HC Deb 19 October 1981 vol 10 cc25-61

(1) Any person who carries on any trade, business, profession or occupation, in this Act referred to as a business—

  1. under any name other than his own;
  2. under his own name with any addition therto which does not form part of his name;
  3. under his own name at premises other than his principal private residence;
  4. in partnership with any other person, persons, firm or company;
  5. who has previously been registered or liable to register under the Registration of Business Names Act 1916 which is hereby repealed shall be registered under this Act.

(2) Registration under subsection (1) of this section shall, subject to the provisions of subsections (5) and (7) hereof be effected by paying the prescribed fee and filing the prescribed form containing the following information—

  1. the full trading name of the business carried on;
  2. the purpose and general nature of the business;
  3. the principal place of the business, together with the addresses of all branches thereof;
  4. the full names and addresses of the proprietors, partners or companies who are the owners of the registered name and if a limited liability company stating its name and registered office and incorporation number;
  5. the date of commencement of the business;
  6. particulars of any other business name under which the business is carried on.

(3) If after the prescribed form has been filed changes take place affecting the information registered under subsections (1) and (2) of this section the particulars of such changes shall be filed on the prescribed form.

(4) The prescribed form referred to in subsection (2) shall be filed for registration on a date not less than 14 days prior to the commencement of business.

(5) The prescribed for referred to in subsection (3) shall be filed for registration on a date within 14 days of such changes taking place.

(6) The Registrar shall be empowered to refuse to register any name which he considers undesirable but any person aggrieved thereby shall have the right, within two months of such refusal, to appeal to the Secretary of State.

(7) The registration of a business name shall be effective as from the date of commencement of business stated on the prescribed form.

(8) On the filing of the prescribed form there shall be paid such registration fee as may be prescribed under subsection (16) hereof upon the receipt of which or as soon thereafter as shall be practicable a licence shall be issued.

(9) A licence issued under subsection (8) hereof shall be for five years whereupon the licence will expire although a new licence for a further period of five years may be applied for on any date not earlier than two months prior to the expiration of the existing licence.

(10) A licence issued under subsection (8) hereof shall be exhibited at the principal place of business together with a copy thereof at any and each additional place of business.

(11) The Registrar shall keep an index of all firms and persons registered pursuant to the provisions of this Act.

(12) Any person may inspect the documents filed by the registrar on payment of such fees as may be prescribed pursuant to subsection (16) for each inspection; and any person may require a certificate of the registration of any firm or person, or a copy of or extract from any registered statement to be certified by the registrar and there shall be paid for such certificate of registration, certified copy, or extract such fees as may be prescribed.

A certifcate of registration, or a copy of or extract from any statement registered under this Act, if duly certified to be a true copy or extract under the hand of the registrar shall, in all legal proceedings, civil or criminal, be received in evidence.

(13) Any person who carries on a business liable to registration under this Act shall on all business letters, statements, bills, invoices, trade catalogues, trade circulars, business cards and other business stationery on which the business name appears state in legible characters the full name or names (or initials in the case of christian names or forenames of all the persons liable to register as being the persons carrying on the said business together with the words "Registered Business Name—" followed by the number allocated to the said name by the Registrar.

(14) Any person who carries on a business liable to registration under this Act who fails to register or to register the particulars of any change and who carries on business without having so registered or who fails to display the said licence or to display his true name as required by subsection (13) of this section shall on summary conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding £500 and shall not be entitled to enforce by action or other legal proceeding any rights under or arising out of any contract made or entered into in relation to the said business.

(15) The Secretary of State shall have the power by regulations made by statutory instrument to make rules concerning any of the following matters—

  1. the forms prescribed for use under this Act;
  2. the duties to be performed by the Registrar and his officers under this Act;
  3. generally the conduct and regulation of registration under this Act.


  1. The Secretary of State shall have power by regulations made by statutory instrument to require the payment to the registrar of such fees as may be specified in le regulations in respect of—
    1. the performance of such of the registrar's functions under this Act or under rules made under this Act as may be so specified (including the receipt by him of any statement, notice or other document which under this Act or those rules is required to be delivered, sent or forwarded to him);
    2. the inspection of ducuments filed by him under this Act.
    3. Regulations under this section requiring the payment of a fee or increasing a fee shall be laid before Parliament after being made and shall cease to have effect at the end of the period of 28 days beginning with the day on which the regulations were made (but without prejudice to anything previously done under the regulations or to the making of further regulations) unless before the end of that period the regulations are approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.

In reckoning the period of 28 days no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than four days.

  1. Regulations, under this section, other than regulations to which paragraph (b) above applies, shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
  2. it is hereby declared that the registar may charge a fee for any services provided by him otherwise than in pursuance of an obligation imposed on him by law.
  3. any fees received by the registrar by virtue of this subsection shall be paid for by him into the Consolidated Fund.

(17) In this Act, except where the context otherwise requires,—

  1. "Business" shall mean business, trade, profession or occupation;
  2. the singular shall include the plural;
  3. 28
  4. the male shall include the female;
  5. "person" shall include both a natural person and an incorporated body;
  6. "Registrar" shall mean the Registrar of Companies or such other person as the Secretary of State may determine shall be the Registrar for the purposes of this Act.'.—[Mr. John Smith.]

Brought up, and read the First Time.

Mr. John Smith (Lanarkshire, North)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take the following:

New clause 38—Retention of documents by the Registrar of Business Names.

New clause 29—Civil remedies for breach of section 29.

Mr. Smith

During our previous consideration of the Bill we discussed the principle involved in the abolition of the Register of Business Names and the practical effects that will flow from that. It was considered both in this House and in another place, where on one occasion the Government sustained a notable defeat when opinion from all sections of that House combined to argue the case for a Register of Business Names.

The new clauses try to reinstate an effective Register of Business Names and prevent the destruction of the records, which have been accumulated since 1916.

The Register of Business Names is a useful device whereby people who trade under a name other than their own register that name and therefore the true identity of people running businesses can be made available to other companies, to consumers, to journalists and to the public in general. In the Bill the Government propose to abolish the register completely, although wide consultation revealed that nearly everyone who uses the register found it useful and argued against its abolition.

The chambers of commerce were notable in their opposition to the abolition of the register. Since it is near the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State, I quote at random from the Birmingham chamber of commerce. It said that: The Government's inflexibility over the issue of the Business Names Registry in the face of substantial opposition from many quarters is particularly disturbing. The chamber said that it was in favour of retaining the service and went on to say: Whilst appreciating the need to reduce Government revenue spending we strongly recommend that in order to retain the Register and to improve both its accuracy and comprehensiveness, the fees charged should be increased to the appropriate levels to ensure that its operation is self-supporting. In evidence supplied by Shell UK Ltd, that company said that it was opposed to the proposal to abolish the Register of Business Names. It said: It is a very useful aid to obtain or verify the details of the owners of businesses which we require for the purposes of legal proceedings or credit control. The fact that some of the records may be out of date does not detract from this view. It provides a valuable source of identifying business names presently being used when consideration is being given to establish a new business name. It assists for this purpose in identifying areas of possible conflict or 'passing off'. It is suggested that consideration be given to increasing the registration and search fees to cover the costs of maintaining the register. We see no reason why the users should not be asked to bear the full cost. Nor do the Opposition. The register is operating at a loss, for the very good reason that the fees have not been changed since its institution in 1916. It costs £1 to register. Organisations which have presented evidence to the Government have suggested that the registration fee should be increased fivefold, to £5, and that the search fee should be increased to £1.

When we debated the matter previously, the then Under-Secretary of State for Trade admitted that if fees were so increased the service would pay for itself. So, there is no difficulty in meeting the shortfall in revenue. The Government could immediately increase the fees and perhaps make a surplus on the operation of the service. There cannot be an argument on the grounds of cutting public expenditure.

I understand that about 65 civil servants are likely to be dispensed with if the register is abolished. That is not a large number, although it may be the real reason why the Bill is being pushed through. I believe that the Department of Trade was asked to produce some sacrifices so that the Government could claim that they were reducing the number of civil servants. On this occasion they selected as their sacrificial lamb the Register of Business Names.

Consumer organisations, business, industry, chambers of commerce, the professional associations—particularly the solicitors' professional association—have all given strong evidence to the Government saying that they find the register an extremely valuable service and that they do not approve of the alternative proposed by the Government.

The Government say that a central registry is not needed and that it will be sufficient to have a requirement stating that the names of people running a business should appear on business notepaper and be displayed at the place of business. That is less adequate as a means of protecting the consumer than a central registry, but there is some merit in the proposal. It should also be adopted. That would be an improvement on the system, rather than an alternative way of carrying it out. The vast majority of people using the register want to continue to use it. They find it a useful service and they are prepared to pay for it. But they are now to be denied that service. It is ridiculous that the Government should ask for comments but pay not a blind bit of attention to what they have been told.

The argument has continued for some time. It is not the first time that the Register of Business Names has been considered in detail. As far back as 1962 the Jenkins committee on company law reform said that it was a useful register and argued that it should be strengthened. It suggested a process of annual registration, bringing the register up to date, and so on. Now, the Government say that it is not comprehensive because not everyone registers under it. Perhaps we should look at that and see whether we can strengthen the register rather than abolish it. The fact that it is not comprehensive does not appear to have dissuaded many of those who use it from arguing for its retention. By all means let us strengthen it in some way and make sure that it is not in any way a burden upon the public, that it is self-financing and perhaps even profit-producing for the Government.

For reasons that have not been stated convincingly, the Government remain obdurate to the criticisms that have been expressed inside and outside Parliament. We are not clear about the real reason for the Government's continued adherence to this policy.

When the Bill was presented to the House, the Government, under the then clause 30, took powers to sell off the Register of Business Names, but, as the then Under-Secretary of State had to explain rather lamely in Committee, they could find no takers for the information. The result is that it will be disposed of some time in April 1982, when all the paper will be recycled. All that useful information is to be destroyed. This is foolish Government ritual adherence to a view to which they have committed themselves without proper consideration of the arguments.

The weight of opinion is against the Government's proposals. It would do them little harm to say that on further consideration of the matter they have decided to change their mind. Indeed, they would get a great deal of credit for it. However, unfortunately, there are many signs that the Government have lost their marbles in more than one direction. There was the foolish decision of the Secretary of State for Energy, which we heard earlier today, and oddities such as a referendum on local government rate increases. There are signs all over the place that some sweeping insanity is running through the Government. The continued pig-headed obstinacy in decisions such as this is further evidence that the Government are in a sad state of decline and decay.

I hope that other hon. Members will join in this last plea to the Government to show a little common sense on this provision. At the end of the day it makes no sense to abolish a service that people want and for which they are prepared to pay. I should not have thought that that was any part of the Conservative Party's outlook, and I should not be surprised if some Conservative Members do not appeal to the Government to change their mind. In the perhaps forlorn hope that common sense might break out, I ask the House to approve the new clause.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House, in case it is under a misapprehension, that although we have changed the order in which we are considering amendments, we are discussing new clause 29 as well as new clauses 1 and 38.

4 pm

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I do not share the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) in his more excitable phrases, but if someone had lost his marbles the register might at least enable one to find out whether that person was honest.

I shall not make a long speech, because we tend too often to repeat each other's arguments. The Under-Secretary of State for Trade is a personal friend whom I greatly respect and I have had lengthy correspondence and conversations with him on this matter. I am disappointed that I have been unable to convert him to my view.

My view is not only a personal one. It is shared by a number of bodies for which I have great respect. I appreciate that Ministers have to respect the opinions of their civil servants and advisers, but I believe that if there is any doubt the benefit of it should be given to those who have to carry on the workings of this country, which is business.

When companies such as Shell tell me that the abolition of the register will be a retrograde step, I lay great store by their views. The Birmingham chamber of commerce, the biggest and easily the most successful chamber of commerce in the country, also says that the Government's action is a retrograde step, and that view is shared by the banks, debt collecting agencies, solicitors and accountants. I believe that the financial savings involved are the least important element. Indeed, in all the pleas that the register should be retained it has never been suggested that it should be a loss-making venture. Of course it should be costed, and if industry wants to keep the register it should be willing to pay a proper price.

I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will think again, because unless more convincing arguments can be produced I shall support the Opposition in the Division Lobby.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) feels that the proposal is a sign of creeping insanity on the Government's part. The Government are not totally free from creeping insanity—what Government are?—but usually the creeping of Governments is in the opposition direction from that to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.

I have had the distinction of serving on two Companies Bill Standing Committees, and I know that we usually go to enormous lengths and vast expense to introduce new bureaucratic procedures in the hope of catching the tiny number of rogues and cowboys who could be better and more cheaply caught in other ways. I thank goodness that the Government are moving in the opposite direction and I shall support them if the House divides.

The Register of Business Names contains about 2½ million names, and at least 1 million of the entries are out of date. It can be argued that a number of firms that the authorities wish to catch, or dissatisfied suppliers and customers need to identify, will be among the entries that are out of date or inaccurate.

The Bill ensures that those who wish to identify either a trader's name or those behind a company will have a much better chance of doing so and of obtaining accurate and up-to-date information if the law requires that such information has to be exhibited at the place of business. Like other hon. Members, I have used the register and I know that the registrar has never been able to keep the list up to date, and I see no prospect of his ever doing so.

The register could be operated on a commercial basis, but those who are offering to pay are not generally the businesses that need to identify the ownership of other businesses. They are searchers who seek to earn money by gathering information from public sources. There has been no suggestion by any of the bodies to which the right Member for Lanarkshire, North referred that the cost of searches should be increased.

Mr. John Smith

Yes, there has.

Mr. Stevens

Somebody else will be asked for the extra money.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was present during our debates in Committee, but it is obvious that he could not have been listening to them. Did he not hear time and again in Committee, and has he not read in the volumes of information supplied by interested bodies, that we require not only an increase in the registration fee, but an increase in the search fee, with a suggested price of £1?

Mr. Stevens

I am grateful for that intervention. If I am wrong I withdraw what I said. I heard the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) suggest in Committee that the search fee should be increased, but while the lobbying that we have received from public and other bodies and letters that I have received suggest an increase in the registration fee, I have had no letters suggesting that the search fee should be increased. However, that does not prove that such letters have not been written and I cheerfully withdraw my earlier remarks.

The Government propose that the State bureaucracy should be reduced and that better provision should be made available to individuals and firms who find that, even though they go to the registrar, they cannot get accurate and up-to-date information about who owns a firm. I believe that that is an improvement. We may find that it is not, in which case we can consider the matter again. The Government's case is surely that the present gigantic list for which we are paying is less accurate as a source of information than the proposal in the Bill.

As a matter of principle, I am grateful when legislation proposes to reduce bureaucracy. Too often, company legislation from Labour and Conservative Governments has sought to increase bureaucracy without providing a corresponding benefit to the citizen.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am sure that the House would not wish to let the occasion pass without acknowledging the great loss that company law has suffered with the death of my late right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page).

There is a tragic irony in the fact that a Companies Bill should take such a prominent place in the business for the first two days that the House will sit without the benefit of Sir Graham Page's wisdom and authority. We shall remember him in a number of capacities. I worked closely with him in Government during the previous Conservative Administration and greatly appreciated his personal kindliness and readiness to advise and help.

It is right that on this occasion we should remember particularly Graham Page's expert, weighty and distinctive contributions in the past four years, when legislation on companies has been before the House virtually continuously. I shall remember him particularly as a most formidable—I should say the most formidable—member of the Standing Committee on the 1979 Bill and for his penetrating contributions on the Floor of the House at the various stages of that Bill and the one now before us.

The student of company law will be able to gauge the extent of Graham Page's influence by studying the records of our debates and by the provisions, small and not so small—section 79 of the Companies Act 1980 on company secretaries, for example—in the legislation which derived from his meticulous and persistent concern for company law. He is very much missed in this debate.

I have listened with great care to the arguments advanced by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr Smith) and I have studied his new clause. I do not intend to dwell on the technical deficiencies that would result from the inclusion of new clause I—the effects on new clauses 30 and 31, for example. I shall devote my remarks solely to the main theme of the proposal, to which the right hon. Gentleman spoke, namely that the Registry of Business Names should be retained. That is the issue. We are agreed as to the objective, that persons who do business with an organisation carried on under a name other than that of its owners should be able to find out details of that ownership. Those are perfectly reasonable and proper objectives. We are divided only on the means by which that objective can best be achieved.

I recognise the sincerity of those who have argued for central registration and who wish the Government to retain, possibly with some improvements, the system that has operated for the past 65 years. I acknowledge, of course, the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), who has consistently expressed to me the view that he has expressed so strongly this afternoon. I know that many people have found the existence of central registration useful, and I understand their natural reluctance at the prospect of its removal.

However, I ask the House to put aside such arguments in its consideration of the basic issue. The extent to which people may have become accustomed to an existing system is no test of its effectiveness, and no justification for arguments against consideration of any change. Even if the existing records were a reliable basis for the many important decisions which require disclosure of information about business ownership—we agree that it is not true that the records are a reliable basis—we should consider only whether the objective of such disclosure, in the circumstances of the business concerned, could best be met by central registration, the old pattern, or by means of the Government's alternative proposals, the new pattern outlined in the Bill.

We must consider first the sort of businesses that are covered by the present register. It is true, of course, that some are large and well-known trading organisations such as Lilley and Skinner or Freeman Hardy and Willis, which are both business names of the British Shoe Corporation Limited, but the overwhelming majority of the 2½ million small businesses are owned by one or two private individuals. Such persons do not want or need the formality of company incorporation, where centralised registration is necessary to ensure compliance with the many detailed requirements that the Companies Acts properly impose in return for the privilege of limited liability, that is available to such bodies. The legislation with which we are concerned today, the business names, impinges on them in only two respects—that they should disclose the ownership of the business, and that some control should be exercised over the name under which they choose to trade.

Against that background, let us consider the objective arguments relating to central registration. In theory, it should provide a central repository of accurate information, both current and historic, relating to all the businesses within the scope of the legislation which can be accessed in confidence by any person. How can that be achieved? Clearly, the first requirement is that businesses should register. Although the present legislation provides penalties against non-compliance, we know that those penalties have been ineffective for a long time. I remind the House of what I said in Committee, that inquiries of users of the registry some years ago showed that approximately 40 per cent. were unable to find the information that they needed. That point was strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens), who said that more than 1 million entries on the register were known to be completely out of date. It is interesting that samples taken in typical shopping areas in April this year showed an even lower rate of compliance. Only about one-third of the businesses which should have registered had done so.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Is the Minister saying that quite suddenly compliance with the business names registry requirements has diminished to one-third from the figures that he gave of 60 per cent. not so long ago? What has accounted for that? We know, of course, that over the years the banks have begun to make the system work by policing it reasonably effectively. How does the Minister square what he says now with the information that he gave in Committee?

4.15 pm
Mr. Eyre

The process of registration under the Register of Business Names has been declining and continues to decline. Moreover, it was declining when the hon. Gentleman was the Minister responsible for its administration, and it has continued to decline under the present Administration. The testing areas included an area in or adjacent to the hon. Gentleman's constituency of Hackney, Central. It revealed the great difficulty that in the inner cities, in particular, there has been a remarkable fall in compliance with the requirements of registration. Consequently, an enormous number of businesses are failing to comply. I ask again: how is the enormous number of businesses that currently fail to register to be persuaded to comply? Until that question is answered satisfactorily, questions about regular returns or more regular renewal of licences or other means to obtain the accuracy or availability of registered information are irrelevant.

The immediate answer, of course, is that the only way to achieve satisfactory compliance is by a policy of vigorous and widespread enforcement. However, I must emphasise that, given the scale of the problem, no Government have ever contemplated providing more resources than would enable successive registrars to investigate particular complaints about non-compliance. That is all they can do. That is certainly our position. We do not believe that it would be a proper use of Government resources to put hundreds, if not thousands, of man years of effort into an exercise which could only be done effectively by personal visits to every business premises in the country. According to the right hon. Gentleman's proposals, that would only be a start. Once the register had been brought up to date, he says that it would constantly be checked to ensure its accuracy. All that, while no doubt desirable and attractive in the abstract, would need to be reflected in the fees charged for registration or inspection.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

My hon. Friend makes it sound as though he is doing industry a service and a kindness by abolishing the list. Will he explain to me—if he can, I shall be happy to support him—how people as sensible as the members of the Birmingham chamber of commerce, which he and I know to be the best chamber of commerce in the country, keep on saying that the register should be kept? Who am I to believe in this difficult world?

Mr. Eyre

My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak knows that I am always humble in claiming to interpret with precise accuracy the movement of opinion in any part of Birmingham, and that applies to the views of the chamber of commerce. It is interesting to learn that business men tend to favour the old system and are reluctant to accept the independent evidence that it is not working. The truth is that many of the people in the chamber to which my hon Friend referred do not deal with small businesses.

The crucial practical aspect that I wish to put to my hon. Friend is that if we sought to enforce the whole old-fashioned system and to muster the resources to do so, the fees would need to rise to much higher levels than anyone has mentioned in this debate. Those fees would ultimately fall on the small businesses that make up the 2.5 million membership on the register. To go round the streets and compel companies to complete the forms and pay higher fees would give rise to great resentment and misunderstanding. I apologise if I appear to differ from the Birmingham chamber of commerce, but that is my view.

Mr. Clinton Davis

The Minister mysteriously referred to "independent evidence". Will he divulge the nature of the independent evidence? I know that mysterious officials have been going round nooks and crannies in various constituencies. Indeed, they went to Hackney, South instead of Hackney, Central. During the recess, the Minister has no doubt been helping them in some way. However, what is the independent evidence?

Mr. Eyre

The independent evidence is the great number of those who are ineffectively making searches in the registry. There is a 40 per cent. failure rate in terms of effectiveness. That is the regular evidence of non-availability.

When I remind the House that, even to recover the substantial deficit on the current costs of the present imperfect system, those fees would have to go up from £1 to at least £5 for registration and from 5p to £1 for each inspection of a record, hon. members will readily appeciate the financial implications of the proposals put forward by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North which would require even greater increases. Hon. Members must consider the effect of an extra levy—through increased fees—on small businesses in their constituencies. They must consider that it would be necessary to exact that from the 2.5 million people on the register.

The businesses concerned see no positive benefits from registration and, moreover, there must be a limit to the price searchers are prepayed to pay for information, particularly if it can be obtained more easily and cheaply by other means. That is the positive side of the alternative system.

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North even went so far as to suggest that there should be a duplication of the proceedings. He suggested that small businesses should be subjected to increased fees and that they should also be required to comply with the requirements of the alternative system. The imposition of such expense on small businesses cannot be justified.

The alternative means are contained in the Government's alternative proposals, which are enshrined in the Bill. I have no hesitation in commending them to the House as a practical solution to the problems to which I have referred. I am happy to pay tribute to the many constructive suggestions that have been made since our proposals were first outlined—many of which are reflected in the amendments introduced in Committee and in others that will come before the House. The new proposals provide three methods of disclosure of details of ownership: first, by display at all business premises to which the public have access, and secondly, by publication on specified business documents. I emphasise that that includes business letters, invoices, receipts, demands for payment and written orders for goods and services. Thirdly, disclosure may be obtained in writing immediately on demand by any person with whom anything is done or discussed in the course of business. Taken together, these measures will enable a dissatisfied customer or supplier to obtain the information essential to any legal action at minimum cost and inconvenience while not increasing the burden on the businesses concerned.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I am trying to help the Minister. He continually stresses that the person who wants the information will incur a minimal cost. Let us suppose that a man who lives in Manchester engages in a business transaction with someone who lives in Birmingham and that he receives no response when he writes to that person for information. What is he to do? How will he minimise the cost of the searches that will be required? What will it cost him to ensure that someone goes to look at the premises to see whether the information is there? The Minister must answer that question. He did not do so in Committee.

Mr. Eyre

The hon. Gentleman has envisaged a person in Manchester who wishes to do business with someone in Birmingham. He has envisaged that, in accordance with the requirements of the Bill, the person in Manchester has written to that other person and has quite properly asked him for particulars of ownership. The hon. Gentleman has supposed that the man has received no reply. The fact that the Manchester man has been drawn to make that inquiry and to pose the question is highly relevant. In addition, he must be writing to an address and I would suppose it to be the address that the business was being carried on from. The inquirer must have written to some address.

The inquirer is at least in a better position than he would have been if he had to send to London to search for particulars. First, he has been warned by the absence of any response. Secondly, he could complain to the Department of Trade about non-compliance. Indeed, that often happens now. Alternatively, he could ask the local trading officers to make an inquiry. The inquiry would probably be beneficial and of the type that they carry out in the course of their normal duties. The hon. Gentleman has described someone who appears to be carrying on his business in an irresponsible way. Therefore, it is highly likely that he would have come to the notice of the trading standard officers. I emphasise that the fact that the inquirer has put his mind to the matter and made an inquiry is a distinct advantage.

I have described the three methods of disclosure of details of ownership. Taken together, these measures will enable a dissatisfied customer or supplier to obtain the information essential to any legal action at minimum cost and inconvenience whilst not increasing the burden on the businesses concerned. In particular, because it will not be necessary to refer to some possibly distant central registry, the information will be available more quickly at the point where it matters. Such information is available in the hundreds and thousands—even millions—of transactions that take place among respectable and responsible business men every week. If the man in Birmingham—envisaged by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central—were a defaulting business man, he would not have complied with a central registration system. A large percentage of unscrupulous business men do not do that.

Mr. Clinton Davis

The Minister continually jumps to all sorts of absurd conclusions. The mere fact that the man might not be thoroughly scrupulous does not mean that he would be debarred from seeking facilities from a bank. A bank would invariably request that particulars of registration be produced. Even an unscrupulous business man might be persuaded to comply. The Minister continually raises improbable situations in support of his improbable arguments.

4.30 pm
Mr. Eyre

The hon. Gentleman knows that under the present system of registration a person can write to the central agency and receive one of its certificates. It could be used for fraudulent purposes all over the place. There is no check on the issue of such certificates. It is recognised increasingly that it has little value in that respect.

Much has been said about the possible difficulty of reinforcement. Compared with the present system, which relies solely on centralised enforcement, with the unsatisfactory results to which I have referred, the new requirements will, to a considerable extent, be self-enforcing.

Any person having dealings with a business carried on under a name other than that of its owners will be able to see immediately whether the information is disclosed as required. If it is not, the person will be able to ask for it. That is an important right which does not exist at present.

If the information is still not forthcoming, the person may either take action himself to secure compliance through the courts, or seek the support of the Department in the way that I described in answer to the question by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis).

The police and local trading standards officers will also be able more readily than at present to take account of offences against the requirements in the course of their normal duties.

Finally, I intend to introduce a sanction of civil disability, as hon. Members can see from the Order Paper. I ask the hon. Member for Hackney, Central to take account of that. With his legal experience he will recognise the practical importance of that. I shall introduce a sanction of civil disability which will enable any person who can show that his position is prejudiced in law by tha absence of this information to ask the court to prevent the enforcement of the summons issued against him by the business concerned. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak will take full account of the extra provision. I believe that the civil sanction will substantially strengthen the whole system of self-enforcement, which will be an important element in the new system. It will be apparent if people are not complying with the requirements of the Act. Customers everywhere will be in a better position to enforce their rights in respect of the Act.

The existence of this power should alert the businesses concerned to the dangers of non-compliance with the new requirements, which will be widely publicised following the enactment of the Bill. By these means we look to ensure a smooth transition from the present regime. I shall now refer specifically to the arguments advanced by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North in support of the proposal embodied in new clause 38 that the present record should be retained for a period of six years after the repeal of the 1916 Act and that it should be available for inspection throughout that period. I remind the House that we invited organisations that might be interested in the retention of the records to submit proposals, subject to certain conditions including continued public access.

As I explained in Committee, although a number of organisations responded, none was prepared to accept the conditions. In particular, it was considered that the value of the records would diminish rapidly in the absence of any statutory registration requirement. As I have explained on several occasions, this is not an area in which the Government consider statutory registration to be justified, any more than experience has shown it to be effective. In any event, it would not have been appropriate to devolve statutory powers to a private organisation. On that basis we withdrew in Committee the clause that would have expressly permitted the Secretary of State to dispose of the documents.

There are practical grounds on which I oppose new clause 38. In addition to the present deficiencies, the records will diminish in value following the repeal of the statutory registration requirement. In those circumstances, I do not believe that it would be right to devote the Department of Trade's resources to their preservation and to the maintenance of the public search facility, even with the payment of increased fees to cover the cost involved.

Much of the material held by the registrar is already out of date. With the considerable number of businesses that have no registered, that makes the record so unreliable as to cast considerable doubt on its value at any time. That will certainly be so when registration ceases.

Our alternative proposal to allow the continued provision of information about business ownership will take effect immediately on repeal. There will be no gap in the information and no need for elaborate transitional arrangements envisaged in the new clause. I ask the House to accept, therefore, that, on the repeal of the registration requirements, there will be no administrative need to retain these papers, although, as is usual when statutory records are no longer required to be retained by a Department, the Public Record Office will consider whether any of them have long-term historical value.

I ask the House to reject both concepts contained in the new clauses. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that the Government's proposals afford a sounder basis for ensuring to those who need it the basic right conferred by the original legislation.

The importance of the right has been demonstrated clearly by debates generated by the Government's proposals. Although there will be economies in Government administration as a result of our proposals, more importantly, we believe that they will enable the necessary information to be obtained far more easily than at present. The information will be available at the point of sale in the consumer's locality.

Mr. Clinton Davis

The last time that we debated new clause 38 the Minister invited me to a party to celebrate the recycling of all the information contained in the registry. I believe that was to be in April 1982. Will the Minister also invite me to the party to herald the recycling of speeches which have been distributed among Back Benchers in the last five minutes to encourage them to participate in the debate, when obviously they know nothing about it?

Mr. Eyre

I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman has been able to observe so keenly what has been going on on the Benches behind him, where hon. Members are being encouraged to take part in the debate. I see that the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has taken his papers and is keenly awaiting the opportunity to take part.

With a feeling of great friendship, I repeat my invitation to the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, should the Public Record Office in due course decide that it wants only a small part of the records. If recycling proceeds, the hon. Member will be welcome if he wishes to accompany me to the ceremeony.

I stress that our proposals will make available the necessary information to consumers far more easily than at present. Primarily on that basis, I ask hon. Members to oppose the proposals advanced by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central. They would effect only marginal improvements at a much increased cost and they would only improve the old system of registration, which experience has shown to be unworkable.

I ask Opposition Members to accept the evidence that it has not been possible to make the 1916 registration system work properly, and also to recognise that throughout the years no Administration have been able to devote the resources necessary to police the system properly, to enforce the regulations and to make them work. Therefore, I believe that in due course people will welcome the fact that the problem has been gripped and that new alternative proposals have been brought forward.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

Can my hon. Friend estimate the cost to the Exchequer of making such a system operative and viable? Has any work been carried out in that respect?

Mr. Eyre

My hon. Friend knows that a great deal of thought has been given to the subject. There is no question of any cost to the Exchequer. The proposal is that a fee be charged to those who use the system to cover the cost of registration. That is agreed ground. My hon. Friend may not have been in the Chamber when I explained that the practical problem is how to ensure that 2½ million small businesses comply with the registration requirements. The current percentage of default is far too high. Evidence shows that in many parts of Britain default is increasing.

The system of central registration cannot be said to be working in anything like a satisfactory manner. Our inquiries show that the only way to enforce the system is to devote a large number of man hours to carry out street by street and door by door inspection, requiring small businesses to complete the relevant documents, and to send them to the central registry. The cost of such an operation would be so high that the small businesses, for whom my hon. Friend has great concern, would be unwilling to pay for it. That is why we are asking people to consider our positive new arrangements. They do not involve the problem of operating the central registry system that we have found unworkable. We must accept the evidence of life and adopt a new system with a self-enforcement quality. That would be in the interests of consumers as well as small businesses.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Has the Minister considered a simple adaptation to the new clause, namely that a civil contract should be unenforceable unless the registration number of the certificate issued by the Register of Business Names appears on the notepaper? Would that simple device lead to increased compliance with the law by small businesses?

Mr. Eyre

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for putting forward a positive proposal that relates to a later amendment. He knows that we are not currently discussing that amendment. I am willing to consider any ideas to improve the system as a whole. I have adopted a number of proposals. A technical and practical difficulty arises on the hon. Gentleman's proposal. If he will forgive me, I shall refer to that in more detail when we deal with the amendment. I appreciate that he has been looking ahead and has made a positive contribution to improving the alternative system that we have developed. In the long term, that system will benefit consumers.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber for the first part of the debate. I am a member of the Defence Committee that had a unique meeting with its counterpart in the United States of America, the Armed Services Committee, which prevented my being here before now. However, having heard the Minister's rather unconvincing arguments in Committee, I do not think that I have missed a great deal.

I have had a few months to re-read the hon. Gentleman's speeches. I had hoped that the enormous pressure that had been brought to bear—not only by Labour Members, whom the Minister may choose to disregard, but by many other organisations including those that had, I repeat had, an affinity with the Conservative Party—would result in the Minister reconsidering what many regard as a loony proposal.

We know that the Government are fanatically anti-quango. We understand that there may be a case for chopping them off at the knees if they are undesirable. However, an organisation such as the Register of Business Names must be regarded as effective, despite the difficulties of enforcement. There is no reason why the functions of that organisation should be emasculated. The Minister argued that enforcement achieved only a 60 per cent. success rate. He should talk to police chiefs, many of whom would be elated if their enforcement success rate approached anything near 60 per cent. It is closer to 16 per cent. in some areas. To argue that there is only a 60 per cent. success rate is saying that because the police cannot catch all criminals we should wring our hands, leave the game to the criminals and have no enforcement.

Mr. Garel-Jones

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is outrageous. He is equating the small business community with the criminal classes. That is an extraordinary statement.

Mr. George

I did not say that. You may have misconstrued what I said—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)


Mr. George

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not equating you with the criminal classes. My remarks were misconstrued. Undoubtedly, there are some criminals among the 2¼ million small business men. I was making the important point that enforcement must be valid and proper. Simply because there cannot be 100 per cent. enforcement, in any respect, it does not mean that enforcement should be abandoned.

Statistics show that there were 100,000 inspections in a recent six-month period. That was a 14 per cent. increase on the previous six months. We are talking not of an unviable entity but of a widely used service. I do not wish to exaggerate, but I am troubled that we are seeing the philosophy of almost a Hobbesion state of nature.

Last weekend I was approached by a constituent with a complaint about the planning appeal procedure. He was adversely affected by a proposed development and claimed that he had not been properly informed of the proposal by the local authority. He was told that the application had been housed in the library and that a small advertisement had been placed in a newspaper. However, because no one had commented he was told that it was tough luck that he had not seen the advertisement and that he could not complain if the planning application was approved and his environment adversely affected. I suspect that that is a parallel with the matter that we are discussing. The service may be somewhat old—

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)


Mr. George

I shall be delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He had the opportunity to debate these points in Committee, but he did not take it. However, he did say that the register went back to 1916, as though samething 60 years old must be abandoned. As the Conservative Party is held to have such veneration for age and institutions, that argument is spurious.

The Minister taunted Labour Members with not being present in large numbers for this debate. He should remember that the Conservative Party is supposed to be the party of business. A few months ago The Times stated: It remains to be seen whether there are any on the Conservative benches in the Commons who will speak up for the public's right to know which individual or company is trading and under what name. The answer to be given to the author must be disappointing. Members of the party of business have not turned up in the Chamber in large numbers. If they do it will be to vote, and they will vote as their Whips tell them. The interests of the 2¼ million small businesses, which are ostensibly represented by the Conservative Party, are undoubtedly being jeopardised. That is happening, not gigantically, but in a small and important way.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) spoke about the representations of the Birmingham chamber of commerce. Representations have been made from many sectors. The Government should recognise that that chamber has presented an overwhelming case. Representations have been made by the Newspaper Proprietors Association and the CBI. That latter organisation is hardly in the van of revolution, but it is much opposed to the Government's proposals. Other organisations that take a view contrary to that of the Government include the Press Council, the Institute of Trading Standards Administration and the consumer lobby. Included in the list are the Consumers Association, the National Consumer Council and the National Federation of Consumer Groups. There are many more. In Committee we received representations from the Law Stationers Association, which is a reputable organisation, and from compaines such as Services to Lawyers Ltd.

The purpose of these organisations is not merely to knock. They are not approaching the subject destructively. They are presenting a constructive alternative. No one is arguing that the register is perfect, but the principle behind it is that anyone conducting a business in a name other than his own should register. I admit that enforcement is far from perfect. There are cowboys who are not registering and who are getting away with it. Our object must be to improve enforcement, and not merely to abandon it.

If the Government's proposals are implemented we shall do a disservice to investigative journalists. There are not as many investigative journalists in Britain as there are in the United States. An important function in a democratic society is performed by journalists who burrow away and produce information that it is in the public interest to publish. Members of Parliament are not able to do so to the degree that they should because of lack of staffing. We should be worried, not for the specific journalists but for the function that they perform.

There are many who regard the Government's proposals as a fraud's charter. That term may be rather journalistic, but I believe that it is true. I speak, not on behalf of creditors but on behalf of a number of organisations that operate in this area and have expressed their anxieties. The enforcement authorities have expressed their anxieties—for example, the police, trading standards officers and tax and customs officials, who all require information to protect the consumer from the fraudulent and the unscrupulous.

It seems that the Government have made up their mind. Their loyalists are behind them on the Government Benches, and those who are not present will emerge in force to deliver to the Government a majority which they do not deserve but which they will get. When individual Members return to their constituencies they may be lobbied by their chambers of commerce and by those engaged in small businesses. They will rightly have to face considerable criticism.

It was said at Blackpool last week that about 70 measures have been enacted to benefit the small business community. I have spoken to many small business men in my constituency. It appears that if 70 "helpful" measures have been enacted, most of the small business men in my constituency are oblivious to them. Little benefit seems to have accrued to the small business sector in my constituency, which is suffering over 17 per cent. unemployment.

This is not a major Government decision that will have an obvious and dramatic effect on the entire economy. It is a decision that is almost incremental. It is part of a drip, drip, drip process. The business community wants to become more efficient. The consumer wants to be protected against fraud. The Government's proposals will make life easier for crooks and cheats. The inhabitants of Pentonville and Strangeways probably do not write to Ministers in support of their legislation, but some of them may endorse these proposals. When they leave their present surroundings, and when these proposals are implemented they may find that they are to their advantage. That is the solid block of support that the Government will seek at the next election. It is probably the only group that will support the Conservative Party.

There are many who look to the Bill as a means of improving the lot of business men. The Consumers Association may have given up the ghost. It may now accept that the Government will not advance significant measures of consumer protection. However, we did not count on the Government's enacting legislation to detract from the already inadequate legislation to protect the consumer.

I accept that miracles do not occur in political life. However, in the next 10 minutes or so I hope that the Minister's conscience will be stricken or that he will be fearful of the consequences of the folly of his Government. Perhaps he is convinced by the arguments that we have advanced. He should pay far more attention to Labour Members and Conservatives who have made representations to him. Surely there are means short of what the Minister is proposing. I am not a great supporter of self-regulation, but if the register is to be scrapped there must surely be alternatives short of the disastrous proposals that have been presented to us.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

I begin by declaring a possible interest in my role as a consultant for Lombard, North-Central Ltd. That interest is certain, but I am not aware of the company's corporate views, if it has any. Its views may be the reverse of those that I am about to express. In common with the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), I was unable, because of parliamentary business, to be in my place for some of the earlier speeches in the debate. I hope that the House will accept my apologies.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South shares a distinction with me that may be unknown to many hon. Members. On certain cold and blustery days the hon. Gentleman is the last bulwark of defence in the parliamentary football team. I am the penultimate bulwark. Those who do not understand the game may think that that indicates that we are often in sympathy. However, those who have seen us play would not form that conclusion. I shall not break our fine record by agreeing with his remarks.

On balance, the Government's proposals are a marginal improvement on those that were previously before us. I did not take that view originally. When the proposed legislation first appeared I had some doubts. I listened to the representations that were made by various organisations. I listened especially to the representations of those whom we agree to call investigative journalists and who are employed by the BBC in producing programmes for radio such as "Checkpoint", and by other organisations. They have argued strongly that the existing powers should be retained.

One of the advantages of a Summer Recess is that it gives one an opportunity to consider measures away from the hurly-burly that we face at other times of the year. Further consideration has led me to believe that there has to be change. I accept the reasons that have been advanced for that change. If we examine the current scheme in isolation, we cannot be happy with it. It appears that the cost of making it more satisfactory and effective will be either prohibitive or, in practical terms, a near impossibility. If that is so it does not mean that we have to amend the scheme, but there are further grounds for suggesting that clauses 28 and 29 carry with them the possibility of some improvement and therefore can be commended on their own, even without comparison with the present situation. 5 pm

As my hon. Friend the Minister and others have repeated in many areas, if there is a high degree of inaccuracy—the figure of 40 per cent. is widely quoted—we must realistically explain to many of those who come to us that, notwithstanding the trust and reliance that they may previously have placed upon their investigations, on average at least 40 per cent. of that trust was misplaced.

Mr. Clinton Davis

What is the extent of non-compliance with the requirements of the Companies Acts with regard to the registration of company records, accounts and so on? Is there full compliance? If there is not, does the hon. Member suggest that the Minister should be recommended to do away with the companies register?

Mr. Squire

In part, the hon. Member makes a valid point. I, too have spoken out on that matter. The Companies Acts contain areas where we could and should tighten up, and where existing legislation is not complied with. I am not sure that that is the same context, because no one is suggesting an alternative to replace the Companies Act, whereas we are discussing, and we discussed in Committee, a credible alternative that may make the compliance and accuracy of the information better than at present.

One of my constituents who runs a small credit-searching business came to see me. He was concerned about this whole issue. Some of those who come to see us may say that the present information is better than nothing, but I am not so sure. If we were to allow businesses and individuals—we are talking about individuals and consumers with whom the companies deal—to delude themselves into believing that they have accurate information, the ultimate cost to them and to the community generally, and the lack of trust that that would engender in trading activities, could be greater. Therefore, there is a case for change.

The economic argument has been mentioned. It would be possible to increase fees. My constituent who came to me suggested—as others have done—that he would be prepared to pay a much higher fee. That willingness is in no doubt. However, is that the end of the argument? I submit that it is not, not least because the cost would keep rising. The figure per search that has been quoted—£5 or more—is high. Essentially, £5, £6 or any other figure would not make correct what is incorrect. In other words, if the underlying accuracy of the information is suspect, no amount of self-financing, while welcome in an economic accounting sense, can change the fact of the underlying inaccuracy. To some extent, whilst the financial considerations have been raised, the heart of the problem has not been tackled. With regard to the registration of names, clauses 28 and 29 could be a better way of doing things and I look forward to seeing the effect of those clauses.

I hope that the Minister and his Department will keep the operation of those clauses under review. If it is found that in practice the defences, the information and the protection—which are there to some extent at present—have, unfortunately and inadvertently been reduced beyond what was anticipated, I hope that the Minister will listen sympathetically to further representations with a view to tightening up the clauses, perhaps in what is required to be disclosed, so that we leave people in no doubt that the protection of the consumer and of companies that deal with such undertakings remains an issue of great concern to hon. Members and to the Government generally.

I recognise that my hon. Friend may suggest that that will not be possible, at least in present circumstances. However, I put in a short plea that we should try to bear in mind the continuing problem of those who set up businesses, close them and carry on the next day from the same address with another business of a totally different name, with, surprise, surprise, the same individuals concerned, and not just one, but a string of 10, 12 or 16 names.

Some hon. Members will know that I have an interest in plumbers—not because I need one at the moment. At least, I did not when I left my house this morning. That area and others similar to it are in danger of being overrun by cowboy, overnight outfits, of which the whole purpose is to make money and to cause considerable human suffering whilst coining fat fees and payments. If it were possible I would suggest that, on the information passed out to those who inquire, all associate undertakings would have to be stated. I am sure that the Minister has considered that. If that is impossible—I am sure that my hon. Friend will explain the difficulties—I urge the Government to recognise those continuing problems. They are not getting any better but are getting worse, as my postbag on the subject shows.

People ask why we allow these overnight outfits, which do a disservice to any craft or profession that they claim to represent, to be able to carry on in this way. They ask why the long arm of the law, if it finally catches up with such people, takes such a long time to do so. It takes years, when it should take months or weeks. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that those comments do not reduce my support for the new clause.

Mr. Eyre

It appears that my hon. Friend is talking about someone trading not as a limited company. That is a different area of difficulty, about which I know my hon. Friend is concerned. I too am concerned, and we shall do a great deal about that in due course.

With regard to such a person carrying on business virtually on his own account and therefore bearing a heavy personal responsibility, whatever business name he trades under, I know that my hon. Friend will be interested in the argument that this alternative system would more quickly draw the attention of people doing business with him to his unscrupulous nature than would the system of a purported registration.

Such people have always been unscrupulous and therefore have not registered under the 1916 Act. However, under the alternative proposals they will be obliged to provide particulars to anyone doing businesses with them. It will more quickly be brought to the mind of the person doing business with someone whether he is complying with the requirements of the Act. Therefore, it is likely that a respectable person will be carrying on such a business. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that helpful.

Mr. Squire

I thank my hon. Friend for that interjection. I share his hopes that at least part of the problem that I am identifying will be reduced or tackled in this way. I am pleased to hear his undertaking that we may look forward to a further instalment along these lines. Time has enabled me to see the changes in a considerably more favourable light than when they first emerged. We now have a responsibility, which I am sure the Government recognise, to convince many of the bodies that have made representations that the new proposals will not only be as good as, but in many areas better than, those that they supplant.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West)

While willingly associating myself with the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), I can in no way share his confidence—if, indeed, he has any as he is about to embark on the massive exercise of convincing not only the mighty Shell but the Consumers' Association and the Law Society as well. One can hardly conceive of a holier alliance than that represented by two of the partners, and Shell, as a massive organisation, must have very good commercial reasons for its decisions. But if the Tory Government cannot convince their own conference, their chance of convincing such diverse organisations as those that I have just mentioned must be nil. For the hon. Gentleman now to attempt to clear his conscience by saying that the new system will work is simply not acceptable, although I accept that he may well have been drafted in at short notice to speak on a matter which detained us for many hours in Committee.

In Committee we had the same recitation, with the same lucidity and clarity of diction that we have had today, but not one new argument has been adduced for doing what the Bill seeks to do. Indeed, I do not think that there is a single valid argument for doing it. In asking why it should be done, we come back always to the simple fact that it started when the quango exercise got under way in the early macho phase of the Government's life. I do not know whether it was Sir Derek Rayner who was charged with the job of slashing as many heads as possible in the so-called quangos, or whether it was a departmental exercise in itself, but I am sure that each Department was asked—as is the case with many big corporations—to make some savings. Of that there can be no doubt. It would appear that the Department concerned, faced with a new Government who were known to be after the quangos, looked around to see what it could find. That is the fundamental reason why it picked on a little body called the Registry of Business Names, which was thought not to be functioning particularly well, being said to be only 60 per cent. efficient.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) mentioned the claimed rate of detection of the police force. Although the internal combustion engine is continually being improved, no one would claim that it was more than 30 to 35 per cent. efficient. So what is wrong with a 60 per cent. efficiency rate?

Mr. Nicholas Baker

The hon. Gentleman is in the process of repeating the argument advanced by his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), that a 60 per cent. registration is a success rate. That has nothing to do with the point at issue. We are considering, surely, the number of people or businesses who ought to register as a whole. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will talk about the people who do not register.

Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman, who served so admirably on the Committee, has made precisely the point that Labour Members have tried to make in Committee and have made today—that the registry is not as efficient as it ought to be but that there is a case for keeping it and making it more efficient. I agree that it ought to be efficient. The Under-Secretary claims that the new system will be more efficient and that that is why he is introducing it, but he has yet to convince anyone who has listened to the debate in Committee or on Report that there is a single good reason for seeking to make the Registry of Business Names more efficient by the means that he has introduced.

The Under-Secretary is introducing a complex system. The operations of the Registry of Business Names are much easier to understand. Given the new information technology, computers and so on, and all the other new things that we have at our disposal, the registry, so far from being disbanded, should be modernised and made really effective. But, of course, it was a quango, and that is why it was chopped.

We have had a concession from the Government today, in the light of the feelings of the new Secretary of State for Energy and the feelings of discontent that emerged at the Conservative conference at Blackpool. The Government should now also reconsider whether they should be doing something in this Bill that in the end will cost far more money than seeking to improve the efficiency of the registry by the introduction of modern techniques.

5.15 pm
Mr. George

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's policy, whether deliberate or accidental, of liquidating many small companies, will make it much simpler to conduct a search of the registry?

Mr. Robinson

I entirely associate myself with that point. The case against the change has been forcefully put in Committee and in the House today, and I shall not detain the House further on it. Will the Under-Secretary now answer some questions? Will he admit that the intention is to abolish a quango? The party loyalists are here. They are drafted in to make speeches after two minutes study—

Mr. Squire

I have been listening with rapt attention to the hon. Gentleman. In fairness I should explain that one of the posts that I hold as vice-chairman of the Back-Bench trade committee requires me to look at these matters for a little more than two minutes.

Mr. Robinson

I only wish that the hon. Gentleman's speech had suggested that he had done so.

It is clear that we are faced here with a simple cost-cutting exercise which involves abolishing a quango. It is my contention that the new provision will make it no easier for the consumer and no easier for trading companies to obtain information that is rightly wanted and should be readily available. I repeat my contention that it will be at greater cost.

In abolishing the quango, how many people will be sacked? Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell us that. All of them have families. We care deeply about the level of unemployment. We see no need—

Mr. Keith Wickenden (Dorking)

If it is true that Labour Members care deeply about unemployment, why was it that when we debated unemployment for more than four hours at the end of July, there were only four or five Labour Members present?

Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman's question is totally irrelevant to the debate. Questions concerning unemployment should be directed to the Conservative Benches, because the Conservative Government have, with great callousness, allowed unemployment to rise to a figure of almost 3 million. If the figure is not reached this week, I am sure that it will be reached next month, and that it will be above 3 million next year. When talking about unemployment in general, we must look to the Government for a reply.

Here the Government are abolishing a quango in order to make savings. We have been told that ad nauseam. They are proposing a system which, it is claimed, will be less costly to the Government and the user. Will the Minister, therefore, please say how many people are to be sacked? How much floor space is to be saved? How much equipment is to be disposed of? What savings is the Minister claiming to make? Unless he can convince us of those savings, he will fall far short of convincing us that he will be implementing a new system that is more convenient and less costly. I leave those questions with the Minister and ask him to reply to them.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

I should like first to associate myself with the remarks made about our late colleague, the right hon. Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page). We have had many debates in the last two years on company law, and the debate today seems incomplete without his participation. I mourn his loss, as a know we all do, although on this and many other matters I found myself in disagreement with him.

My first point relates to the evidence that we have been considering in this debate and in Committee. Here I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) is not present. I asked the business men in my constituency whom I know—both large and small—how they felt about the proposal to abolish the Register of Business Names. The response was almost wholly negative. Nearly all admitted that it performed some function, but none had any enthusiasm for it. I found little evidence of people who had actually relied upon it to their credit or benefit. Indeed, I found a number of misconceptions about it. Many small business men actually believed, and still believe, that by registering they acquired some entitlement to use the name. Nothing could be further from the truth. That was the evidence from business.

The evidence of consumer groups and people who search registers must be seen in the context of the job that they do. Of course, they carry out many searches. Of course they believe that if the registry operated as it should—and it is not for them to say whether it does—they would certainly be failing in their duty if they did not make searches. That is why they do so, and I believe that that, understandably, colours the reasons why they generally feel that the registry is useful.

I cannot share the tears shed by hon. Members in this debate for the trade of investigative journalism. If investigative journalists had to rely on the information in the Register of Business Names, I should be more than surprised. They are equipped, as most people in our community are not, to discover—that is their trade—the information that they need.

The evidence that I should like to see is evidence of frauds that have been uncovered as a result of people registering business names—frauds which might not be uncovered if the registry is abolished—wrongs that have been averted and benefits that have been achieved through registration. The evidence that I have seen is minimal, if not non-existent. That is what we are really talking about. That is the evidence for which we should call in this debate.

I was stung by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) accusing me of not having said anything in Committee.

Mr. George

Anything meaningful.

Mr. Baker

Indeed, I was criticised for saying far too much, although it is true that on those limited occasions when the hon. Gentleman appeared in Committee he was speaking, and therefore out of courtesy I was unable to say anything myself. He seemed to equate the discovery of crimes—the criminal detection rate—with the rate of registration at the registry. As I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) pointed out these are completely different species. They are in no sense the same. We are interested in those people who ought to register and do not do so, and in particular in those who suffer as a result of non-registration. The evidence that I have seen is that there is little or none of that.

My second point relates to savings. Clearly, the savings in people, who one hopes would be redeployed, and in money is very small. Even Labour Members should accept, however, as indeed I think they do, that to make the registry system work would require an enormous expansion in terms of time and money. The potential saving to which we should address our minds, therefore, relates not to the registry as it currently exists but to that which would exist if it were made to function as it should. I have no doubt that the costs would be substantial. Beyond a certain point, it does not seem to me material whether the expenditure is incurred by businesses or individuals registering or by the taxpayer. We may argue on ideological grounds as to which we favour, but the expenditure must be undertaken none the less. I should have thought that unless there were a strong case for incurring that expenditure, we should do what we can to see that it is not incurred.

Furthermore, I do not share the faith of many hon. Members in this or any Government's determination and ability to keep the fees of such a registry up with the cost of undertaking the work. I believe that it is highly likely that the fees would very soon fall behind the real cost of providing the registry service.

Finally, this system of registration is completely different from that of Companies House. The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis)—and I yield to no one in my admiration of his experience and authority—seemed at one point to be equating the two systems. They are not the same.

Under the companies registration system a company is allowed to come into existence only by virtue of registration at Companies House, and we must be prepared to incur the cost of keeping that registry going.

The registry here under discussion, however, is different. As we know, it was born in order to discover aliens who might be hiding behind other names and running businesses in this country at the time of the First World War. I do not believe that it functions in a way which helps business men, individuals or those who deal with them. If there is money and time to be spent on finding out who is misleading the public, it should be spent in the areas where that is taking place, and be in the hands of those seeking to enforce the kind of remedies laid down in clauses 28 and 29.

Mr. Wickenden

When I first began to take an interest in this matter some time ago, I confess to feeling surprised that we were actually to repeal some legislation. This does not go so far as those of us who believe that before any piece of legislation is introduced two others should be repealed, but at least it goes part of the way. Nevertheless, important aspects of the matter have been pointed out by Labour Members.

We must ask ourselves whether the existing system satisfies the wishes that I believe that the whole House shares in relation to business activities.

The Act passed into law in 1916–65 years ago. Since then there has been no amendment to it. That implies one of two things. Either the legislation is perfect and Parliament is satisfied with it, or it is totally ineffective, nobody takes any notice of it and Parliament has chosen to disregard the matter as not being particularly important. There seems to me to be nothing between those two extremes.

We all know that the Act has not worked and does not work. I confess that when I inquired into this matter this morning I discovered that My own public company is in breach of the Act. We trade as Townsend Thoresen and there is no such company. We should be registered under the Registration of Business Names Act, but we are not, and I dare say that we have laid ourselves open to penalties as a result. I suspect that the amount of non-registration is far greater than has been suggested. I dare say that if one walked down the high street of almost any town or city in this country one would find a very high proportion of perfectly honest, decent businesses which are not registered.

We must therefore ask ourselves, first, whether the existing Act works. Clearly, the answer must be "No". Could it be made to work at a reasonable cost? Is there a better alternative, or indeed any alternative at all? Sometimes people think that there are not alternatives to things. How many businesses are on the register? How many companies are on the register as businesses? I suspect that they make up a high percentage of the total. Many major companies register because they have to, although my own company has not. Yet everyone knows, for example, who carries on the business of Shell. In many ways, they need not be on it. 5.30 pm

It is also worth remembering what the registration requirements under the Act are, because they are minimal. A business that trades under a name other than the names of the proprietors shall register the names of the proprietors, the principal place of business—although not all the places of business—and whether any of the proprietors are other than of British nationality. There is no requirement to file accounts on an annual basis as there is under the Companies Act. There is a requirement to file a notice of change, but in the very nature of things these matters, even when complied with, are so far behind that they are of very little use either to investigative journalists, credit control departments or anyone else.

Indeed, I inquired of my own credit control department how often we had searched the Register of Business Names register. The answer was never within living memory. We relied on other means to establish credit control because the people we were really after would be unlikely to register under the Act, anyway.

Let me pick up three points from the speech of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). He persisted in telling us that this legislation was being introduced in order to abolish a quango. In fact, it is not a quango. A quango is a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, but the Register of Business Names is a Government organisation. The hon. Gentleman also suggested, perhaps rightly, that this abolition has come about because the Department has been told to make savings. I certainly hope so, because that is the only way in which Departments can make savings. Someone must go in and tell them how to do it. That is how business does it, and I wish the Government would do it more effectively in other areas at the present time.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson

I am glad that we can agree on that point. Will not the hon. Gentleman also associate himself with me in asking for precise details from the Department about the savings, either net or gross, including redundancy payments and the like?

Mr. Wickenden

It is right that we should know the full facts, and I am happy to associate myself with the hon. Gentlemens comments.

Mr. Eyre

I had to reply to the Committee debate. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) was not in his seat, and I therefore had to rise and make my speech. The hon. Gentleman, who was a diligent member of the Committee, raised this question then and I replied fully. If my hon. Friend looks at the report of the Committee proceedings, he will find that that information is available.

Mr. Wickenden

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) referred to the decimation of small businesses. It is worth reminding the House of something that is not brought to public attention often enough, which is that this year 76,000 new businesses have commenced—a record figure. It is high time that we gave credit for that while at the same time paying due regard to the 7,500 businesses that have failed. About 10 times as many new businesses have started this year as have failed.

The purpose of the Registration of Business Names Act registration is two-fold. It is to protect those who might grant credit to a business so that creditors may learn who are behind the business and whether they are proper people with whom they should do business. As I think I have shown, the Act has not succeeded in providing that service to creditors.

Registration is also designed to protect members of the public from unscrupulous traders of the type that are regularly exposed in the BBC "Checkpoint" programme. I suspect that that is very much the sort of business that Labour Members have in mind.

It is a sad fact of life that people who conduct their business in that sort of way are unlikely to have registered in the first place. Therefore, whatever the good intentions behind such an Act, I do not think that there is the slightest chance of an investigative journalist or anyone else catching a dyed-in-the-wool villain because he has not paid his £2 registration fee at the Registry of Business Names.

I do not believe that the existing legislation has worked, or is likely to work, at anything like a reasonable cost. It therefore seems reasonable that it should be abolished, provided that something is put in its place to fulfil the legitimate requirements of members of the public and the credit control departments of creditor companies. It may be—I hope so—that the new proposals will work. We shall have to give them time. If they do not, we shall have to find something else. If so, we could do worse than have a look at the method operated in many of the EEC countries.

In Britain, the chambers of commerce and trade tend to be trade protection and lobby associations for trade in a given area. It is very different on the Continent. There, chambers of commerce have a statutory function that includes the registration of businesses in their own area and the supervision of those businesses. As it is done locally, it is much more effective.

If the proposals contained in this legislation are not successful or do not work as we would wish, I hope that the Government will think seriously about examining the Continental system.

Mr. Barry Porter (Bebington and Ellesmere Port)

I add my small tribute to the memory of Graham Page, who was the Member for Crosby. I say that as secretary of the Merseyside group of Conservative Members. He was always extremely active, helpful and generous to all members of that group, in particular to those of us who shared his profession. He was a great solicitor. I shall miss him a great deal.

I would have welcomed Graham's assistance in this debate because I find myself in something of a dilemma. I have not had the opportunity to be a member of a Committee considering a Companies Bill, and having listened to some of the talk this afternoon, I am not sure whether that would be an opportunity I would necessarily welcome—certainly not if I were to be whipped by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) of whom I have had experience on other Committees.

The arguments flow back and forth, and I sometimes wonder whether this type of debate is best conducted by those who served in Committee. One tends to gain an impression that the woods are occasionally lost for the trees. The debating points that are made may satisfy those who make them, but not the objective observer.

I came into the House not that long ago in the naive belief that occasionally I would attend a debate where I would weigh up the arguments, reach a conclusion and scurry into whichever Lobby I felt so inclined to enter. However, that view lasted no longer than about a minute. My hon. Friend the Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) glares at me. He need have no fear, because in the dilemma in which I find myself I can reach no particular conclusion and am therefore willing to follow my leader.

I know from my professional experience that the Register of Business Names does not work; and that is the problem. It is pretty useless. I do not know how it can be said to be 60 per cent. efficient. We have no idea of how many companies fail to register. The 60 per cent. is, I hope, no more than an informed estimate. However, whether it is supposed to be 60 per cent., 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. efficient, it is still pretty useless for the reason adequately explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden).

Why then do the CBI, the chambers of commerce and other august bodies wish to retain the register? Large organisations, other than Townsend Thorensen—which no doubt is being registered this afternoon—find a use for its research facilities and tell their Members of Parliament that it should be retained. I believe that the Financial Times was quoted earlier. Why do people get heated about the need for the information to continue to be available?

Mr. Stevens

The bureaucrats in businesses write the letters and they naturally wish to preserve the existence of their species elsewhere.

Mr. Porter

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but that can be no more than an opinion. I doubt whether the gentlemen who wrote the letters said that they were bureaucrats and liked bureaucratic institutions.

I must take the views of those bodies into account. Serious bodies wish to have the information available. I am inclined to accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking that the register is expensive and does not work and that we should find another method to disseminate the information that people are entitled to have. I do not know whether the Treasury has found a proper substitute. It sounds a bit hit and miss. One hopes that the unscrupulous people the legislation is aimed at will give their place of business. However, for example, some businesses operate from newsagents, where there are advertisements for Gold Leaf cigarettes or St. Bruno tobacco. Those names are all over newsagents, which are used as accommodation addresses. I do not know whether that factor has been taken into account.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to observe what my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking asked and keep a strict eye on what is happening, although I shall faithfully follow him into the Lobby. If people do not get the information that they require, and if the new system does not work as well as we would wish, let us not leave it for another two generations before taking action.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

I declare an interest. Six weeks ago a friend and I formed a small business. Among the plethora of Acts that we had to comply with was that concerning the Register of Business Names. We completed our registration and we have our certificate. Now that I have an interest in business I have been keeping an eye on the legislation that a company has to comply with. My business colleague and I read the arguments of Labour Members opposing the measure and those of my hon. Friend the Minister.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden). His company is well known and has a great reputation and it is not registered. My little company has yet to establish its business record. I do not see how the registration of my company and the non-registration of his will matter one iota to those who trade with them. 5.45 pm

The register has been in existence for 65 years during which time there has been a great turnover in businesses, and now is perhaps the time to reform it. The Government in considering their budget need to examine whether the organisation is serving a useful purpose and whether money can be saved, although it must continue to protect the general public. I see no way at present how the registration or non-registration of a company makes any difference to the public.

I now take an interest in the creditworthiness of other companies, and with my short experience of business I would not dream of using the register to make such a check. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), I would not go to the register to establish the creditworthiness of another firm.

Mr. Clinton Davis

If the hon. Gentleman wished to sue a business trading as a firm would he not seek to know who the partners were so that his judgment, if he could get it, would be more readily enforceable?

Mr. Brown

That would be true only if there were sanctions to ensure that every firm registered. As has been said, that is not so. The Opposition's case would be strengthened if there was greater compliance with the Act, but what sanctions could be operated for non-compliance with the Act? As a result of the honesty and integrity of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking, shall we read in tomorrow's newspapers of a great prosecution by the Department of Trade? As long as there is a lack of knowledge of the purpose of the register or deliberate evasion by crooks, the Opposition's argument is redundant.

I readily accept that, whatever happens, the Department of Trade and Parliament must do everything that they can to bring to book the rogues and cowboys, but I do not believe that the Register of Business Names has done so in the past. As one who has just begun to check the financial standing and creditworthiness of other businesses, I am prepared seriously to consider and to welcome the proposals.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I should like to join the Minister and other hon. Members in paying tribute to a man who performed his parliamentary duties with great skill and distinction over many years, namely Graham Page. I pay that tribute not only as a colleague of his over 11 years, but as someone who worked closely with him in the all-party solicitors group in the House. The care that he felt for the profession and for the people whom he served in a variety of ways should be an example to all hon. Members. We shall miss him greatly.

I do not wish to take advantage of any emotional point. It is, however, worth noting that Graham Page cared about the law and spoke against the Government's proposals on Second Reading. He spoke forcefully and with great experience. I shall not pray his arguments in aid because there are many arguments that the Government have chosen to ignore during the debate.

The hon. Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Porter) urge the Government to keep an eye on what happens. The trouble is that the Government have no intention of doing so. They do not want anything effectively to take the place of the Register of Business Names. I have always conceded that the arguments the Government have put would be valuable as a supplement to the activities of the registry. They cannot work by themselves. I do not believe that the Minister can expect a higher level of compliance with his proposals than with those already experienced.

Many hon. Members including the Minister have advanced what they call evidence about the ineffectiveness of the Act. I do not claim that there has been full compliance. What my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) and I urge is that a pretty effective system could be coupled with the Government's proposals for reform of the present system. That cannot be achieved if the Register of Business Names is abolished.

I should like to examine some of the evidence that the Minister chose to ignore. In 1979, there were 134,561 new registrations. The figure for 1980 is 144,504. Changes registered, which amounted to 17,883 in 1979, showed a considerable increase to 23,208 in 1980. Cessations registered were 14,903 in 1979 and 19,527 in 1980. Inspections, an important statistic, amounted to 167,225 in 1979 and 201,982 in 1980. Despite difficult economic conditions, there have been 10,000 new registrations and a substantial increase in the number of inspections. This does not suggest that the system has broken down as the hon. Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden) who is guilty, as we know, of non-compliance with the Act and may therefore have an axe to grind, suggests. I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman is to be prosecuted. I shall be prepared to attend court as a character witness for him. I am not sure what I would say but I would be prepared to attend. The fact is that there is substantial compliance.

Running through the debate has been the observation by Government Back Benchers, who have been briefed to say so, that the whole operation has broken down catastrophically, that it is a total waste of time, that it confers no benefits on anyone, and that it should be got rid of. The Minister does not go so far because he knows the facts. What he does is to get little bits of information here and there from people who go down certain High Streets. No doubt, as I have already remarked, he was accompanying those people in scientific tests during the Summer Recess and relies upon those findings as evidence. The Minister has, however, to balance this very unscientific approach with the figures to which I have referred—I am sure that he does not dispute them—and with the overwhelming evidence of the professional bodies and all the business experience that is accumulated in a large number of bodies including the CBI, the chambers of commerce and the trade unions, which have argued time and again that the move to abolish the register is mistaken.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

What professional body does the hon. Gentleman suggest would be capable of saying that there are so many in number or such a percentage of companies or individuals that do not comply with the Act? Is the hon. Gentleman trying to say that there is not very substantial evidence—the Minister could not give a definite answer other than that there is substantial evidence—that a large number of individuals and businesses do not comply?

Mr. Davis

I have said that. The hon. Gentleman should unplug his ears from time to time. However, the hon. Gentleman cannot gainsay the fact that the Law Society, which does listen to its members from time to time and goes to some trouble in putting forward arguments to hon. Members on a variety of topics, does not enter into the matter willy-nilly and say that it can be left to the secretary of the appropriate sub-committee to put forward his own feeble views and hope to persuade the House of Commons that this is the view of the Law Society. That is an insult to the Law Society of which the hon. Gentleman is a member. That is not how matters work. The accumulated wisdom of all those organisations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) referred is that the Government are wrong.

I notice that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) spent his Summer Recess agonising over this matter. That is what the hon. Gentleman told the House. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to do other things. Apart from describing his qualities as a parliamentary footballer, he revealed that he was virtually the only man who, having considered the Minister's arguments, was converted by them. That is a record. The evidence accumulated by all these bodies has impelled them to the argument—they have not deviated—that the Government are making a great mistake. The evidence should be compelling. I adopt the arguments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), who clearly examined the evidence in detail and concluded that the Government are wrong.

From the start, the Minister has been in miserable isolation among those in the outside world interested in this subject. What happened was not a design on his part to improve consumer protection. The very reverse is true. The Minister was told that he had to make a saving on the number of civil servants. It did not matter whether they could be self-financing. It did not matter what was the nature of their jobs. He was told that he had to get rid of a number of civil servants. He therefore alighted on the proposition of getting rid of the Register of Business Names. That is the stark truth.

Everything the Minister says about trying to improve consumer protection is bogus. It would be surprising if the Government were concerned about consumer protection. One of their first actions was to get rid of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. The right hon. Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) purportedly presides over those affairs, not doing a particularly good job, although the Opposition are delighted that she has been defeated over gas showrooms, Why has the Minister not answered the argument that it would be possible to supplement the work of the Register of Business Names with the reforms that he has put before the House?

The Minister says that to do anything about the registry would involve enormous cost. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support that or to suggest what cost would be involved. The hon. Gentleman merely makes the bland, bare assertion that small business men would not be prepared to bear the cost. What evidence has he for that proposition? 6 pm

Let us consider the Minister's own proposition, which is to abolish the register. How effectively will the Government enforce the provisions of the Bill? The Under-Secretary says that the police will be able to do it quite happily. But have the police been consulted? Do they want to undertake that additional burden on top of all their many other important duties?

The Under-Secretary mentioned trading officers, but they are employed by local authorities and the Secretary of State for the Environment is busy damaging and breaking up local authorities. The Under-Secretary wants them to bear the additional burden. What would be the cost of that? What consultations have taken place? How many more trading officers would local authorities have to employ? Would not the burden ultimately be borne by the consumer, and to a much greater extent than the Minister is prepared to concede?

The Under-Secretary has also suggested from time to time that banks might be prepared to send people round to look at the displays advertising compliance with the Act. But who will pay for that? Will not bank customers ultimately have to pay? What will all that cost?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) said, we should turn our minds to modernising the registry. It should not be too difficult. We could put it on a computer, arrange for more regular registration and increase the fees to £1 for a search and £5 for registration. That would not be an astronomical burden which small businesses could not bear and it is nonsensical for the Under-Secretary to suggest that that is the case.

Mr. Wickenden

If it is the case, which few would deny, that more businesses should be registered in the Register of Business Names than under the Companies Act, surely the cost of administering the register should be at least similar to that of administering the companies register, in which case the fees would have to be a great deal higher than those proposed by the hon. Gentleman—unless there were to be an unfair burden on the taxpayer.

Mr. Davis

The hon. Gentleman has not done his arithmetic. A wide variety of bodies who have looked at the matter with care—and I hope that he will acquit the Law Society, accountancy bodies, big business represented by Shell, the CBI and chambers of commerce of merely looking at the matter and pulling a figure out of the air—have all put forward a similar proposition. It is the Under-Secretary's rejection of the combined wisdom of so many who have no political axe to grind that I find so bewildering, and my view is shared by the hon. Member for Selly Oak.

Mr. Wickenden

I have done my homework. There are 2½ million companies on the Register of Business Names and 1.3 million companies in the companies registry. The cost of the Registry of Business Names must be at least equal to that of the companies registry. The cost would therefore have to be similar and a great deal more than the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Mr. Davis

The hon. Gentleman overlooks the Under-Secretary's own argument. There is a lot of dead wood and a system of re-registration would eliminate the dead wood and constitute a saving. Obviously the hon. Gentleman did not consider that factor in his analysis of the cost.

We have gone over the arguments in great detail for many hours and I do not propose to detain the House for much longer. It is a pity that the Under-Secretary should regard himself as the TINA of the Department of Trade. There he stands—oblivious to all the arguments, uncaring about the evidence, determined to shed about 60 civil servants and to get on with the job of demonstrating his concern for the consumer.

Mr. Eyre

I know that the hon. Gentleman will remember that when he held my post the Labour Government produced a Green Paper—after an impartial examination of the circumstances that we are considering—and recommmended that the register should be abolished.

Mr. Davis

That is a proposition that officials of the Department have yearned after. I opposed it bitterly. I have told the hon. Gentleman time and again in the House, in Committee and privately that the proposition was put forward, I disapproved of it and I suggested that we should test it in a Green Paper. We tested it and we got the response that I forecast.

The proposition did not appear in the 1978 Bill, which included powers to increase the registry's fees. The Under-Secretary cannot use that argument.

Mr. Eyre

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Department issued the Green Paper without having examined the subject and that it would have made that recommendation without considering all the evidence.

Mr. Davis

The Under-Secretary must know that not only Conservative Governments are concerned from time to time about reducing the number of civil servants. Such exercises, which are sometimes rather time-consuming and wasteful, also affected the deliberations of the Labour Government in 1978. The proposition was never put forward with my approval. I opposed it, and who won in the end? That is the test. What appeared in the Bill was a proposition to improve the registry. The hon. Gentleman will remember the Bill that included provisions to that effect. Ministers sometime have the last word, though that does not appear to be so in this case.

The Under-Secretary has shown that he is not prepared to see reason. That is a great pity. I gather that we shall not have another Companies Bill next year. We are all delighted about that, because the hon. Gentleman is polygamous in respect of Companies Bills. We have had one after another and I fear that we shall have another the year after next if the Government are still in office.

The arguments have been well rehearsed and I believe that the Government are making a great error. Outside opinion is against them and will continue to be so. Once we kill the registry we shall find it difficult to maintain an edifice that will protect the consumer as well as the register is capable of doing, subject to the improvements that we can still enact.

The Under-Secretary is not so much imposing protections for the consumer as encouraging important protections to decompose. He has failed the House by using the arguments that he has put forward. I am the hon. Gentleman's friend, but I have to say that he has not reflected great credit on himself by adopting some of the extraordinary arguments that he has been compelled to use over the many hours of debate on this issue.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 210, Noes 256.

Division No. 301] [6.10 pm
Abse, Leo Bidwell, Sydney
Adams, Allen Booth, Rt Hon Albert
Allaun, Frank Boothroyd, Miss Betty
Alton, David Bottomley, Rt Hon A.(M'b'ro)
Anderson, Donald Bradley, Tom
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Bray, Dr Jeremy
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Ashton, Joe Brown, Ronald W. (H'ckn'y S)
Atkinson, N.(H'gey,) Buchan, Norman
Bagier, Gordon A.T. Callaghan, Rt Hon J.
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P)
Beith, A. J. Campbell-Savours, Dale
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Canavan, Dennis
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp't N) Cant, R. B.
Adley, Robert Fairgrieve, Sir Russell
Aitken, Jonathan Faith, Mrs Sheila
Alexander, Richard Fell, Anthony
Ancram, Michael Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Aspinwall, Jack Finsberg, Geoffrey
Atkins, Robert(Preston N) Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)
Atkinson, David (B'm'th,E) Fletcher-Cooke, Sir Charles
Baker, Kenneth(St.M'bone) Forman, Nigel
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Banks, Robert Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh
Bendell, Vivian Fraser, Peter (South Angus)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay) Fry, Peter
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Benyon, W. (Buckingham) Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)
Berry, Hon Anthony Garel-Jones, Tristan
Biffen, Rt Hon John Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Glyn, Dr Alan
Blackburn, John Goodhew, Victor
Blaker, Peter Gorst, John
Body, Richard Gow, Ian
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Gray, Harnish
Boscawen, Hon Robert Greenway, Harry
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Grieve, Percy
Braine, Sir Bernard Griffiths, E.(B'y St. Edm'ds)
Bright, Graham Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Brinton, Tim Grist, Ian
Brittan, Rt. Hon, Leon Grylls, Michael
Brooke, Hon Peter Gummer, John Selwyn
Brotherton, Michael Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Brown, Michael(Brigg & Sc'n) Hampson, Dr Keith
Browne, John (Winchester) Hannam, John
Bruce-Gardyne, John Haselhurst, Alan
Bryan, Sir Paul Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Budgen, Nick Hawkins, Paul
Bulmer, Esmond Hayhoe, Barney
Burden, Sir Frederick Henderson, Barry
Cadbury, Jocelyn Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n ) Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Channon, Rt. Hon. Paul Holland, Philip (Carlton)
Chapman, Sydney Hooson, Tom
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Hordern, Peter
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'Idf'd)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hunt, David (Wirral)
Clegg, Sir Walter Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Cockeram, Eric Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)
Colvin, Michael Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Cope, John Jessel, Toby
Cormack, Patrick Johnson Smith, Geoffrey
Corrie, John Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Costain, Sir Albert Kaberry, Sir Donald
Cranborne, Viscount King, Rt Hon Tom
Critchley, Julian Kitson, Sir Timothy
Crouch, David Knight, Mrs Jill
Dickens, Geoffrey Knox, David
Dorrell, Stephen Lamont, Norman
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel
Dover, Denshore Lee, John
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Le Marchant, Spencer
Durant, Tony Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'loo)
Egger, Tim Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Elliott, Sir William Loveridge, John
Eyre, Reginald Luce, Richard
Carmichael, Neil Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Carter-Jones, Lewis Lamborn, Harry
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Lamond, James
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Leighton, Ronald
Cohen, Stanley Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Coleman, Donald Litherland, Robert
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Conlan, Bernard Lyon, Alexander (York)
Cook, Robin F. Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)
Cowans, Harry McCartney, Hugh
Cox, T. (W'dsw'th, Toot'g) McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Crowther, Stan McElhone, Frank
Cryer, Bob McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Cunliffe, Lawrence McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) McKelvey, William
Dalyell, Tam MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'Ili) McNamara, Kevin
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) McTaggart, Robert
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) McWilliam, John
Deakins, Eric Magee, Bryan
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Marks, Kenneth
Dewar, Donald Marshall, D(G'gow S'ton)
Dixon, Donald Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Dobson, Frank Maxton, John
Dormand, Jack Maynard, Miss Joan
Douglas, Dick Meacher, Michael
Dubs, Alfred Mellish, Rt Hon Robert
Duffy, A. E. P. Mikardo, Ian
Dunnett, Jack Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
Eadie, Alex Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Eastham, Ken Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)
Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're) Morton, George
English, Michael Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick
Ennals, Rt Hon David Newens, Stanley
Evans, John (Newton) Ogden, Eric
Ewing, Harry O'Halloran, Michael
Field, Frank O'Neill, Martin
Fitch, Alan Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston) Palmer, Arthur
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Park, George
Ford, Ben Parker, John
Forrester, John Pavitt, Laurie
Foster, Derek Pendry, Tom
Foulkes, George Penhaligon, David
Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd) Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Prescott, John
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Price, C. (Lewisham W)
George, Bruce Race, Reg
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Radice, Giles
Graham, Ted Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
Grant, George (Morpeth) Richardson, Jo
Grant, John (Islington C) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Hardy, Peter Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Robertson, George
Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Rooker, J. W.
Haynes, Frank Roper, John
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Heffer, Eric S. Ryman, John
Holland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll) Sandelson, Neville
Home Robertson, John Sever, John
Homewood, William Sheerman, Barry
Hooley, Frank Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Howells, Geraint Short, Mrs Renee
Hoyle, Douglas Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
Huckfield, Les Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Hudson Davies, Gwilym E. Silverman, Julius
Hughes, Mark (Durham) Skinner, Dennis
Hughes, Roy (Newport) Smith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)
Janner, Hon Greville Snape, Peter
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Soley, Clive
John, Brynmor Spearing, Nigel
Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Spriggs, Leslie
Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Steel, Rt Hon David
Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda) Stoddart, David
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Stott, Roger
Kerr, Russell Straw, Jack
Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley Whitlock, William
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Williams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)
Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Thomas, Dr R.(Carmarthen) Wilson, William (C'try SE)
Thorne, Stan (Preston South) Winnick, David
Torney, Tom Woodall, Alec
Urwin, Rt Hon Tom Woolmer, Kenneth
Varley, Rt Hon Eric G. Wright, Sheila
Wainwright, E.(Dearne V) Young, David (Bolton E)
Walker, Rt Hon H.(D'caster)
Watkins, David Tellers for the Ayes:
Weetch, Ken Mr. James Hamilton and
Welsh, Michael Mr. Frank R. White.
Lyell, Nicholas Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
McCrindle, Robert Rossi, Hugh
Macfarlane, Neil Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
MacGregor, John St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Shelton, William (Streatham)
McQuarrie, Albert Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Madel, David Shepherd, Richard
Marland, Paul Shersby, Michael
Marlow, Antony Silvester, Fred
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Sims, Roger
Mates, Michael Skeet, T. H. H.
Mather, Carol Smith, Dudley
Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus Speed, Keith
Mawby, Ray Speller, Tony
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Spence, John
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Mayhew, Patrick Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Mellor, David Squire, Robin
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Stainton, Keith
Mills, lain (Meriden) Stanbrook, Ivor
Moate, Roger Stanley, John
Monro, Sir Hector Steen, Anthony
Montgomery, Fergus Stevens, Martin
Moore, John Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Morgan, Geraint Stewart, A.(E Renfrewshire)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Stokes, John
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester) Tapsell, Peter
Mudd, David Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Murphy, Christopher Temple-Morris, Peter
Myles, David Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Neale, Gerrard Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Needham, Richard Thornton, Malcolm
Nelson, Anthony Townend, John (Bridlington)
Newton, Tony Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Onslow, Cranley Trippier, David
Osborn, John Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Page, John (Harrow, West) Viggers, Peter
Page, Richard (SW Herts) Waddington, David
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Wakeham, John
Parris, Matthew Waldegrave, Hon William
Patten, Christopher (Bath) Walker, B. (Perth)
Pattie, Geoffrey Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.
Pawsey, James Wall, Sir Patrick
Percival, Sir Ian Waller, Gary
Peyton, Rt Hon John Walters, Dennis
Pink, R. Bonner Warren, Kenneth
Pollock, Alexander Watson, John
Porter, Barry Wells, John (Maidstone)
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Wells, Bowen
Price, Sir David (Eastleigh) Wheeler, John
Proctor, K. Harvey Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Whitney, Raymond
Raison, Timothy Wickenden, Keith
Rathbone, Tim Wilkinson, John
Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal) Williams, D.(Montgomery)
Rees-Davies, W. R. Winterton, Nicholas
Renton, Tim Wolfson, Mark
Rhodes James, Robert Young, Sir George (Acton)
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Rifkind, Malcolm Tellers for the Noes:
Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Mr. Alastair Goodlad and
Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW) Mr. Donald Thompson.
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