|Formed||5 September 1844|
|Parent department||Department for Business and Trade|
Companies House is the executive agency of the British Government that maintains the register of companies, employs the company registrars and is responsible for incorporating all forms of companies in the United Kingdom.
Prior to 1844, no central company register existed and companies could only be incorporated through letters patent and legislation. At the time, few incorporated companies existed; between 1801 and 1844, only about 100 companies were incorporated. The Joint Stock Companies Act 1844 created a centralised register of companies, enabled companies to be incorporated by registration, and established the office of the registrar; the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856 mandated separate registrars for each of the three UK jurisdictions. Initially just a brand, Companies House became an official executive agency in 1988.
All public limited, private limited, private unlimited, chartered and some other companies are incorporated and registered with Companies House. The agency also registers limited partnerships, while most other enterprises fall under the purview of the Financial Conduct Authority. All limited companies (including subsidiary, small and inactive) must file annual financial statements with Companies House, all of which are public records. The agency is also responsible for dissolving companies.
From 2016, Companies House operated under the authority of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This then became the Department for Business and Trade from 7 February 2023 following a Machinery of Government change initiated by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The current chief executive is Louise Smyth, who also serves as registrar for England and Wales. The agency, as well as British company law in general, are governed by the Companies Act 2006. As of August 2023,[update] Companies House maintains 5.32 million active companies.
Prior to 1844, companies could only be incorporated through grant of a royal charter, by private act of Parliament, or, from 1834, by letters patent. Few companies were incorporated, with only approximately 100 companies being incorporated by private act between 1801 and 1844. At this time, no central register of companies was in existence.
Main article: Joint Stock Companies Act 1844
The origins of Companies House date back to 1844, the year the Joint Stock Companies Act received royal assent, enabling companies to be incorporated by registration for the first time. The Act created the office of the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies to maintain the register of companies, which was publicly accessible. It was hoped by MPs of the day that a publicly accessible central company register would help to protect the public from fraud. All companies, irrespective of their method of incorporation, were obliged to register within three months of the commencement of the Act.
The Act provided for two types of company registration: provisional, and complete. The filing requirements for complete registration were more extensive than those for provisional registration. Given that there was no requirement for companies granted a certificate of provisional registration to submit the remaining information in order to become completely registered, the Act was not hugely successful as many of its provisions applied only to completely registered companies.
The Joint Stock Companies Act 1844 applied only to England and Wales, and Ireland; it did not apply to Scotland.
|Year||Number of companies|
|Provisionally registered||Completely registered|
Main article: Limited Liability Act 1855
Prior to the commencement of the Limited Liability Act 1855, shareholders were generally treated similarly to partners in a common law partnership, and had unlimited liability for the debts and obligations of the companies in which they held shares. From 1855, it became possible for shareholders to benefit from limited liability as a matter of routine, provided the companies in which they held shares were registered with the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies under the 1844 Act. The aim of this act was to incentivise the creation of new joint stock companies, while giving investors, the majority of whom did not play an active role in day-to-day management, protection from liabilities incurred by company directors.
Main article: Joint Stock Companies Act 1856
The Joint Stock Companies Act 1856 abolished the dual registration system of the 1844 Act; provisional registration ceased to be possible. In exchange for providing shareholders with the benefit of limited liability, companies were required to submit certain information to the Registrar for Joint Stock Companies, including memoranda and articles of association (which had not previously been divided in this way), and annual reports.
The 1856 Act also mandated that there be a Registrar of Companies for each of the UK's three jurisdictions. This system remains today, with a separate Registrar of Companies for England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; 'Companies House' is merely a brand adopted by the registrars.
Company registration in Scotland commenced in 1856, with the first company registered being the Daily Bulletin Company Limited, a newspaper publisher. The first Registrar of Joint Stock Companies for Scotland was George Deane, from 1856 to 1858, before he was transferred to the London office of Companies House to be Chief Clerk to the Registrar for England and Wales. The remaining staff were transferred to the office of the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer (Q<R), who took on the role of Registrar of Companies for Scotland.
In 1982 the post of Q<R was transferred to the Crown Agent, and the staff and functions relating to company registration in Scotland were transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry on 1 April 1981.
In October 1988, Companies House became an executive agency of the Department of Trade and Industry, and then in October 1991 started to operate as a trading fund, self-financing by retaining income from charges.
Main article: Companies Act 2006
When the Companies Act 2006 was fully implemented on 1 October 2009, the Northern Ireland companies register was fully integrated into Companies House; previously, all limited companies in Northern Ireland were registered with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
As government departments were reorganised, Companies House came under the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (2007), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2009), and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2016). Companies House was a member of the Public Data Group, an advisory board which between 2011 and 2015 sought to improve public access to government data.
Companies House is also responsible for dissolving companies.
In 2020, there were approximately 4.3 million businesses on the Companies House register. In the same year Companies House ceased to operate as a trading fund.
|Year ended||Size of Total Register at year end|
|31 March 2014||3,250,300|
|31 March 2015||3,464,155|
|31 March 2016||3,678,860|
|31 March 2017||3,896,755|
|31 March 2018||4,033,355|
|31 March 2019||4,202,044|
|31 March 2020||4,350,913|
In view of the coronavirus pandemic, from 25 March 2020 companies were able to apply for a three-month extension to the annual deadline for filing their accounts and reports. The Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 made this extension automatic for filing deadlines between 27 June 2020 and 5 April 2021; after the latter date, companies could again apply for a three-month extension. There were also temporary extensions to the deadlines for filing confirmation statements and certain event-driven filings.
The role of Registrar of Companies is not a political one, and the incumbent is a civil servant.
The Registrar of Companies for England and Wales is based at Companies House, Cardiff, and is responsible for the registration of companies in England and Wales. Until 2011 there was another Companies House office in Nantgarw, Wales. The London office of Companies House, located at Petty France, is purely a facility to file and view documents, which are then processed in Cardiff.
The current registrar is Louise Smyth, who also serves as chief executive of Companies House.
The Registrar of Companies for Scotland, is based at Companies House, Edinburgh, and is responsible for the registration of companies in Scotland. The current registrar is Lisa Davis.
The Registrar of Companies for Northern Ireland is based at Companies House, Belfast, and is responsible for the registration of companies in Northern Ireland. The current registrar is Lynn Cooper.
See also: United Kingdom company law
Companies House acts as registrar for the following types of company:
See also: United Kingdom partnership law
Despite its name, Companies House acts not only as registrar for companies, but also for the following undertakings:
See also: Financial Conduct Authority
Companies House does not act as registrar for the following undertakings:
The Register of Companies is the index of every undertaking registered with Companies House.
Every undertaking registered with Companies House must have a unique name. Whether a name is unique or not is determined by Companies House; certain terms and punctuation, and characters after the first 60, are completely disregarded when assessing the uniqueness of a name, and other characters, although strictly different, are deemed to be the same as each other.
Companies may not have names which if used would constitute a criminal offence, or which are offensive. Approval from the Secretary of State is required if a company wishes to use a name indicating a connection to government, or other so-called 'sensitive' words or phrases.
Generally, undertakings registered with Companies House are required to indicate their legal form in their names:
Notwithstanding the above, private limited companies need not indicate their legal form in their names if they are charities, exempted by new regulations made by the Secretary of State, or subject to a continuing exemption.
Every undertaking registered with Companies House is issued with a registered number. Once issued, a registered number remains the same, even if the undertaking changes its name.
Registered numbers consist of eight digits, and in certain circumstances a two letter prefix, including:
The Register of Companies contains certificates of incorporation for all undertakings incorporated by registration with Companies House. Incorporation takes place on the issuance of a certificate of incorporation by the registrar. Private limited companies can be issued with a certificate of incorporation within 24 hours of an application being submitted.
Certificates of incorporation for companies include the following information:
Registration of companies is complete once the certificate of incorporation is signed or sealed by the registrar.
Certificates of incorporation for limited liability partnerships include the following information:
Incorporation of a limited liability partnerships is complete once the certificate of incorporation is signed or sealed by the registrar.
Limited partnerships are not issued with certificate of incorporation upon registration with Companies House, but instead with certificates of registration. This is because limited partnerships are not legal persons and therefore are not created by incorporation.
Certificates of registration include the following information:
A limited partnership comes into existence once its certificate of registration has been signed or sealed by the registrar.
Companies House does not verify the accuracy of information filed. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced in 2020 that Companies House would be given powers to verify the identities of company directors, but did not set a timetable for their introduction.
Since June 2016, private companies can elect to keep certain statutory records on the central register which is held and published by Companies House, instead of maintaining their own registers. These records include:
In February 2008, The Times and Computer Weekly broke a story that almost 4,000 of the names on the Companies House register of directors were on international watchlists of alleged fraudsters, money launderers, terror financiers and corrupt officials. The results came from Datanomic who had screened the 6.8 million names on the register against a World-Check database of high risk individuals and businesses. The exercise also revealed more than 1,500 disqualified company directors were being allowed to run other UK companies as Companies House was not checking names against its register of disqualified persons.
In July 2023, the Companies House independent adjudicators' report 2022-2023 was published. This revealed that Companies House had given false information to an MP to try to make themselves look better.
"A letter to the complainant’s Member of Parliament was riddled with wrong information, which showed Companies House in a better light."