Companies House is the Department of Trade and Industry agency familiar to anyone who runs a business. It is responsible for the incorporation, re-registration and striking off of companies. Accounts must be filed at Companies House to comply with the Companies Act, and failure to do so incurs a fine. However, Companies House has become much more than a records office. It now offers a number of products and services based on the data it holds. Much of the data is available free, allowing small businesses to check out potential suppliers, corporate customers or the competition.
Companies House says that all the publicly available information about itself, its products and its services is now on its website, www.companieshouse.gov.uk. The site provides access to 90 million images of documents filed with the registrar of companies since March 1995. Last month the site won the Digital Britain Award for the best content and document management/workflow solution.
Companies House has enhanced the regulatory side of its business by offering an electronic accounts filing service. Additionally, the 11 forms most commonly used to file information at Companies House, which account for about half of the forms it receives each year, may now be printed directly from the website.
The electronic filing service is open to all, but Companies House points out that the potential efficiency gains from the use of the service are likely to mean that electronic filing is most suited to frequent filers.
It is not yet possible to submit forms online, largely due to legal restrictions on the acceptance of signatures over the internet, although Companies House says it is working on that.
At present, the process remains torturous. Businesses wishing to file electronically must follow strictly defined procedures so that their documents will be legally valid. They must use software from one of five named suppliers to make the connection or develop their own software to a specification provided by Companies House.
Companies are issued with connection details to the Companies House extranet that is accessed over the telephone network via a modem or ISDN line. The 'document presenter' is then able to send and receive email messages containing electronic documents and acknowledgements, from a previously approved address.
These documents must comply with an approved structure for electronic submission, as documented in the Electronic Filing Technical Interface Specification. A single transmission (email message) to Companies House may contain up to 50 individual documents.
For companies registered in England and Wales, the electronic filing service supports the submission of Change of Registered Office Address (Paper Form 287); Appointment of a Director/Secretary (Paper Form 288a); Resignation of a Director/Secretary (Paper Form 288b); Change of Director/Secretary Details (Paper Form 288c); Annual Return (Paper Form 363a). There is no extra charge for filing electronically.
To comply with the Companies Act, all documents received via the electronic filing service must be authenticated by the company concerned. The company must notify Companies House in writing of the code that it will use to authenticate documents, and the 'presenter' who will send them.
Products and services
Once Companies House has collected data on all UK companies, it is responsible for making this data available to the public. Some of the information filed is available to access free through the website.
Following the link to Free Information from the home page it is possible to search either for disqualified directors or the company name and address index with basic company information. This includes the date of incorporation of the company, its registered office address, the date its last documents were filed and its company number. Searches are carried out live on the Companies House mainframe, and operate Monday to Friday from 7am to 10pm. Earlier this year this facility was extended to include information on administration orders where these are in force.
Companies House Direct is an additional chargeable service giving access to the latest company accounts and data. There are two options: document images download and online image viewing. The download option enables a business to order copies of all documents in image format for downloading to a PC. Companies House provides the image viewing software needed to view the documents. Online image viewing offers faster access allowing documents held on the Companies House database to be viewed online.
The service costs £50 for the first account with a monthly subscription of £7.50 per account. Individual page views, of company appointments or of individual mortgage charge details for example, cost between £1 and £2.50. A full document costs from £2.50. An application form to open an account may be filled in online.
Companies House also issues a CDRom directory every month, which contains an index of company names, and an annual index of change of name and dissolved companies disks cost £30. However, the directory is renewed monthly and a year's subscription is £300. Each version expires after six months.
Further information may also be accessed by post, fax or courier at cost. The cost of a search for information on a company is £8 for a microfiche by post, £9 for a paper copy for one document (£2.50 for subsequent documents relating to the same company), and £12 for a faxed copy of one document (£8 for subsequent documents).
Postal search requests received by 3pm will be dispatched by first-class post the same day if paid for by credit card or if a Companies House account is held. Postal search requests paid by cheque are dispatched by first-class post within two working days. Fax requests received by 4pm are transmitted within one hour.
A further service is the Companies House Monitor, which allows subscribers to track the activities of selected companies. It allows subscribers to register an interest in company documents before they are filed. As soon as documents are registered, a copy is then sent to the subscriber. The Monitor can provide documents filed for a particular company or a specified category of documents filed for all companies. It costs £2.50 per document despatched, with reductions in price for over 3000 documents.
Companies House also produces a number of booklets offering information on registration of companies, the administration and management of company financial affairs, winding up procedures and other company legislation.
Getting in touch
It is possible to visit Companies House in person. It has an information centre at Bloomsbury Street, London, which replaces the now-defunct offices on City Road. There are offices at Cardiff, where the main microfiche library is, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Visitors to any of the offices may view a wide range of information on in-house computer screens, including data that is otherwise charged for. A map on the website links to further address details.
For information and search orders you can email enquiries via the website. For the Companies House Monitor, email your name, company name, full postal address and telephone number, and what product you are interested in to [email protected]
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