Free Companies House records are a good thing for journalism

At the G8 summit in Lough Erne in June 2013, David Cameron surprised many by putting transparency — over companies, land ownership, government — very much on the agenda.

In the spirit of the pledges made at that summit, a little more than a year later the government announced that it would make Companies House records available for free. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Basic information on UK-registered companies was already available for free, but documents filed by companies — annual returns setting out who owned them, and sets of accounts showing the resources they controlled and how they were performing — had to be paid for.

At £1-a-pop, it wasn’t exactly a wallet-straining barrier to access.

But, while that was true when looked at as a one-off, or occasional, cost, the charges could rapidly mount up if, say, you wanted to look at a network of companies, stretching back perhaps a decade or more.

A potted case study

The move to free access came in in June last year, with the launch of the Companies House beta service. The difference which this makes has really only been demonstrated to me over the last few weeks, however, in some research I did for Schools Week — for whom I used to work.

The research involved looking at a decent handful of companies involved in school PFI projects over the course of several years, and helped inform an article on the profits made by these companies.

In total, a back of a fag packet calculation suggests that in the course of the research I looked at:

  • 45 sets of company accounts
  • 80 annual returns

=£125 in the pre-June 2015 world.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge sum of money.

Would Schools Week have wanted to do the story, even if records had to be paid for? Probably, but it would have been another cost on top of the cost of my time and the reporter’s time — an extra cost to doing original, investigative news reporting.

Would there have been ways in which the cost could have been kept down? Almost certainly. Some of the research didn’t make it into the final article, so it might’ve been possible — necessary, even — to think about what would definitely make the cut and what wouldn’t, albeit at the risk of missing something big.

So it might not have been fatal for the story.

But — at a time when journalism is under pressure in so many other ways — the removal of a barrier to the access of key civic information is without doubt a Good Thing for reporting.

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