The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has since accepted Disqualification Undertakings from all three directors who have been banned from acting as directors of a limited company for six years each.
All three directors are from Dorset. Matthew John Pickard (48) is from Poole, while Stephen Phillip Greenaway (40) is from Bournemouth and Paul Adam Laver (40) is from Ferndown.
The company at the centre of the investigation, Ethical Forestry Limited, was incorporated in December 2007 and owned 80% of a Costa Rican company, who in-turn owned plantation land, a sawmill and the infrastructure to plant trees in forestry plantations.
Around 3,500 UK investors were registered with the company and invested approximately £70m in the unregulated scheme to own trees on the plantations
Ethical Forestry used unregulated investment brokers, such as Avacade Investment Options, who offered free pension reviews before introducing the plantation investment opportunities.
Many people then invested in Ethical Forestry by transferring their occupational pensions into Self-Invested Personal Pensions (SIPPs), using providers such as Liberty SIPP.
Behind the scenes, the directors caused Ethical Forestry in 2012 to enter into a tax planning scheme. This saw £28.8m being made available to the directors through loan accounts and the company’s financial statements for 2012 to 2014 show that in excess of £19m was withdrawn by the directors.
In March 2013, however, HMRC informed Ethical Forestry that they were going to investigate the company’s new tax planning scheme and despite the warning from the tax authorities, £7.2 million of the £19 million drawn down by the directors from their loan accounts was withdrawn after this date.
In July 2015, HMRC issued further notices to Ethical Forestry claiming more than £14 million of liabilities for tax years 2011/12 and 2012/13.
Later that year in December 2015, Ethical Forestry entered into Creditors Voluntary Liquidation as it could not pay its debts. This triggered an investigation by the Insolvency Service into the conduct of the directors, discovering that they had caused the company to transfer £7.2million for their benefit but this was at the risk of HMRC as there was an outstanding investigation.
Anthea Simpson, Chief Investigator for the Insolvency Service said:
This is a relatively unusual case as the conduct of the directors criticised occurred before HMRC had issued their determinations of Ethical Forestry’s liabilities.
However, the directors were aware that HMRC were investigating the tax planning scheme through which they had already drawn very substantial sums from the company, and yet in this knowledge they continued in the same vein for a further 12 months, taking an additional £7m. We considered that this was unacceptable rather than ethical, and amounted to unfit conduct which justified disqualification.
Simon Chaplin, Assistant Director – HMRC Counter-Avoidance, said:
HMRC welcomes the actions of The Insolvency Service in obtaining disqualifications in this case. Where directors cause companies to use tax avoidance schemes for personal benefit and put uncollected tax at risk they should be held accountable for their conduct.
The Director of the Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation into the tree based investment schemes run by the Ethical Group that included Ethical Forestry Limited in December 2016.
About the directors
Matthew Pickard resides in Poole, Dorset, and his date of birth is April 1971. His disqualification is effective from 16 April 2019 and is for a 6-year term. Matthew Pickard is described as the Managing Director and Founder of Ethical Forestry Limited from its incorporation in December 2007.
Stephen Greenaway resides in Bournemouth, Dorset, and his date of birth is May 1978. His disqualification is effective from 21 March 2019 and is for a 6-year term. Stephen Greenaway was appointed as co-director alongside Matthew Pickard when the company was incorporated.
Paul Laver resides in Ferndown, Dorset, and his date of birth is September 1978. His disqualification is effective from 10 April 2019 and is for a 6-year term. Paul Laver was appointed as director in November 2009.
About the company
Ethical Forestry Limited (Company Reg no. 06455149) and in July 2014 the Ethical Forestry group was restructured:
- Ethical Forestry (Holdings) Ltd (Company Reg no. 09121708) was incorporated on 08 July 2014
- EF Sales and Marketing Ltd (Company Reg no. 09123403) and EF Forestry Management Ltd (Company Reg no. 09123679) were incorporated on 09 July 2014.
- These 3 companies also went into Liquidation alongside Ethical Forestry Ltd on 16 December 2015.