Companies House abandons plan to delete 2.5m public records

Controversial plans to delete more than 2.5m public records have been abandoned by the government’s company registration agency.

Companies House, which maintains a database on every firm incorporated in the UK, listing their accounts and all directors and shareholders, was considering proposals to reduce the amount of time the records of dissolved companies were retained from 20 years to six.

The plans provoked an outcry when they became public in August, with warnings that they would hamper the ability to track down white collar criminals and combat money laundering. The deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, wrote to Theresa May claiming the move would make a mockery of her pledge to tackle corporate irresponsibility.

In response to a written parliamentary question tabled last week, Margot James, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: “The government has no current plans to bring forward proposals to reduce the period of time that Companies House retains records of dissolved companies.

“Nevertheless, we will continue to keep the retention period under review, during which time the registrar of companies will ensure there is no destruction of records. Additionally, any future proposal to change the retention period would be subject to public consultation.”

The question was asked by Martin Docherty-Hughes, the SNP MP for West Dunbartonshire, after discussion with the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, which had planned legal action against the government if the proposal went ahead.

The forum was concerned that people with the incurable asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, which can take decades to develop, would have been prevented from obtaining redress from negligent employers.

Its chair, Graham Dring, said: “This decision is good news for victims of mesothelioma and other long-tail industrial diseases who already face an uphill struggle securing justice in the courts. If these proposals had gone ahead it would have denied access to justice to many asbestos victims unable to pursue a negligent employer or their insurer.”

The forum’s solicitors, Leigh Day, said the plans “would have seen thousands of victims of asbestos exposure denied justice”.

Police investigators, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office, lawyers, journalists and bank compliance teams all make extensive use of the data held by Companies House, with many searches involving dissolved companies and their directors.

In June last year, the previously paid-for information was made available free to the general public, leading to a surge in the number of searches.

In August, Companies House said this had led to complaints that retaining and providing access to information on long-dissolved firms was inconsistent with data protection law. It said the source of the complaints was members of the public, but there were reports suggesting some MPs were also protesting.

Campaigners said that if the proposal went ahead, it would be a major step back in the global fight against corruption.