Changes to company records would be bad for workers
Companies House is proposing a significant change to how long information on companies is kept that could have a major impact on the ability of workers to get compensation for diseases that appear many years after exposure.
At present, if a company is dissolved, the information is stored by Companies House for 20 years. The proposal, which seems to come after pressure from businesses, is that this should be cut down to 6 years.
There has been quite a bit of publicity over the proposal on the grounds that it would be a major step back in the fight against corruption, as it will be much harder to link people to companies that have now gone under. However there is another reason why this would be a very bad idea.
Many cancers that are caused by work take decades to develop after a person is exposed. If a worker wants to claim compensation then they can normally sue the employer and the money would come from the employer’s insurance company. There are thousands such claims every year. The main reason for claims being lodged many years after exposure is asbestos-related, but there are lots of other types of exposure
To claim compensation is it necessary to trace the company and, through that, the insurer. Without accurate information on who the employer was, that can be very difficult or impossible. Often workers are unsure of the exact name of someone they worked for 20 years ago. Lawyers always go to the Company House records to find out the registered name and company number and if the company is no longer trading, they can use a tracing scheme to find out who the insurer was at the time. Sometimes a lawyer working for a worker who is trying to get their fair entitlement will even have to try to restore a company to get compensation. That can only happen where there is a record.
If the companies data is not kept then it will make it far less likely that the employer will be able to be traced. This is not a theoretical risk. It happens regularly. There is one disease, mesothelioma, which often takes 40 years after exposure before any symptoms appear. There are over 2,500 cases a year and it is invariably fatal. Even with the current system of keeping records for 20 years, so many lawyers were finding it impossible to obtain historic records from Companies House and trace the insurer that the Government was forced to set up a separate compensation scheme for those who could not trace the insurer.
If the Government allows Companies House to shred all records after six years then the problem will be far worse. An estimated two and a half to three million records will be lost overnight. In the case of those developing mesothelioma, the victim may still get compensation, although the money will now have to come from the public purse (that’s us). In the case of other diseases, the cost will be borne by the victim, who will be denied the compensation they are entitled to because of what is simply administrative expediency. Rather than reducing the timescale to six years, there is no reason, given the low cost of data storage, why Companies House should not be retaining the records of all companies that have been dissolved regardless of the timeframe.
The TUC will be writing to both the Government and Companies House asking that they drop this proposal and ensure that the information continues to be available to help obtain justice for those who are injured or killed as a result of their work, often many years after they have left.