How to Use Companies House

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Since 1844, companies operating in the United Kingdom have been obliged to register their existence. Today, this is undertaken at Companies House, an Executive Agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). According to the Companies House website, ‘There are more than two million limited companies registered in Great Britain, and more than 300,000 new companies are incorporated each year’.[1] This growing record of registered companies is held digitally and accessible to members of the public. Companies are required not only to register their memoranda and articles of association but also to file an annual return, report and accounts.

The benefits of this system to investigative researchers are immediately obvious. To access this information, visit the Companies House website. The entry page offers a number of main options: Find Information is especially useful for researchers.

You can search for a company by name (or number, if known). Often a company name will bring up several companies in the same group. Clicking on each of the options in turn provides you with basic information about that company, including its registered address, accounting period and any previous names it may have had. You can then choose to monitor this company or order further information on it (using the menu to the right of the screen). If you choose to monitor a company, you will receive an email every time that company files a document at Companies House; this service costs 50p per year. It may be that you monitor several companies and telephone a news desk if accounts are filed, or it may be that you use the data as part of a longer investigation into a particular company. If you decide to order further information, you will be taken to a menu of the documents the company has filed.

This includes different categories of documents, including the company’s:

• Incorporation document (Newinc) – which shows who set the company up and when.

• Annual Return (AR01/363) – which gives details of the current directors and the number of shares in the company (if any) which exist and who owns them.

• Annual Accounts (AA) – which provides a balance sheet, showing the value of assets held by the company and its creditors and debtors, plus the shareholders’ value (see the next section of this manual, which describes how to read company accounts).

• Appointments – which includes new appointments (288a), resignations (288b) and any change of details (288c).

• Mortgages (495) – which details any specific loans on property or equipment.

Each of the documents listed costs £1 to request and, once you have paid for them in the checkout section of the website, you will be able to download them in PDF format. You can also request document packages, for example ‘all documents since 2003’ for a cost of £4.

Compare the basic company information (about accounting cycles etc.) to the list of documents available. If information is outstanding or only partly satisfied (particularly the accounts) this is potentially alarming. You can check with the press office of Companies House to see whether or not a particular company is in danger of defaulting or has paid any penalties for late submissions.

Every company will certify its accounts to be fair and accurate, but sometimes auditors will include a note about any reservations they may have. If a company seems to be in danger of breaching its banking covenants, this is worth reporting. It is often useful to trace the ultimate parent company, which should be cited at the end of the accounts, in order to determine who profits from the company. For further details on how to use the accounting information you have requested, see the next section.

By looking at the articles of association, the movements of directors and the latest annual return, you will be able to tell if you are looking at a shell company that was bought off the shelf and activated. Phoenix companies – where the assets of one company are moved to another entity – are harder to spot but, as they often have the same directors, following individuals can help (see below). If you suspect a cartel – an explicit agreement between competing companies to artificially fix prices in a non-competitive manner – you should inform the Office of Fair Trading as it is in the public interest.

Going back to the Companies House home page, you will remember the Companies House Direct option. This is a subscription service which costs £5 per month and £1 for each document requested, which is worth considering if you undertake regular investigations into corporate personnel. Once you have registered (activation takes a few days), you can log in to a range of options.

One of the most useful of these is the Officer Search function. This enables you to search for individuals by name, to bring up a list of companies with which they have been involved. If there is more than one entry for the name you are seeking, look at birth dates to narrow your search. Once you have selected the relevant individual, you can click on their name and, at a cost of £1, be provided with a list of all the companies (past and present) with which they have been associated as directors. This will also tell you what happened to their directorship and to the company, which will give you an idea of the individual’s track record in business. If there is evidence of bankruptcy, you can contact debtors for a comment; HM Revenue and Customs and the banks will not comment on individual cases but they will always follow the debt. Also note that it is considered bad corporate governance for the same person to act as both chair and chief executive of a company.

In general, this way of working provides protection for researchers who accurately report their findings ‘According to records available at Companies House…’

If you are investigating companies with offshore offices, limited information is offered via the following sites:

Jersey Financial Services Commission

Guernsey Registry

Isle of Man Financial Supervision Commission

In the USA, the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval (EDGAR) system allows free access to the company accounts filing arm of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. When you have gleaned information regarding companies and their directors, some interesting experiments in social network analysis can be undertaken. For example, this information might be used to track the interests of the main players controlling the economy. So, in the US, a project called They Rule provides annotated information about major corporate bodies and their directors and allows links to be plotted between companies via their personnel.

There is still plenty of scope for this way of working in the UK. Just remember to follow every lead but to walk away if a quest seems futile.

Based on a presentation by Robert Miller

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