Unfinished Work in UK Company Law Reforms - A Normative and European Perspective to Addressing the Gaping Holes in Directors’ Duties
European Company Law Forthcoming
Posted: 6 Oct 2018
Date Written: September 13, 2018
In the face of scandals in the corporate sector, such as the collapse of BHS in 2016 and Carillion in 2018, UK policy-makers are responsive in introducing reforms to company law. Indeed the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department (BEIS) consulted on whether core aspects of company law such as directors’ duties ought to be reformed. The responsiveness of policy-makers and adjustments made to company law however obscure a deeper underlying issue, which is the resistance of reform to more fundamental aspects, i.e. the private and shareholder-centred paradigms of company law which arguably underlie the problems and malaises that reform is attempting to address. We critically examine the limitations of recent reforms, viz the introduction of the directors’ section 172 statement and the expectations articulated of directors’ behaviour in relation to subsidiaries in distress. We suggest that recent corporate malaises reflect more fundamental gaping holes in UK company law, which can beneficially be addressed by reaching into normative thinking, some of which resonates with European developments, in bringing about an economically successful but ‘fair’ corporate economy.
Section 1 discusses the context and pattern of company law reform in the UK over the last 20 years. Policy-makers from different political parties have consistently been responsive to revelations of corporate malaises and introduced company law reforms to address problems. Reforms included codified directors’ duties and clearer shareholder rights and enforcement, as well as a corporate governance code and shareholder stewardship code that have been the subject of emulation. However, adjustments in company law are firmly founded upon the private and shareholder-centred paradigms of company law and corporate governance. These foundations are starting to show cracks under new pressures revealed in more recent corporate malaises. Section 2 argues that recent events such as the collapse of BHS, Carillion, the Inquiry into poor employment practices in Sports Direct, and revelations of corruption at Rolls Royce, aggressive tax avoidance at Google, Starbucks and Amazon, reflect problems that stem from the private and shareholder-centred foundations in company law and corporate governance. Policy-makers have chosen to deal with specific problems via regulation, such as in anti-abuse tax legislation and the prohibition of modern slavery in work and supply chains, but the achievements in regulatory reform are yet early and mixed. Recent company law reforms have also been introduced, dealing with the sales of subsidiaries in distress, as well as companies’ stakeholder relations and responsibility profiles. Although it remains a positive trend that UK policy-makers are responsive and willing to reach into the heart of company law, the reforms are limited in nature for remaining within the same foundational paradigms. Section 3 then argues that there is a need for normative rethinking of the limitations of the private and shareholder-centred paradigms underlying UK company law and corporate governance, taking into account of relevant insights from Europe. We sketch the contours for an alternative proposal in directors’ duties as a ‘UK’ solution that will position companies for the modern complexities and challenges they face. Section 4 concludes.
Keywords: directors' duties, corporate governance, mandatory disclosure, s172
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