and families what has happened.
I am very deliberately painting this picture for you, Mr Smith, because the work that you are doing with the Bill is of great importance. If there is anything that can be done to mitigate the risk of that kind of emotional and catastrophic carnage, I would be very pleased to give it all the support I can, and I am sure everybody else would feel the same way.
The very, very worst manifestation of this—in fact, I will give you two. The worst manifestation is when you learn about children who self-harm routinely and repetitively because of the stress-induced state of the household resulting from the family’s life savings being tricked away from them by criminals. Of course, one step beyond that is when people take their own lives. There have been many suicides as a direct consequence of this kind of malpractice. That is why I am so pleased to be here today to share whatever I can about this Bill.
Q Thank you. You make a very powerful case for the ability to take action against these kinds of individuals. The question that follows on from that is: do you think the measures in the Bill are significant enough to have a material effect on the kind of individuals you are talking about who dissolve companies? Are they enough of a deterrent to make a real difference to this issue?
The short answer is yes. I would characterise this Bill as a worthwhile step in the right direction. However, there is ample scope for improvement in relation to all the other areas that it touches on. I see it, hopefully, as a spearhead that might lead to other things happening as a direct consequence.
I will give you one quick example. There has been so much in the way of catastrophic regulatory failure over recent years that all the related enforcement agencies and bits of the regulatory framework need to wake up to the fact that our country has a horrific situation on its hands, in terms of the amount of crime that is going on. I believe I am right in saying that the National Crime Agency says that the annual cost of fraud in this country is something like £190 billion. That is a very big figure. Just to put that in context, I think it is well over half what the NHS costs. However, according to Anthony Stansfeld, the former Thames Valley police and crime commissioner, who is a man we have admired for quite some time for reasons that I will go on to, something like 0.03% of the amount lost in fraud, white-collar crime and economic crime is being given to the police as a resource to go and fight it. I believe I am right in saying that only 1% of the police budget goes towards fighting those sorts of issues.
My point is: yes, brilliant, let us stop criminally-minded directors from phoenixing, but please understand that this is just one small part of the ecosystem. What Parliament might want to do as a consequence of this Bill is to sit back and say, “Fine. We’ve done something really worth while in moving this Bill forward, but let’s not kid ourselves that the job is done. We’ve actually only just started to scratch the surface.”
Organisations such as Action Fraud, which, by the way—I can’t resist the joke—we call “Inaction Fraud”, the Financial Reporting Council, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Pensions Regulator, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office, City of London police, the Insolvency Service itself, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the professional bodies for the accounting and audit professions are all part of the landscape. They all need sorting out because of the part that they play in allowing a lot of crime to go on that really should not happen.
Let me give one further quick example. I am aware that there are people who are at risk of being scammed by directors of organisations operating today that were doing exactly the same thing last year, the year before that and the year before that. I think we can go back as far as 11 years. We are aware of dodgy directors who were scamming people 11 years ago, and were known to be scammers, but are still operating. Frankly—excuse my language—it drives me nuts.
Q What tools should the Government use to follow and recoup the money from the directors identified as culpable in these circumstances?
I am quite a plain-speaking person, so forgive me, but I am about to be quite plain. The regulators need to enforce. There is evidence to suggest that, for example, despite the fact that one of the most important statutory duties of the Financial Conduct Authority—our primary conduct regulator in the UK for the financial service industry—is to try to protect consumers from harm, it is a little reluctant to enforce. That is not my opinion; the chief executive and the chairman of the Financial Conduct Authority gave evidence to the Treasury Committee earlier this year—I will try to find the link for you—admitting, frankly, that they were risk averse, I think the phrase was, when it comes to enforcing and mitigating. That is not verbatim, but that was the gist of it.
Would it not be good, ladies and gentlemen, if as well as having rules in place designed to protect consumers, we had a regulatory framework that had the gumption to go after the baddies whenever it could? There are two very important reasons for that. First, we might get them locked up or make them pay fines, and so on. That is great. That is exactly what we want, but even more importantly than that, it will show that there is good reason for these dodgy directors to not carry on their wicked craft.
It is currently a very low-risk career path for somebody to become a criminally minded director of a company. The chances of their getting caught are very low. The chances of their paying a fine are very low. The chances of their being banged up are also very low. Why? Because the regulatory framework as a whole is not built to cope with the tsunami of criminal activity that is going on. I would say, from a long list of potential improvements, that one of them would be to please encourage our regulators to regulate robustly and enforce effectively.
Q Let me follow up on that. Thank you for giving evidence. You laid out a broad landscape of institutions and organisations that you said were together allowing the crime to go on, on the scale that you believe it is. You went on to say that the regulation is not really built to cope with what is happening. As part of that systemic issue, what do you think the Insolvency Service is not doing as well as it should, and does it have the resources that it needs to perform its functions effectively?
I will answer your question, but before I do I would like to elaborate on a small point that you made. I actually think that the regulatory framework has been built by Parliament to do what it is designed to do. The problem is not that it is not capable of doing it; it just does not do it. It is a bit like having a really fast car that is just not being driven fast by the driver. The problem is not the vehicle; it is who or what is controlling it. I just thought I would throw that in.
To respond to your question more specifically, again I am a plain-speaking person. The Transparency Task Force ran an event last Thursday, with the title “The Great Insolvency Scam”. I can provide the Committee with the recorded video testimony of that. The reason why we ran an event called “The Great Insolvency Scam” is that we see insolvency as a very dark and murky part of the world of business and commerce. We believe that there is a pile of evidence suggesting that the Insolvency Service has been weaponised. That is where the Insolvency Service is frankly abusing its very extensive powers.
The net result is that people sometimes have their homes or businesses taken away from them, as a consequence of engineered bankruptcies. It really is an horrific, dark area. It sometimes results in people self-harming, committing suicide and all the rest of it. I will now answer your question directly. Personally, the Insolvency Service is a can of worms. I will repeat that it is my personal opinion. I think the Insolvency Service, in part, is a can of worms that needs to be opened up and looked into. It needs to be properly regulated.
I have enormous concern about giving the Insolvency Service lots more money to carry out the additional work that is going to be necessary as a consequence of this Bill going through, if it does, without first ensuring that the service is fit for purpose. These are very strong views. I am not an extreme individual who has crazy ideas. I have just listened to and seen the testimony of people who have suffered as a consequence of the types of things I am talking about.
Think of this Bill as the start of an ongoing process of reform. Please do not think of it as the end point. Please do not make the mistake of thinking that it is a “job done” situation. It really is not. There is so much to be looked at. I ask the Committee to do all it can, on behalf of the British public, to ensure that the Insolvency Service stops doing what it sometimes does.
Good afternoon, Mr Agathangelou. Picking up on your last point, I do not know if you are aware that a couple of amendments have been tabled that would require the Minister to Q come back to Parliament and report at a future date, first, on the extent to which the powers of the Bill had been used and, secondly, with an assessment of how effective the Bill had been in addressing the problems that had been identified. In your view, would those amendments strengthen the Bill, make it weaker or make no difference?
If the purpose of the Bill is to have a positive effect, of course they would. You manage what you are monitoring. If things are being looked at and checked, and if the progress you are hoping will happen does not, you have a chance to review, to modify and to ask challenging questions about why what Parliament wanted to happen has not.
There is a great parallel. I was involved in giving evidence on the Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill 2021-22 a while ago. The parallel there applies here. It is absolutely vital that there is a requirement for those responsible for executing the will of Parliament to be accountable and to be able to demonstrate that they have done so.
I would be disappointed if it took an amendment to make that happen. It should go without saying that you do not just abdicate your authority, pass the Bill and hope it happens. That to me would be a very poor approach to governance in terms of ensuring that legislation is effective. Essentially, if you want the Bill to work, you must ensure that what is supposed to happen after it is passed does actually happen. To my mind, frankly, that is very clear and obvious, and I cannot begin to think what the argument against that would be. How on earth could somebody argue against the idea of making sure that something you hope works does work? I could not even begin to think about how to argue that.
Q One of the questions we looked at in quite a lot of detail this morning was the retrospective nature of part of the legislation. It does not create a new offence or mean that something that was lawful at the time is retrospectively made unlawful, but it gives the Insolvency Service powers to look back at previous events that it could not have looked at in the same way before. First, do you agree with the principle that the Bill should be retrospective? Secondly, what are your thoughts on the three-year time limit that says that the Insolvency Service can look only at things that happened in the three years before a company is dissolved?
First, yes. In my opinion this most certainly should be made retrospective. Why not make it retrospective? If the purpose of the Bill is to catch the baddies and to mitigate the risk of others deciding to go about doing this stuff as a direct consequence of the very powerful deterrent effect, why on earth would you not make it retrospective? To my mind that is really clear. I cannot imagine why you would not want to make it retrospective, if you had the power to do so. You are Parliament and obviously you do have the power to do so, so why not do it?
Three years is the blink of an eye in this context. There are all sorts of things that directors can—and do—do to play the game. They know the rules and regulations, and they know how to dance in, on and around them. The longer the time that you can go back, the more good you are going to do. It is as simple as that. The further you can go back and prosecute people who have broken the law, and wilfully and callously committed offences, the better. Why not make it 10 years or 15 years? I do not know what the right timeframe is, but to my mind three years seems like a very short period of time.
If the objective is to try to clean up our country, then make the timeframe as long as you can. I make this point because on the international scale I should mention that we have about 1,000 members outside the UK. It shames me to know that outside the UK, the UK is considered to be one of the worst places in the world when it comes to economic and financial crime and fraud. Some countries think the UK is the laundromat of the world. There are huge concerns over money laundering and over international drug money, terrorist money and so on.
Given how bad the level of fraud, white-collar crime, corruption and those sorts of things are within the UK, I would suggest that Parliament should come at this from the point of view of, “We should now be as powerful as we can be in opposing these dark and dangerous forces, unless there is a really good reason not to, because we have a national duty to do so.” I was brought up with the idea that the UK was a world leader when it comes to these sorts of things, but frankly the evidence really does not show that.
I want to make one particular point, Peter, if I may? There is a very powerful database called Violation Tracker that tracks the levels of violations by companies against the US authorities. When you look at the data in there, you find some startling trends, and the first is this: there are about $667 billion-worth of infringements against the US authorities by all kinds of industries. I think 52 industries are listed. The worst offending industry on the Violation Tracker database is the financial services sector, despite the fact that there is a long list of reasons why the financial industry actually ought to be the most trustworthy industry of all. That is not the case; it is actually the worst offender out of all of them. In fact, it is so bad that roughly half of all the infringements in that $667 billion total are directly attributable to the financial sector. In other words, it equates to all of the other industries put together.
My point is that the jewel in our crown, in terms of UK plc, is our financial services sector. I am of the opinion that if similar analysis to that which has been done in the US market were done in the UK, it would likely show a very similar picture. Therefore we should be fighting extremely hard to hunt down all perpetrators, all criminal dodgy directors. From my point of view, given the interest of my organisation, I think we should be relentless when it comes to chasing down people who operate scams such as Blackmore Bonds, Connaught, LCF, Premier FX, Lundy & Associates, and all the others.
Q One final question, if I may, that ties together two of your previous answers. You said that you had certain knowledge of the type of scams that you just described, perpetrated by company directors who were doing the same thing many years ago. It is up to you if you want to name names in answer to this question, but are you aware of people conducting these scams now who could be disqualified from office as directors if the Insolvency Service went back and looked at the conduct of directors of companies that were dissolved earlier than the time limit of three years set out in this Bill? Does the three-year rule actually prevent the Insolvency Service from investigating directors currently conducting scams who, without that time limit, could be held to account and disqualified from holding office?
Yes, that is absolutely the case. I will elaborate on my answer, if I may. Last year, the Work and Pensions Committee led by Stephen Timms MP opened an inquiry on pension scams. Many of our members are victims of pension scams, so as a consequence it is a topic we know rather a lot about. I will share a document with the Committee produced by the Transparency Task Force as part of our response to that inquiry, and that document will evidence without any doubt why it is absolutely necessary that the three-year limit is extended to five, six, seven, 10 years, however far back you can go.
I say this because I am working on the basis that if the regulators, the enforcement agencies and the Insolvency Service can prosecute criminals and have them pay fines or be locked up, or whatever it might be, they would want to do that. Why would they not want to prosecute the baddies? To my mind it is simple, and I absolutely assure you that in the document I will provide to the Committee, as well as other supporting documents and evidence, you will see named individuals who have been dancing around prosecution over many, many years—I think one is 11 years. This Bill, if extended to a proper duration of time, would become a problem for them.
I would take great satisfaction if this Bill helped to finally lock up individuals who are currently in very expensive villas in Florida, with properties all over the world, with all kinds of fancy cars and fancy homes, all paid for by the life savings of British pension savers and investors. That would be very rewarding to know.
Q I believe that all 650 MPs will have constituents who have been victims of the practice of phoenixing. I believe you made reference to law enforcement agencies, Action Fraud and the National Crime Agency. Could you tell us a bit more about how big the problem of phoenixing is—directors using legislation to dissolve companies to avoid liabilities and further investigation?
I cannot answer your question directly, forgive me—I do not have that data and have not done that research. Let us think of it like this: roughly four or five years ago, a man called Roberto Saviano, an investigative journalist, became quite famous for a period because he did some investigative journalism on the mafia, and as a consequence of that investigative journalism, he now lives, I believe, under police guard 24 hours a day because he lifted the lid on a whole load of really bad, really heavy stuff.
I am mentioning Roberto Saviano because about five years ago, at something called the Hay Festival, he made the point that London is the heart of global financial corruption. That is a pretty powerful thing for somebody to say, especially if they have been investigating the mafia for years and years. You can google it and find it yourself. This is a very serious heavy-duty investigative journalist.
I mention that because it is reasonable to assume that a lot of that corruption involves entities and companies set up for special purposes. If the UK is the worst country in the world when it comes to global financial corruption—or if it is not the worst, let us say it is in the top quarter of really bad countries when it comes to financial and economic crime and corruption—it is reasonable to assume that the artful dodge of phoenixing is part of the modus operandi of the “community” that does this kind of stuff. I cannot give you any facts or figures, but a little deduction suggests that it is a massive problem.
I will make one further point, if I may. One of the reasons why it is a problem is Companies House. It is still shocking to me that, despite about nine years of Parliament having an interest in Companies House, finally getting its act together and asking even really basic questions about the people behind a new company that is being set up, Companies House has been allowed to carry on behaving in the nonchalant way that it does, with its casual, risky and dangerous way of granting companies the chance to come into existence when no proper due diligence has been done.
Similarly, in the pensions world, there was a period of about three years when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was happy to authorise the setting up of new pension schemes with the lightest-touch due diligence you can imagine. Basically, people were allowed to go online, fill in a form and create a new pension scheme, which would then be the perfect vehicle for scammers to use. That has happened so much.
While I am on this little rant, allow me to stay there with one more point. When the pension freedoms legislation was being introduced, many people said, “Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah! Before you go allowing people to transfer their entire pension savings in a lump sum, why don’t we stop and think what the risks of this are? Why don’t we have a conversation about whether this might lead to some kind of fraudster’s paradise?” But no, pension freedoms legislation was rushed through, and now, many years later, even the regulators, such as the Financial Conduct Authority, are making the point that not enough thought was given to the risks associated with that kind of casual, fast policy-making.
So there we go. Companies House is effectively advertising to criminals, “Come and set up a company in the UK. Don’t worry, we’ll turn a blind eye to pretty much anything that happens because, frankly, we won’t know what you’re doing or what you’re about because we won’t bother asking you.” That is one example of these sorts of issues. The second example I have given you is in relation to HMRC, and it goes on.
I honestly think that if anybody was to do some kind of independent, objective, evidence-based evaluation or analysis of the work of City of London police, the Insolvency Service, Companies House and the financial regulators—that very long list that I mentioned—around how effective they are at preventing crime from happening in the UK, I am pretty sure that report would be rather scathing.
Q I am here with my corporate governance hat on, but I am also Minister for Consumers. The issues that you raise about scams are really important, and it is really important that we continue to address that. We just had Scams Awareness Week; we have been raising awareness so that people do not get involved, but it is also important that we make sure that institutions and networks are addressed in these sort of ways.
It is interesting: you talked about the amendment, which actually asks for a single report in a year. Clearly, we want to be managing the situation and making sure that it is effective. In terms of the time that you are looking at, obviously that does not negate the ability for criminal action to be taken; it is to restore directors.
I really want to focus on the Bill itself, and the focus within that and what we are doing positively to try to tackle some of these issues—including on phoenixing, which you started off talking about. I know you talked about lots of other things, and other things that we can be doing and are doing, but do you agree that the Bill adds an extra weapon to tackle phoenixing itself?
I certainly do. As I said earlier, it is a significant, valuable, worthwhile step in the right direction. My plea—forgive me; I guess I am repeating myself here—is that we look at the whole ecosystem. For example, why on earth are we not including fraud and so on in the online safety Bill? I know that is another topic, but can you see how, from my point of view, these are all interconnected issues—this is all the ecosystem?
I guess I am saying that Parliament can take one of two views here. You can either deal with this tactical, ad hoc Bill, which is of course worthwhile, in isolation of everything else. However, for goodness’ sake, please do not do that; actually look at the bigger picture here—the interconnected matrices of other issues that Parliament ought to be grabbing by the scruff of the neck and finally sorting out.
I appreciate that. If you look at corporate governance and Companies House reform and all these issues, and indeed at the online harms Bill, I am sure you will have plenty of opportunity to comment on that. As I say, this deals with one specific issue because of the impetus now. That is all I wanted to raise.
If nobody else has any questions for our witness, I thank you on behalf of the Committee for your evidence, Mr Agathangelou. I am sure the Committee welcomed your frank speaking throughout. Thank you very much.