Draft Companies (Particulars of Usual Residential Address) (Confidentiality Orders) Regulations 2002

[back to previous text]

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): I have campaigned for eight years to get company information about an asbestos company in my constituency that closed. The owner of that company, which is now American, has put it into voluntary administration and liquidation. Will the Minister assure me that while tightening up procedures to protect people at Huntingdon, we will not leave loopholes to protect companies and allow them to evade their liabilities? Will he assure me that the word ''confidential'' will refer to the personal security of an individual, and that it will not be used as a screen under the heading of ''commercial confidentiality''? Commercial confidentiality is often used as a smokescreen to deny people legitimate information. If the regulations were used in that way, I could not support them this afternoon.

Nigel Griffiths: I assure my hon. Friend and the Committee that we do not intend to apply the regulations in that way. Only directors who can satisfy the Secretary of State that they, or anyone who lives with them, are at serious risk of violence or intimidation will be granted a confidentiality order. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to point that out.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I wish to raise one of my worries about microfiche records that go back over a long time. Clearly, it would be easy for individuals who are used to looking into their family tree to use a process of elimination, going back over previous years, to discover the home address of directors who could be on a hit list. Indeed, people could discover the former home address of such directors, which could be the address of an innocent third party who could be victimised. Has the Minister considered providing protection to such innocent third parties?

Nigel Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. However, I stressed that it is not practical to trawl back through records in Companies House and to make changes relating to people who

Column Number: 007

live in a house that was occupied by a person who was subject to illegal threats. We must make as clean a start as possible, which is why we have drafted the regulations.

I hope that that addresses the hon. Gentleman's point, although I recognise that people may be left out who may be subject to intimidation but are not connected with a person who is suffering illegal attack, harassment or abuse in any way except that they are staying in that person's property.

The Committee will want to know that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has approved all five sets of regulations, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.44 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst. I am sure that your heart sank, like mine, when you saw the list of statutory instruments and the mass of paperwork that is attached to them, and that it sank even more when you saw the number of distinguished ex-Ministers who are serving on the Committee and the flock of officials who have come to help us with our deliberations.

Nigel Griffiths: I hope that I am included.

Mr. Waterson: The Minister's abilities are well know to all of us.

After reading the regulations, we were relieved to find that they are all about the detailed mechanics—the Minister described them succinctly—of giving protection to people who are subject to threats, violence and intimidation in their commercial life. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) referred to the obvious example of Huntingdon Life Sciences. At least one major player in that company has been quite badly assaulted; on the steps of his home, if I remember rightly. The regulations will give companies and limited liability partnerships the protection of confidentiality.

As the Minister rightly points out, debate on the subject goes back to the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Sadly, we are not to have the pleasure of a Criminal Justice Bill 2002, for reasons that will no doubt be debated shortly on the Floor of the House. The 2001 Act made an amendment to the Companies Act 1985. That had cross-party support, as have the measures under discussion.

The Minister rightly says that since 1917 we have held the principle that there must be transparency on the directors' details, including their addresses, held in the register at Companies House. Ordinarily, no one on the Committee would disagree with that principle, but in recent years there has been an upsurge in the number of people with very strong views about issues such as animal rights who feel no compunction about using violence and intimidation to carry forward those views. It is interesting that when we Members of Parliament stand for re-election, we put our home address on the ballot paper. We would be firm targets for anyone who cared to target us. Hon. Members may

Column Number: 008

remember that my predecessor was murdered by the IRA 12 years ago.

We are talking about a specific group of people, and the Minister is right—particularly in the light of the two careful interventions made—to emphasise that. The provision will probably affect a small number of directors, who must jump a number of hurdles before they are allowed to take advantage of it, including an assessment of risk made by the police. The provision will affect only those directors who are

    ''at serious risk of violence or intimidation''.

The safeguards built into the regulations are important; they will ensure that the procedure is not open to abuse. The Minister is right to say that if an abuse became apparent, it would be possible to revoke this status. Many safeguards are included, and we heartily endorse that. It is important that ordinary business men going about their commercial business—as well as their families—are protected from the sort of vicious intimidation that has occurred in recent years. The provision is an obvious way of ensuring that, but it is only one method.

There is nothing retrospective about the provision, which I understand will take effect from the date of the regulations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) pointed out, it is perfectly possible for people to go backwards into the records and find an address. That is bad enough, but it may turn out to be an address at which a director is no longer resident, and someone else—a completely innocent bystander—may be involved in an unpleasant attack. Is there any way in which the House can consider making the protection more effective by making it retrospective?

I appreciate that some of the technology at Companies House is a bit old—it uses microfiches and so on—but surely it is not beyond the wit of man to afford retrospective protection to directors. That would ensure that it would not be easy to find out old information instead of new. Earlier today, I was in a taxi on the way to the House and was looking at one of those adverts on the back of the fold-up seats. The advert happened to be for a private provider of information about companies and directors. To what extent, if at all, will private providers of that information be caught in the net of the regulations? Clearly, Companies House is the main source of information and, perhaps in a sense, the primary source on which the other providers rely. Has thought been given to how other providers of corporate information could be subject to these regulations, or similar regulations?

Those are the only points that I wish to raise. I reiterate that Conservative Members are happy to approve the regulations. We supported the primary legislation, and we support the regulations.

4.50 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I welcome the regulations, and I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances that rogues who want to escape their civil liabilities should not be able to use them.

Column Number: 009

I wish to ask the Minister some rather prosaic questions about the fee structure that is set out in the regulations. I understand the £100 application fee that is referred to in the draft Limited Liability Partnerships (Particulars of Usual Residential Address) (Confidentiality Orders) Regulations 2002. Schedule 1 of that lists competent authorities, and such authorities are public bodies, apart from two or three such as an official receiver.

Regulation 3(1) of the draft Limited Liability Partnerships (Competent Authority) (Fees) Regulations 2002 refers to a £50 fee or a determination by the registrar of companies in respect of how a competent authority and its officers may take copies of a record or inspect its details. I understand that the fee relates to a determination of the framework. Later, the regulation says that getting information from the register shall be subject to a £4 fee. Will the Minister tell us why those fees exist for competent authorities that are public bodies, whether these are, in essence, an arm of Her Majesty's Government or a quango? Does the Minister think that a £4 fee for inspection of information is sufficient given the cost of generating such information?

4.51 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) mentioned hon. Members' hearts sinking when they saw the list of the regulations that we are considering. No-one's heart sank more than mine after I realised that I had to lead the debate for the Liberal Democrats because my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) has hurt his back and is unable to be with us.

I listened to hon. Members' interventions, the Minister's response to them and the speeches that we have heard. It is important that those who wish to avoid their responsibilities do not use the regulations as a convenience. What evidence will be used to determine whether a name should be withheld? Is there not a danger that pressures will be brought to broaden the evidence? By and large, if a person is to have evidence of intimidation against them, their address will already have been in the public domain. There is a problem of timing and what might occur.

The Minister referred to the list of competent authorities that may inspect and copy names, which are listed in schedule 1 of the regulations. Will the Minister enlighten us about the procedures that exist for the subsequent change of those names? Will any change have to be considered by a Committee?

The Minister mentioned a £100 fee. Will he tell us more about what is covered by the fee? Will there be a profit for the state, and does the fee include the costs of investment that are borne by the Department?

4.53 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 18 March 2002