Companies (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I welcome you, Mrs. Roe. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. As an articled clerk, I was dispatched to Companies House in London, which was then, I think, on City road, and I waited for hours for a file on one or two companies. Events have advanced considerably since, thank goodness.

I do not intend a clash of the titans and I shall not divide the Committee, but I must place a few points of

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principle on record. Will the Minister explain the philosophy behind the charges? Are the Government endeavouring to cover the costs of Companies House? If there is a profit element, we would like to know about it. Who audits and controls the efficiency and affairs of Companies House? That is a matter of interest to us all, particularly the City of London and other financial institutions that are important to the economy. They want to be assured that we have an efficient Companies House set-up, and accessing records is crucial to the commercial sector.

I make a plea for those who are not online. The Minister said that great changes will take place this year and that microfiche searches will not be available for records after this year. I may have got that wrong; if so, perhaps she will put me right. Can the Government confirm that individuals without access to electronic search methods will still be able to access the microfiche system in the foreseeable future?

There used to be a business names registry. It might have disappeared and then been reintroduced, but I plead ignorance--I must confess that I do not know whether it still exists. To what extent, if at all, do the charges relate to it? It was quite useful, so will the Minister provide information on that? If she cannot do so today, I would be happy to receive a letter from her.

I understand that, with the diminution of demand for microfiche searches, cost will increase. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister can assure us that it is being kept to a minimum.

10.10 am

Miss Johnson: I thank the hon. Gentlemen for their questions, and I shall try quickly to answer the points raised.

I am interested in the distribution of concerns about microfiche. Had we placed bets on that, in discussing the political parties, I would have said that the Conservatives are more concerned about the future of microfiche and the Liberal Democrats less concerned about that and more concerned about the electronic future. One's predictions are not always right.

I confirm for the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) that the increase will be 38 per cent., which reflects a 33 per cent. decline last year and the anticipated 45 per cent. decline over the two years. There is a big decline in demand. Fixed costs have to be allocated over an ever-smaller number of service users and the increase reflects that.

Mr. Waterson: This is what I am trying to get at: on that logic, if there is a decline to the extent that just one little old lady, impervious to the electronic revolution, insists on using microfiche, she could face a bill of tens of thousands of pounds.

Miss Johnson: On that logic, I turn to a question raised by the hon. Member for Teignbridge and West Devon.

Mr. Burnett: May I help the Minister? My constituency is Torridge and West Devon.

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Miss Johnson: I apologise, and thank the hon. Gentleman. I took his constituency title from the document supplied to the Committee, which is clearly incorrect.

Mr. Burnett: The Minister is quite right. I had not noticed, but now I see that my constituency title is misspelled there. We won Teignbridge at the general election; perhaps that has confused the Clerks.

Miss Johnson: My apologies to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that there was something odd about his constituency title. He is the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, and I am happy to stand corrected. His point on the future of microfiche relates to that just raised by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. The microfiche record will not be available for new information from 2003; its use will be purely a research activity from then.

Mr. Burnett: An electronic search?

Miss Johnson: No, a physical search. The microfiche search will be available, but only that. No new information will be added to the microfiche from 2003, or perhaps a little earlier. We are examining the arrangements.

I sympathise with what the hon. Member for Eastbourne said about the future of microfiche. The last of it will certainly cost a lot, but the plan is to stop its use before we get down to the last hypothetical customer, whoever that might be. It is important that cost increases reflect the elasticity of demand over price. If we increase the price further, demand would drop even more dramatically. We believe that we have achieved the right balance.

I am pleased to say that Companies House is extremely well geared up electronically. It is a model of moving forward on the provision of electronic information, and I rebut entirely the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that it has been dragging its heels. The previous Government could have stopped the use of microfiche in 1996, but decided not to do so. We have been modernising government, as he knows, and company information is now widely available on the Companies House website, which contains information about all the services offered.

Images of statutory documents are available via the internet for a charge. They include annual accounts and returns, as well as more general information. Information is also available for a fee from Companies House Direct or WebCHeck; charges are made on a cost-recovery-plus basis. Unsurprisingly, they are generally much lower than for microfiche-based products. Companies House has been creating an electronic environment for easier access to company information for some time, and the website can be accessed from any computer connected to the internet.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman's son to spend his time looking at the Companies House database in addition to the other sites that he has visited on his internet travels.

Mr. Waterson: Fat chance.

Miss Johnson: We all have difficulty getting our children to use the internet for useful things.

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On the points raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), the philosophy is cost recovery--it must be, on such a basis--plus a 6 per cent. return element, which is demanded as a trading fund by the Treasury. That position is common for all the trading funds operated by the Government.

Mr. Burnett: Six per cent. of turnover, presumably.

Miss Johnson: Six per cent. of assets deployed.

The service is audited by the National Audit Office, and its accounts are laid before Parliament regularly. The microfiche record will not be available for new information from 2003, although it is certainly possible to make personal visits. I must inform the hon. Gentleman that the business names registry was discontinued in the 1980s. He obviously goes back some time, as do all of us in the Committee.

We have had a useful debate, and I welcome the opportunity to explain how the proposed fee changes

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affect companies. I draw particular attention to Companies House's commitment to developing services that are efficient, economical and of high quality. It puts a good deal of effort into establishing the needs of its customers, and it uses consultation and interactions with customers as the basis for driving forward its evolving service offer. It uses modern technology to create an environment of easier access for companies and individuals, whether they are delivering or obtaining information. That dedicated focus on customers has led to Companies House being one of the few public sector organisations to be awarded the charter mark for the fourth consecutive time. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Companies (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 317).

Committee rose at eighteen minutes past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Roe, Mrs. Marion (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Burnett, Mr.
Chapman, Sir Sydney
Clarke, Mr. Tom
Ellman, Mrs.
Hendry, Mr.
Johnson, Miss Melanie
Mann, John
Pearson, Mr.
Russell, Ms Christine
Stewart, Ian
Waterson, Mr.

 
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