|Draft Companies (Particulars of Usual Residential Address) (Confidentiality Orders) Regulations 2002
Nigel Griffiths: I shall address the points in some detail, but I hope to be brief. I stress again that it will be possible to revoke the designation. That will happen on the basis of evidence of misuse or malpractice.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) and my hon. Friend the Member for
Column Number: 010Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) asked about the scale of the fees. The explanatory memorandum makes the position clear. As my hon. Friend said, there is a validation registration fee of £50 and a £4 fee for a search of the register. It is intended that they will reflect the costs incurred by Companies House. The memorandum states that, if necessary, the fee can be reviewed subsequently when the system has been in operation for a reasonable period. The same applies to the £100 registration fee, which is an application fee that reflects the cost that Companies House will incur when setting up and administering the system. It will also cover the costs of the police providing advice to the Secretary of State. There is no profit element other than the 6 per cent. return on assets that is required by the trading fund.
I imagine that people who make false claims about being under threat to evade their responsibilities and legal liabilities to employees and seek to have their home address removed from the register would be investigated for wasting police time. However, by that stage, their names would be on the public register, which brings me to retrospection, raised by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). In this information age, reference to such records is fairly widespread. The ability to access them is advertised in taxis and it would be an enormous task to apply such measures retrospectively. I am asking the Committee to accept five new regulations. The hon. Member for Eastbourne is pressing me to add a sixth regulation, which would, according to Opposition figures, make a total of 5,006 new regulations in the past year. I am sorry that I must reject his suggestion.
Richard Younger-Ross: What evidence is required? I am worried that it would be easy for an unscrupulous company director to say that he had been threatened and to fabricate letters that described him as scoundrel, or stated that his life was at risk and that his wife and family would be targeted. Is that enough evidence for someone to be taken off the list or must there be more evidence?
Nigel Griffiths: The police would have to be satisfied that the threat was real. It a sad fact of modern society that such allegations are made from time to time; not in respect of matters such as these, but by individuals who want attention or to embroil others in a vendetta. Although such charges may be rare, they are not unknown to the police and the police have the powers to investigate. They also have a record of prosecuting people for wasting police time. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's comments will have been noted.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The debate has so far concentrated on a limited number of directors, such as those who have been affected by extreme animal liberationists. However, a chairman of a football club could be involved. Any person in my constituency who has heard of Michael Knighton would be in no doubt that he has been seriously threatened in the past. The fact that he has been struck off as a director probably means that he will not be able to use this legislation. However, I can envisage situations in which chairmen and directors of football clubs might use this legislation to protect themselves; for example, when
Column Number: 011their club is doing badly, or the supporters do not believe that they are doing right by the club. Does the Minister agree that such situations could arise?
Nigel Griffiths: I am sure that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that gangs of disgruntled football supporters should be allowed to turn up at directors' homes and threaten them, their families and their children. The heart of the issue is not whether home addresses will not have to be registered, because they will have to be registered; it is whether they are made public.
I imagine that home addresses will be withheld from the public register in relatively few cases. However, in such cases, the service address will be fully registrable, and that would allow any parties that have a legitimate grievance to communicate with any director who has not been struck off.
Mr. Martlew: Obviously, I would not advocate violence; even against Mr. Michael Knighton. That would be totally wrong. However, I am trying to emphasise that what we are passing today could have much wider ramifications than what was agreed to by the Chamber, or was looked into by the Committee. I can envisage lots of situations in which there will be people who are doing things that upset a lot of other people and who will use this protection, if that were allowed.
Nigel Griffiths: With regard to my hon. Friend's example, when people take over football clubs they are usually hailed as heroes, and therefore would have no reason to withhold their addresses. However, as the months—or sometimes years—go by, they can become the villains of the piece, by which time it would be too late to apply for the sort of protection that is available here.
Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister said earlier that it was up to the police to determine whether there is a risk. However, with regard to the point that has just been raised, it is important to have an understanding about what the police are being asked to do, and in which cases they are being asked to assess whether there is a real risk. It is possible that a lone person—or a couple of people—might have a vendetta, especially with regard to institutions such as football clubs. Would that constitute a real risk, or would the threat have to be more organised, such as is offered by some of the more extreme animal liberationists? Can the Minister shed some light on that?
Nigel Griffiths: I am sure that the police have well-established methods of assessing risks, and that they can embrace an individual as well as an organised campaign; because, sadly, such risks are posed, due to some of the elements in the society in which we live. What will be referred to the police are ostensible threats and the evidence of them, on which the police will form a judgment. I would not seek to circumscribe in any way how the police conduct their investigations.
Suffice it to say that, under present laws, the police have plenty of experience of investigating such matters, and we are ensuring that the existing
Column Number: 012practices, in which they are well-coached, are applied in this narrow area, where company directors, because their home addresses are on the public record, may be open to threat, and where evidence can be produced that satisfies the police that it is a real threat.
Mr. Howarth: Can the Minister help me? I am happy about the way things have developed during the course of this debate. However, as I recall, he said that it would be possible, subject to the proper investigation, for directors to be exempted from having their private addresses published in cases of violence or intimidation. Violence is a fairly obvious thing, and I imagine that the police can easily establish whether there is a threat of violence. Intimidation is slightly different. For example, if a former employee pursued a director at his home address for wages or holiday pay that was owed—perhaps through a tribunal—because the firm was no longer trading at the company address, would that count as intimidation?
Nigel Griffiths: Intimidation is not the pursuit of the director; it is the nature of the pursuit, so it would very much depend on the circumstances. I expect that my hon. Friend's constituents would pursue their case in the recognised way, by writing and forwarding information. Such information should be forwarded, whether it is to a service address or not. Intimidation is writing a threatening letter intimating that one knows when the director's children leave or arrive home unattended, or sending a razor blade, or some other threatening or dangerous item, through the post. The provision is not intended to stop employees with legitimate cases who wish to be heard from approaching former directors in the time-honoured peaceful way.
With that assurance, I hope that I can persuade the Committee that the regulations represent a proportionate and considered response to a problem that, although serious, affects only a small number of companies, limited liability partnerships and people. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 502)
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