Companies House has been lambasted for trumpeting the prosecution of a whistleblower who used Vince Cable’s name to expose a gaping loophole exploited by fraudsters.
The government agency hailed the conviction of 65-year-old businessman Kevin Brewer last month as the first ever secured under a law passed in 2006.
It issued an official statement from business minister Andrew Griffiths claiming it showed their determination to “come down hard on people who knowingly break the law”.
However, as he made abundantly clear, Brewer submitted the name of the Liberal Democrat leader in a pointed protest at how easy it is to register false details with the authority.
He documented his actions in the pages of a national newspaper.
He was fined £1,602 and ordered to pay more than £10,400 in costs after pleading guilty to providing false information on the company register. He could have faced up to two years in jail if he had fought the case in the Crown Court.
The case was described as “absolutely insane”, “shocking” and a “farce”, with one commenter on social media calling for funds to be raised to cover Mr Brewer’s loss.
This story is absolutely insane. At first glance, you think “well done, Companies House, at last they’re getting serious about the epidemic of fraud enabled by the misuse of British corporations”. https://t.co/HSjMDawuyl pic.twitter.com/FiQ1VMkKbv
— Oliver Bullough (@OliverBullough) April 15, 2018
This guys is a hero and someone should help him raise money to recoup the fine https://t.co/gD4uLQFU0P
— Simon Ostrovsky (@SimonOstrovsky) April 15, 2018
What is Companies House doing prosecuting someone who is effectively a whistleblower? And then trumpeting about the result? Shocking.
— fastsenna (@fastsenna) April 16, 2018
Many pointed out that far from being a triumph for Companies House, the lone prosecution throws into stark relief the lack of action it has taken against others responsible for setting up false companies – often with rather less laudable aims.
The Italian Mafia reportedly managed to set up one UK firm with a director named as Ottavio Il Ladro di Galline (“The Chicken Thief”), whose occupation is listed as Truffatore (“fraudster”).
Another company had an address which translated as “Street of the 40 Thieves” in “Ali Babba”, according to the London Evening Standard.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirmed in October 2017 it had taken no action against those responsible.
Italian journalists also set out to reveal weaknesses in the Companies House system by trying to set up a company based at 10 Downing Street using the name of a notorious mafia boss. They chose to stop the process before paying the £12 registration fee to avoid breaking the law.
Companies House does not carry out background checks on who sets up firms and has just six people policing the system, according to a report by Transparency International.
Hundreds of UK companies are alleged to have been involved in high-end money laundering and Companies House has been branded a “soft target for real criminals“.
Brewer first attempted to expose the potential for fraud in 2013 by registering John Vincent Cable Services Ltd on the Companies House website with Vince Cable listed as a director.
He then wrote to Mr Cable, then Business Secretary, to tell him what he had done.
Mr Brewer repeated the stunt in 2016 using the names of James Cleverly MP and Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who was at that time the minister responsible for the agency.
Companies House finally took action – by getting the Insolvency Service to charge Brewer with a criminal offence.
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Mr Brewer told The Daily Mirror he was “gobsmacked” by the prosecution and said: “I highlighted an issue and then wrote to those concerned and told them what I have done and asked to meet to discuss the problems but was ignored.
“Then out of the blue they decided to prosecute me for being a whistleblower.”
Companies House did not respond to requests for a comment.
In a previous statement, a spokesman said: “Deliberately filing false information on the register is a serious offence and people who have been found to have knowingly done this can face prosecution.”