This post is part of Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook. Read, download or purchase the whole book here.
There’s a list of all central government departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies, and links to their websites and contact details, on the gov.uk website. It contain news updates, descriptions of the body’s work and career details of ministers and senior civil servants – very useful for tracing corporate trails.
The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments have their own websites detailing their departments and agencies, as do local authorities.
If the information you’re looking for hasn’t been made public, try making a Freedom of Information request (see section 3.10).
If you’re investigating the dealings between a company and a public body, try talking to the public sector staff. You may be able to get useful information or leads by speaking to the employees of a hospital department angry at its planned privatisation, for example. Go down to the site and try to speak to people there, or get contacts through the trade union.
There are often contact details for the civil servant responsible for a particular piece of work at the bottom of government publications, so you can give them a call or send them an email to ask them about it. The worst they can do is refuse to talk to you, and you’d be surprised how much some civil servants are willing to talk about their work.
You can also ask your MP to ask a parliamentary question of the relevant minister.
Non-ministerial departments and other public bodies that may be especially useful for company research include:
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY OFFICE
Responsible for granting patent and trademark rights in the United Kingdom. You can search by company, patent or trademark name. Also check the EU Trademark Office.
Records and registers the ownership of land and property in England and Wales. Keeps and maintains the Land Register, where more than 23 million titles – the evidence of ownership – are documented. Each title costs £3 to download from the website.
OFFICE OF FAIR TRADING
UK’s consumer and competition authority. Holds information on credit licences granted to companies and publishes investigations into various market sectors.
Conducts in-depth investigations into mergers and different industry areas and markets. Check the Competition Appeal Tribunal for details of cases involving competition or economic regulatory issues.
UK TRADE & INVESTMENT
Helps UK companies get work in international markets. Good source of information for deals in various industries and for details of government’s role helping companies set them up.
SERIOUS FRAUD OFFICE
Investigates and prosecutes fraud, bribery and corruption. Criticised for being too weak but provides details of cases and good for leads.
UK’s tax authority. Comes in for a lot of stick for letting multinationals off the hook but its website contains useful briefings on a range of tax and general corporate issues.
NATIONAL AUDIT OFFICE
UK public auditor. Audits central government accounts and, even if you may not agree with their conclusions, its reports are full of detail on the spending of public money in a variety of sectors.
OFFICE FOR NATIONAL STATISTICS
Responsible for collecting and publishing statistics related to the economy, population and society at national, regional and local levels
The official archive of the UK government, based in Kew, Surrey. Entrance is free and you don’t need to book. You can look through telegrams, minutes of meetings, policy documents and a host of other records going back 1,000 years. You can search for records related to a particular company. Only around five per cent of The National Archives’ records have so far been digitised, but this is increasing.
REGULATIONS AND LEGISLATION
You can find the full texts of all past and present UK legislation on the legislation.gov.uk website, part of the National Archives. Check the websites of solicitors’ firms or legal associations for explanatory briefings or articles to help understand particular pieces of legislation.
To find legal cases involving a particular company, use the British and Irish Legal Information Institute’s website for details and judgements of UK and European court cases. See section 2.1 for information on the laws companies are set up under, and their legal structure.
Regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive, Food Standards Agency, Financial Conduct Authority, Office of Rail Regulation, Environment Agency, Ofgem and Ofwat produce lots of statistics and information about the sectors and companies they are regulating.
Their websites hold the full texts of the various regulations that companies in a particular sector or industry have to abide by, in addition to links to the relevant pieces of UK or EU law. They also publish the full texts of the licences that companies are granted to do a certain type of business, allowing you to see whether companies are sticking to the terms and conditions of the licence, and their duties under them.
The exact names and responsibilities of UK regulators are often changing so contact the Department of Business, Information and Skills for a comprehensive and up-to-date list, or check the Focus on Enforcement part of its website. The Wikipedia website also has a long list.
Use Hansard – the official report of parliamentary proceedings – to find out what’s going on in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Reports of the latest proceedings are published on the parliament.uk website and updated during the day.
The text of Daily Debates in the Commons and Lords are published online the following morning by 6am and is available in hard copy. You can find lots of detail here, with many parliamentary questions leading to new disclosures by the government of its relationship with companies, so it’s well worth taking a bit of time to search around.
Registers of Members’ Financial Interests let you keep tabs on which parliamentarians are making money on the side from corporate ‘engagements’. Both houses of parliament publish and update their registers regularly and these are available in print or from the parliament.uk website. Councils and other public authorities publish similar documents.
The Electoral Commission is the elections watchdog and regulator of party and election finance. Their website holds easily accessible details of donations and loans made to all political parties, and their statements of accounts. Companies’ accounts also have details of this (see page 55).
Parliamentary Select Committees produce reports that – while you might not agree with their analysis – often include useful facts and examples. Look in the appendices to see all the evidence submitted – there are usually many details and opinions that do not make it into the main body of the report.
You can watch most committees’ sessions on the parliament.uk website, which also contains transcripts (published in print through Hansard).
Run by mySociety, a project of registered charity UK Citizens Online Democracy, the theyworkforyou website keeps tabs on MPs and peers. It contains information on their voting records, participation in debates and committees, and their register of interests. You can also make Freedom of Information requests through the site (see section 3.10).
Equivalent information about your local council and councillors is available from their websites or by contacting the council office.
CASE STUDY: As the coalition government’s Health Bill passed through parliament, Social Investigations combed through the registers of Members’ Interests and found over 200 MPs and peers had recent past or present financial links to companies or individuals involved in healthcare. Many of these companies have gone on to win contracts made possible by the legislation and healthcare campaigners have used the research to show the influence private companies have over the ‘reforms’ process.