Well, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry!
I am conscious that my top ten jokes below make this a fairly destructive, not constructive, post about the Insolvency Service’s “Strengthening the regulatory regime and fee structure for insolvency practitioners” consultation. In addition, I do not cover many of the common concerns about the proposals, nor do I suggest here any real solutions. Nevertheless, I do think that it’s important, not to dismiss the proposals out of hand, but to think seriously about what might work. Our own ideas may not be what the Service has in mind, but we become the joke, if we plough on claiming that we see no ships (even if, yes I know, it may look as though that’s what I’m saying below… but rarely does public opinion concern itself with facts).
I have one week left to chew over my own suggestions before setting pen to paper in my formal response. Therefore, in the meantime, here are my top ten jokes told by the Service in its consultation document and two impact assessments (“IA”), which can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-and-fee-structure.
1. “Each year IPs realise approximately £5bn worth of assets from corporate insolvency processes, and in doing so charge about £1bn in fees, distributing some £4bn to creditors” (paragraph 88 of the consultation document)
The Insolvency Service has repeated this most absurd statement from the OFT’s market study. So, I ask myself, who is paying the solicitors’ fees, the agents’ fees, all the necessary costs of insolvencies such as insurance, advertising, bond premiums etc., and finally what about the Insolvency Service’s own fees that are payable from the assets in all (bankruptcies and) compulsory liquidations in priority to everything else? This statement just cannot be true!
It also grossly distorts the position and perception of IP fees: are we really talking about £1bn of IP fees here or costs on insolvent estates? The OFT’s explanation of how they came up with the £1bn (footnote 11 at http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/reports/Insolvency/oft1245) mixes up fees and costs, so it is difficult to be sure. However, as this debate has built up momentum, few seem bothered any longer about the facts behind the fees “problem”.
2. “Cases where secured creditors will not be paid in full and so remain in control of fees. The market works well in this instance so we do not want to interfere with the ability for secured creditors to successfully negotiate down fees” (paragraph 113 of the consultation document)
Both Professor Kempson’s report and the OFT market study drew conclusions about the effectiveness of secured creditors’ control. However, the OFT’s study looked only at Administrations and Para 83 CVLs (which are so not S98s) and Professor Kempson built on this study and therefore concentrated on the effect of IPs obtaining appointments via bank panels. And, from this relatively narrow focus, we end up with the conclusion above that the Service proposes to apply to all insolvencies (except, it is proposed, for VAs and MVLs, where it is suggested other fees controls work well… so maybe those cases have a different lesson for us about the level of engagement of those responsible for authorising the fees..?).
But, I ask myself, what about other cases involving secured creditors? What about less significant liquidations or even bankruptcies where the mortgaged home is in negative equity? Do the secured creditors really control the level of fees in these cases? It seems highly unlikely, when you remember that the bases of liquidators’ and trustees’ fees are fixed by resolutions of the unsecured creditors. And let’s not worry too much about the effectiveness (or not) of non-bank secured creditors…
Some might react: let it lie. If the Service wants to leave well alone all cases where secured creditors will not be paid in full – regardless of whether or not, in practice, they control fees – why make a fuss? The same could be said about my next point…
3. “The basis of remuneration must be fixed in accordance with paragraph (4) where… there is likely to be property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors…” (draft Rule 17.14(2)(b))
This is supposed to be the way the objective mentioned in 2 above is achieved, i.e. that fees may only be fixed on the bases described in “paragraph (4)” (i.e. percentage or set amount, but not time costs) where secured creditors are not in control of fees (plus in some other circumstances).
I am sure it has taken you less than a millisecond to work it out: “where a distribution to unsecured creditors is likely” is patently not the same as “where secured creditors do not remain in control of fees”. What about the vast majority of liquidations, which must represent by far the greatest proportion in number of insolvencies, where the asset realisations are not enough to cover all the costs (including IPs’ time costs)? In these cases, the Service’s proposal is that they would like the IP’s fees to be on a percentage or set amount, but in fact the draft Rules would entitle the liquidator to seek approval on a time cost basis. That must be a joke!
The problem for me in leaving these flaws alone is that IPs could be lumbered with Rules that do not implement the Government’s policy objectives, which may result in the Service/RPBs pressing for behaviours and approaches that are not supported by the statutory framework, which will do no one any good.
4. The use of the Schedule 6 scale rate for fees “ensures that there are funds available for distribution and not all realisations are swallowed up in fees and remuneration” (paragraph 117 of the consultation document)
Firstly, I object to “swallowed up”. It seems to me an emotive phrase, generating the image of an enormous whale greedily scooping up trillions of helpless krill in its distended maw. In fact, this image – and the reference to “excessive” fees/fee-charging, even though the consultation document acknowledges at one point that Professor Kempson did not interpret over-charging as deliberate but as largely related to inefficiencies – seems a constant throughout.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, as explained in (1) above, simply reverting to office holder fees being charged as a percentage, even the relatively low percentages of Schedule 6, will not ensure there are funds available for distribution. But this objective seems to be the raison d’etre of the fees proposals (and not just the Schedule 6 default), as Ms Willott MP explains in her foreword: “[The consultation document] also includes proposals to amend the way in which an insolvency practitioner can charge fees for his or her services, which should ensure that there will be funds available to make a payment to creditors” (page 2). This can only feed into some creditors’ misconceived expectations, not only about the post-new Rules world, but also about the insolvency process in general. If every insolvency were required to result in a distribution, there would be far more work for the OR and far fewer IPs in the country.
5. “The transfer of returns from IPs to unsecured creditors has the potential to deliver a more efficient dynamic economic allocation of resources as these creditors are more likely to reinvest these resources in growth driving activities” (paragraph 17 of the IP fees IA)
Actually, this isn’t funny; it’s just insulting. Even if you imagined a typical IP as a beer-bellied pin-striped man smoking a cigar of £50 notes, with more spilling out unnoticed from his pockets (which was the image in an Insolvency Service presentation to IPs last year), his ill-gotten gains are still going be passed on to the home sauna builders or the Michelin Star restaurants, aren’t they? But, of course, that’s beside the point; as someone who has worked decades in the insolvency profession, I take exception to the suggestion that the UK would be better off if my wages were paid to unsecured creditors.
6. “The OFT report states that some unsecured creditors say that if their recovery rate from insolvency increased, they would extend more credit. While this effect is likely to be slight, even a small increase in the £80bn of unsecured credit extended by SME’s will amount to many millions of pounds” (paragraph 56 of the IP fees IA)
How much better-off does the IA suggest unsecured creditors will be if the alleged “excessive fee charging” is passed to them? At the top end, 0.1p in the £ (paragraph 52) – will they even feel it..? Talk about a “slight” effect!
7. “We would estimate that familiarisation would take up to 1.5 hours of an IP’s time based on the assumption that this change is not complex to understand and would only need to be understood once before being applied… IPs are already required to seek the approval of creditors for the basis on which their remuneration is taken and it is anticipated that at the same time they will seek agreement to the percentage they are proposing to take. We do not therefore anticipate any additional costs associated with this” (paragraphs 35 and 43 of the IP fees IA)
1.5 hours once and nothing more? Ha ha!
For IPs to switch to a percentage basis (but only in certain circumstances/cases) will require days – weeks, perhaps months – of organising changes to systems, procedures and templates and a greater time burden per case. The challenges for systems, procedures and staff will include:
• Assessing a fair percentage of estimated future realisations to reflect the value of work done. This seems an almost impossible task on Day One. For example, book debts: will the money just fall in or will it be a tough job, involving scrutinising and collating records and re-buffing objections and procrastinations? How much do you allow for the SIP2 investigations, what if you need to follow a lead? So many questions…
• Ongoing monitoring to check if/when fees can no longer be fixed on a time cost basis. You’d think this would be relatively easy, until you read how the draft Rules deal with the tipping point for a dividend: a time cost basis falls away when “the office holder becomes aware or ought to have become aware that there is likely to be property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors” (draft R17.19(1)(b)). Hours of fun!
• Reverting to creditors when a revised fee basis needs to be sought, whether that be because the time costs basis is no longer available or because the case hasn’t progressed as originally anticipated or potential new assets are identified during a case, thus warranting a change in the percentage or set amount, with the potential for court applications if creditors don’t approve the revision.
• Calculating fees on a percentage basis. Again, it sounds easy, but… what about VAT refunds (will the use (or not) of VAT control accounts make it easier or more difficult?), trading-on sales (which are excluded under the draft Rules’ statutory scale), “the value of the property with which the administrator has to deal” (per the draft Rules)?
• Dealing with creditors’ committees, which the consultation document suggests will be encouraged under the proposed regime.
• More complex practice management to ensure that percentages are pitched correctly and potentially greater lock-up issues where IPs do not have the security of realisations in hand to fund ongoing efforts.
But these measures are intended to reduce IPs’ fees..?
8. Professor Kempson “highlights that the starting point for reforms in this area should be on providing greater oversight, therefore reducing the numbers of complaints and challenges relating to fees… Currently there are very few fee related complaints handled by the RPBs… Complaints about the insolvency profession are relatively low given the nature of insolvency, the number of creditors (and other stakeholders) involved in cases and the extent of financial losses that can be incurred” (paragraphs 29 and 46 of the IP fees IA and 1.60 of the regulation IA).
To be fair, I should put paragraph 46 in context: “Currently there are very few fee related complaints handled by the RPBs, but this is likely to be a result of RPBs stating publicly that they do not consider fee-related complaints and does not reflect the current level of concern around fees. In the past 6 months 23% of all IP related ministerial correspondence has been in relation to fees”, which admittedly does put a different colour on things.
The difficulty as I see it is: if an aim is to reduce the number of fees complaints and challenges, but the IA estimates 300 (new) fee complaints per annum and 50 appeals post-implementation of the proposals. Would such an outcome mean that the measures are hailed as a success or a failure?
9. Not taking the steps proposed by the Insolvency Service as regards regulatory objectives and oversight powers proposals “would not address concerns around an ineffective tick-box prescriptive type of regulation… The same prescriptive type of regulation would continue to exist whereas the intention is to move to a principles and objectives based regulatory system as suggested by the OFT report” (paragraphs 1.49 and 1.51 of the regulation IA)
Ooh, I could relate some stories from my time at the IPA about who was usually at the forefront in driving tick-box regulation! There were times when I had to be dragged kicking and screaming down that road. Still I should stay positive: maybe this signifies a new commitment to Better Regulation – after all, the draft regulatory objectives do not refer to ensuring that IPs meet prescriptive statutory requirements that do not contribute to delivering a quality service or maximising returns to creditors, and if value for money is an objective..?
The Service puts it this way: “As an example, rather than targeting regulatory activity to where there may be only potentially small losses to creditors from any regulatory breach, the regulators will focus attention on areas where creditors are likely to suffer larger losses” (paragraph 1.71). Oh well, that’ll put me out of a job! 🙂
10. “We do recognise that giving the RPBs a regulatory role in monitoring fees will increase the burden on them when dealing with complaints around the quantum of fees and have therefore included the estimated cost of this” (paragraph 100 of the consultation document)
Since when was “monitoring” all about dealing with complaints? The IAs provide nothing for the additional costs to RPBs of dealing with anything but complaints.
It would seem that a typical monitoring visit in the eyes of the Service would have the objective of aiming “to ensure that fees charged by IPs represent value for money and are ‘fair’ and valid for the work undertaken, by requiring the RPBs to provide a check and balance against the level of fees charged… The regulators will be expected to take a full role in assessing the fairness of an IP’s fees, including the way in which they are set, the manner in which they are drawn and that they represent value for money for the work done. This would be done via the usual monitoring visits and complaint handling processes” (paragraph 101). The Service believes that this is possible as the RPBs have “access to panels with the relevant experience, to adjudicate on fees” (paragraph 102).
Are they serious?! Do they have any idea how impossible it would be to achieve this practically, not least within the confines of the current visit timetable? And how are the “panels”, presumably the Service means committee members, going to engage in this process: is the Service really expecting them to adjudicate on fees? You might as well forget about the rest of the Act/Rules, SIPs and Ethics Code: the inspectors’/monitors’ time will be spent entirely looking at fees and RPBs’ committees/secretariat will be hard-pushed to make any adverse findings stick.
Oh, it’s alright for the Service, though; they’ve incorporated the cost of two new people in-house to handle their enhanced RPB supervisory functions. But they don’t think that this will add to RPBs’ costs in dealing with the Service’s queries, monitoring visits, demands for information on regulatory actions in general and in specific cases (apparently)?
The biggest joke of all is: where will all these costs land? In IPs’ laps, when their levies and licence fees increase. Remind me, what was the key objective of these proposals..?
Although the Service doesn’t mince words about its/the Government’s sincerity on these issues – e.g. “given the clear evidence of harm suffered by unsecured creditors, the Government feels strongly that reforms are required in order to address the market failure” (paragraph 93 of the consultation document) – I can’t help but hope that I’ll wake up a couple of days after the consultation has closed to a new announcement from the Insolvency Service: “April fool!”