How Britain can help you get away with stealing millions: a five-step guide (posted by Comsure in 6 postings 6/6)
Dirty money needs laundering if it’s to be of any use – and the UK is the best place in the world to do it. = part 6
- To read part 1 of this article please click here
- To read part 2 of this article please click here
- To read part 3 of this article please click here
- To read part 4 of this article please click here
- To read part 5 of this article please click here
Steps 1-4: A brief recap
So, to summarise the tricks so far, if you want to create an impenetrable weapon for committing fraud: first, forget about the supposed offshore centres and come to the UK; then take advantage of the super-easy Companies House web portal; then enter false information; and finally make sure that information is plausible enough to deceive a casual observer.
We’re nearly there. It’s time for the final step.
Step 5: Don’t worry about it
I know what you’re thinking: it cannot be this easy. Surely you’ll be arrested, tried and jailed if you try to follow this five-step process. But if you look at what British officials do, rather than at what they say, you’ll begin to feel a lot more secure. The Business Department has repeatedly been warned that the UK is facilitating this kind of financial crime for the best part of a decade, and is yet to take any substantive action to stop it. (Though, to be fair, it did recently launch a “consultation”.)
Before 2011, only registered company-formation businesses could access Companies House’s web portal, which meant there was a clear connection between an actual verified individual and companies being created, since you could see who had created them. There was still fraud, of course, but it was relatively easy to understand who was responsible.
In 2011, then-business secretary and Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable decided to open up Companies House, and everything changed. After Cable’s reform, anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world, could create a UK company in about as much time as it takes to order a couple of pizzas, and for approximately the same amount of money. The checks were gone; there was no longer any connection to a verifiably existing person; it was as easy to create a UK company as it was to set up a Twitter account. The rationale was that this would unleash the latent entrepreneurship within the British nation by making it easy to turn business ideas into thriving concerns.
Instead of unchaining a new generation of British businesspeople, however, Cable let slip the dogs of fraud. At first, this rather technical modification to an obscure corner of the British machinery of state did not garner much attention, but for people who understood what it meant it was alarming. One such person was Kevin Brewer, a Warwickshire businessman who had been in the company forming business for decades, and who attempted to warn Cable of the potential risks inherent in the new policy.
The method Brewer chose to make his warning was perhaps slightly unwise. He registered a company – John Vincent Cable Services Ltd – with Vince Cable listed as the sole shareholder, then wrote to the business secretary to explain what he had done. It was intended as a demonstration of how easy it is to file unverified information with Companies House, but it failed to focus attention in the way he had hoped. Jo Swinson MP, who worked with Cable, wrote Brewer a stern letter, telling him he should not have done what he did, and assured him that the new system was very good. Brewer concluded that the coalition government was not going to take his concerns seriously.
In 2015, there was a general election, Cable lost his seat, the Conservatives formed a majority government, and Brewer decided to try again with the same stunt. He created Cleverly Clogs Ltd, a company apparently owned by three people: James Cleverly MP, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who was a minister in the business department, and a fictional Israeli called Ibrahim Aman. Brewer was no more successful in persuading Tories than he had been at persuading Liberal Democrats, however. At that point, he gave up on his attempt to show the government it was enabling limitless opportunities for fraud.
There is, it turns out, a simple explanation for why successive governments have failed to do anything about it.
Last year, when challenged in the House of Commons, Treasury minister John Glen stated that Companies House simply couldn’t afford to check the information filed with it, since that would cost the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds a year. This is almost certainly an exaggeration. Anti-corruption activists who have looked at the data say the cost would in fact be far less than that, but the key point is that the reform would pay for itself. As Brewer has pointed out, “the burden of cost is one thing. But the cost of fraud is far greater.”
VAT fraud alone costs the UK more than £1bn a year, while the National Crime Agency estimates the cost of all fraud to the UK economy to be £190bn. The cost to the rest of the world of the money laundering enabled by UK corporate entities is almost certainly far higher.
Spending hundreds of millions of pounds to prevent hundreds of billions’ worth of crime looks like a sensible investment, however you look at the data, particularly since the remedy – obliging Companies House to check the accuracy of the information filed on its registry – would be so simple. (When I put this to Companies House, they provided the following statement: “We do not have the statutory power or capability to verify the accuracy of the information that companies provide. However, tackling abuse of the register is a key priority and that’s why we work closely with law enforcement partners to assist their investigations into suspected cases of economic crime and other offences.”)
That is not to say that the government has taken no action.
It is illegal to deliberately file false information in registering a company, and punishable by up to two years in prison. In late 2017, Companies House at last alerted prosecutors to the activities of one persistent offender. The target of the prosecution was Kevin Brewer, for the crime of trying to inform politicians about how easy it is to create fake companies.
He was summonsed to appear at Redditch magistrates’ court and, on legal advice, pleaded guilty in March 2018.
After adding together his fine, and the government’s costs, he is £23,324 the poorer – quite a high price to pay for blowing the whistle. He is paying it off at £1,000 a month, and remains the only person ever convicted of spoofing the UK’s corporate registry, which is quite a remarkable demonstration of Companies House’s failure to do its job.
Following his conviction, Brewer’s company National Business Register was removed from the list that Companies House publishes of company formation agents, which had been a key source of new business for him.
- “There are company formation agents on that list who have permitted huge amounts of fraud, and I’ve been excluded for trying to expose it. I find it incredible that they should turn a blind eye,” he told me.
- “Is it deliberate? Are they actually trying to get this money into the UK? I don’t want to believe it, but I can’t explain it any other way.”
We don’t know the answer to that, but it does give us lesson number five: don’t worry about it.
Commit as much fraud as you like, fill your boots, the only reason anyone would care is if you kick up a fuss. And what sensible fraudster is going to do that?