The UK government has announced widespread reform of its official register of company information, amid growing concern that it is being used to facilitate fraud — including bogus applications for emergency coronavirus loans.

Under plans set out by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on Friday, its Companies House agency will have to verify the identity of anyone seeking to file company information or register as a director, and directors may not be appointed until checks are carried out.

Companies House will also be given greater powers to query, investigate and remove false information from the register.

Lord Callanan, the minister for corporate responsibility, said: “Mandatory identity verification will mean criminals have no place to hide — allowing us to clamp down on fraud and money laundering and ensure people cannot manipulate the UK market for their own financial gain.”

Martin Callanan, UK minister for corporate responsibility © Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu/Getty Images

Although the reforms were first proposed last year, lawyers and campaign groups have recently warned that the lack of transparency in Companies House data was enabling fraudsters to exploit the government’s bounce back loan scheme, designed to help companies hit by Covid-19.

According to one person familiar with the process, individuals have been able to buy “off-the-shelf” companies that immediately qualify for these loans, which can provide up to £50,000, with minimal checks.

“The Covid-19 crisis has only served to expose further just how inaccurate a lot of data held at Companies House is,” said Jonathan Tickner, head of commercial litigation and civil fraud at law firm Peters & Peters. “Root and branch reform is essential.”

When the new measures become law, they will increase the reliability of information on data about who is behind each company, the government claimed, which should give banks and businesses more confidence when entering into transactions.

Identity verification will also improve the ability of law enforcement agencies, such as the National Crime Agency, to trace individuals for suspected fraud or money laundering, the government added.

Companies House keeps millions of copies of company registrations at its Cardiff headquarters © Charlie Bibby/FT

However, the reforms are not expected to delay the process of forming companies and filing accounts or information. ID checks will be carried out digitally in a “matter of minutes”, BEIS said, enabling companies to be incorporated within 24 hours as at present.

At the moment, the Companies House register includes almost 4.5m UK businesses but it operates in much the same way it did 150 years ago — meaning criminals have been able to set up seemingly legitimate shell companies without the most basic identity checks. 

Anti-corruption group Global Witness reported in 2019 that more than 336,000 companies did not disclose their beneficial owner last year. It also found that 2,083 company owners were disqualified directors — people who had previously failed to meet their legal responsibilities and were banned from directorships in future.

Nienke Palstra, the group’s senior campaigner, said the reforms were overdue. “Up until now the government has had a terrible track record of actually pursuing those breaking the rules — now we need to see these powers put into action.”

Transparency International UK called for the government to enact the changes quickly: “These . . . changes are a significant step forward in tackling Britain’s role as a global hub for dirty money.”

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