It is hard to argue against transparency. Wrongdoers usually hide behind a cloak of anonymity, and law enforcers need to know where to find them. The media have a legitimate public interest in knowing who is wielding power in society, so they can shine a light on unfair or illegal practices. The public ought to know what is being done in their name and, in the age of social media, they have the tools to call out unacceptable behaviour. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and – on the face of it – those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.
But that is too simplistic, of course: there are circumstances where disclosure requirements can actually cause harm to those subject to them; for example, obligations to include dates of birth and home addresses on public registers. In the UK, some recent attempts to redress the balance are therefore welcome.
The British government has been a major advocate of transparency in recent years, in many areas that are affecting the private equity and venture capital industry. For example, UK law mandated a register of beneficial owners of UK companies a full year before the EU’s anti-money laundering rules required it across all member states. Unlike in most member states, the UK’s register is open to the public, not just to those with a “legitimate interest” in gaining access. The government has also announced that, from early 2021, overseas companies that own or buy property in the UK will have to put details of their ultimate beneficial owner on a public register. In addition, the government may be about to consult on a proposal to make more information available about UK limited partnerships. And it is clear that private equity’s self-imposed rules on transparency and disclosure in large portfolio companies, the Walker Guidelines, came about as a result of pressure from the UK government over a decade ago; they are now being used as an exemplar in a more wide-ranging review of the disclosure rules for private companies.
But transparency also has costs, and it is vital that these are weighed against the benefits. Not only are there costs of compliance, but there are also those who value their privacy for entirely legitimate reasons and who will be put off investing in the UK if the price is a loss of their right to privacy. Fraudsters can also benefit from having easy online access to personal information.
This right to privacy is (to some extent) recognised in European law – indeed, one aspect of it has been occupying much time for businesses of late. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), effective from May this year, reinforces many of the safeguards that individuals already have as regards data about them, including the obligation on those who hold it to delete it when there is no longer a legitimate reason to keep it.
So striking the right balance is a constant challenge for policy-makers. In one respect, the UK has recently recognised that it has got the balance wrong. Historically, all UK company directors had to put their date of birth and a personal address on the public register. However, that made it easy for fraudsters to steal the identity of directors, and some directors were subjected to violence and intimidation. Several years ago, the UK changed the rules so that directors could provide a service address as well, and their private address could be withheld from the register (although it would be available to law enforcement agencies). But if an existing address was on the register it could not be removed, unless the director could prove that there was a serious risk of violence or intimidation arising from the nature of the company’s business. Last week the government announced that a new law – scheduled to become effective by the end of this summer – will allow all directors (and members of limited liability partnerships) to apply to have their personal address removed and (if they are still under an obligation to supply an address) replace it with a service address.
This change, which comes three years after the rules changed so that only the month and year of a director’s birth is available to the public, will be welcomed by business. Company directors and LLP members with a private address still on the register will, no doubt, want to make an application for its removal later this year.