Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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ACCA and Insolvency Service monitoring: poles apart?

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The Insolvency Service has released two reports on its own IP-monitoring team and one on ACCA’s monitoring, but is the Insolvency Service playing fair?  Is it applying double standards and how sensible are its demands of authorising bodies?

The reports can be found at: http://goo.gl/A7mXxJ

 

The Insolvency Service’s monitoring of the Insolvency Service’s monitoring

No, I’ve not copied-and-pasted by mistake: in April/May 2014, the Insolvency Service carried out a monitoring visit of its own monitoring team, i.e. the team that deals with Secretary of State-authorised IPs (“IPS”).

The report issued on 29 August 2014 identified some “serious weaknesses”, leading to a decision to make a follow-up visit three months later.  This occurred in January 2015 – not seriously tardy, I guess (although not a great example to the Team, given that late monitoring visits on IPs was the most serious weakness identified in the first visit) – and the report on the follow-up visit has now been released.

The recent report makes no reference to any further visits or follow-up actions, although the summary discloses a number of wriggle-phrases: “IPS has implemented, or made progress against, all the recommendations…  IPS has moved towards…  IPS has plans in place to address this…”  Would the Insolvency Service be satisfied if an RPB had made such “progress” towards goals?  Or would the Service be content for an RPB to accept such assurances from an IP who had only “moved towards” rectifying matters?

Catching up on overdue monitoring visits

To be fair, there did seem to be significant progress with the key issue – that as at May 2014 over half of their IPs had not had a visit in the past three years.  The report disclosed that, of the 28 IPs that had been identified from the 2014 review as overdue a visit, most had been visited or would be visited by May 2015.  The remaining five IPs had been asked to complete a pre-visit questionnaire, and the IPS planned to consider these on a risk basis and “if appropriate, schedule a prompt monitoring visit”.

It is evident from the report, however, that the only visits carried out by the Team since their 2014 review had been to IPs who were already overdue a visit.  Thus, I’m wondering, how many more IPs’ three years were up between April/May 2014 and now and is the Team constantly chasing their tails?  Of course, we expect SoS-authorisations to go in the future (although the De-regulation Bill provides a run-down period of another year), so is this really something to get excited about?  My issue is with the consistency of standards that I expect the Insolvency Service to apply to all licensing/authorising bodies.

“Independent” decision-making

The report makes reference to the introduction of “a layer of independence to its authorisation and monitoring process”.  This refers to the fact that the Section Head now decides on actions following monitoring visits and reauthorisations – with the benefit of a copy of the last monitoring report (which seems pointless to me: if the monitor’s findings were not such that they merited withdrawal of the IP’s authorisation, on what basis would they merit withholding reauthorisation up to a year later?).  Is the Section Head really independent?  I accept that the Insolvency Service structure (and budget) does not provide for the levels of independence possible for RPBs, but, again, I do feel that the Service is applying double standards here, especially given its report on ACCA below.

 

The Insolvency Service’s report on ACCA

The Service’s review of ACCA revealed “some weaknesses” and it is planning a follow-up visit within three to six months.  ACCA has rejected two of the Service’s recommendations.

Early-day monitoring visits

I was surprised to read the Service write so negatively about early monitoring visits.  About monitoring visits occurring within the first 12 months of the IP’s licence, it writes: “There is no evidence of these initial visits being conducted in accordance with the PfM [Principles for Monitoring]; instead, these appear to be conducted as courtesy visits”.  ACCA has asked the Service to clarify what is intended by the recommendation, given that a full scope visit is always completed within the IP’s first three years.  ACCA points to the PfM’s risk-based approach to early visits and states that it “will consider whether it should discontinue introductory visits in the future, given the Insolvency Service’s comments which suggest they are of little value.”

I know that ACCA is not the only RPB that carries out less-than-full-scope early visits, so I am wondering if we will see a shift from all those RPBs.

Personally, I feel that the Insolvency Service is taking the wrong tack here.  When I was at the IPA, I monitored new IPs’ caseloads to see when their first inspection visit looked appropriate.  I also took into consideration other factors: were they working in an office with other IPs?  If so, what were their track records?  Were they hitting the radar of the Complaints Department?  What did their self certifications look like?  But often a key question was: was their caseload building at such a rate that a visit would be useful?  Very often, new IPs take on very few cases and, on the basis of caseload alone, it is usually around 18 months before a proper visit can be conducted.

Nevertheless, I think that there is value in conducting an early visit.  Calling it a “courtesy visit” is a little unfair, I’m sure.  ACCA responded that “the purpose of these visits is to assist insolvency practitioners to ensure they have adequate procedures in place to carry out their work”.  And that’s the point, isn’t it?  It may be too early to see how the IP is really going to perform, but early-days are a good opportunity to see how geared-up the IP is, explore their attitude towards compliance and ethics versus profit, and perhaps even help them.  Is it sensible to criticise ACCA for not evidencing that an early-day visit has been conducted in the same way as a full visit?  If RPBs are discouraged – or prohibited – from carrying out introductory visits, compliance with the PfM would indicate that the RPB simply needs to record the decision that a full visit in the first 12 months is not necessary and then bump the IP to the 3-year point.  Is that better regulation?

Extensive monitoring reports

I have sympathy with ACCA as regards the Insolvency Service’s next criticism.  The report explains that ACCA’s monitoring reports describe the main areas of concern, but not the areas examined where no concerns were generated.  The Service recommended that “ACCA consider expanding their monitoring reports to include all information obtained during the monitoring process, including areas of no concern to provide a clear audit trail”.

Interestingly, the Insolvency Service’s 2014 report on its own monitoring came up with a similar recommendation, although in 2014 the Service’s recommendation appeared more dogmatic: “Ensuring that monitoring reports include all of the information obtained during the monitoring process, not just in relation to areas of concern; any areas where there are no concerns may be summarised.  The reports should also include the bonding information on each case.”  My original notes in the margin of that report expressed “Why?!”  I certainly don’t see why bonding information always needs to be recorded and I struggle to see how all information obtained could be sensibly written down.  When I review cases, I scribble pages of notes, summarising key facts and events in the case’s lifecycle, such as key Proposal terms and modifications, mainly so that I can see if these points are followed through over time.  As my review questions are answered satisfactorily, I move on; if I had to summarise all this information in my reports, they would double in length but I don’t believe they would be any more revealing or helpful to the reader.

The 2015 follow-up report on the Insolvency Service’s own monitoring states: “IPS had significantly expanded its monitoring reports.  These now contain sufficient detail to enable an informed decision to be made on appropriate action following the issue of the report.”  Hmm… that doesn’t exactly confirm that the reports now contain “all” information or indeed the bonding information on each case.  Does this, along with the Service’s recommendation that ACCA “consider” expanding reports, reflect that they themselves are moderating their original opinion of what should be in reports?

I cheered at ACCA’s response to the recommendation: “ACCA believes that including in the monitoring report areas where there are no concerns risks: expanding the report unnecessarily with no perceived benefit; diluting the overall outcome and reducing focus on the significant weaknesses in the insolvency practitioner’s procedures and the need to make appropriate improvements.”  Good for you, ACCA!

I think it’s a bit of a shame that, despite explaining this opinion, ACCA then states that it has amended its standard report template in an attempt to satisfy the Insolvency Service, although I am sure that many of us appreciate the wisdom in meeting our regulators’ demands even if we don’t agree with them.

“Independent” decision-making

Remembering that the IPS had satisfied the Insolvency Service on this matter by passing all monitoring reports through their Section Head, I sucked my teeth at the Service’s next recommendation to ACCA: “That any monitoring report with unsatisfactory findings be considered independently, for example by the Admissions and Licensing Committee, to assess what regulatory action may be necessary”.

Firstly, no IP is perfect; I have not seen a report with no “unsatisfactory findings”, so this suggests that effectively all monitoring reports would need to go through the Committee.  To be fair, I come from an IPA background where all reports did go through the Committee – and I thought it was valuable that the Committee see the good with the bad – but it’s a big ask for any Committee (especially if reports become far longer seemingly as required by the Service) and I am not surprised that some RPBs have sought to make the process more efficient.  After all, the majority of IPs visited are so obviously way above the threshold where some action is deserved that it makes perfect sense to fast-track these, doesn’t it?

The report stated that “ACCA regrets that it must reject this recommendation as it believes it is an impractical and disproportionate response to the vast majority of visit outcomes”.  ACCA’s response makes clear that each report is considered at least by the monitor and a reviewer, who I think can decide on certain actions such as scheduling a follow-up visit: is this not sufficient for at least the top 50% of IPs?

Admittedly, the devil is in deciding what to do with the reports at the margins: at what stage is an issue serious enough to warrant Committee attention?  Unfortunately for ACCA, the case that led to this recommendation was not a great example.  Although ACCA has done a good job in putting into context each of the breaches identified at this IP visit that ACCA decided fell below the threshold for Committee attention, I have to say that the fees issue alone – even though it was a one-off unusual circumstance (the IP had taken a £5,000 deposit for the costs of liquidating a company, but it was actually placed in administration and the IP drew the deposit for pre-admin costs without complying “fully” with R2.67A) – would have meant, in an IPA context, that it would not only have been considered at length by the Membership & Authorisation Committee, but it would have been an automatic referral also to the Investigation Committee for consideration for disciplinary action.

I am also not persuaded by ACCA’s defence that the IP’s repeat breaches of legislation and/or SIPs resulted in “no actual harm” to the debtor (in one case) or creditors “such that, given the function of the Admissions and Licensing Committee, a referral to it would not have been justified”.  In my experience, it is very rare that breaches of statute or SIPs actually result in harm, but is that the only criterion for deciding whether an issue is sufficiently serious to warrant action?  You could throw out half the rules and SIPs, if all IPs needed to do was avoid harming stakeholders.

I think that ACCA is on stronger ground as regards another issue that the IP had already rectified.  What would be the point of referring this to the Committee?  “Withdrawal or suspension of the licence would be disproportionate and it is not clear what conditions would be appropriate to protect the public, particularly as the breach had already been rectified.”

I think that ACCA’s final comments put it nicely: “To recommend that such cases should routinely be referred to the Admissions and Licensing Committee to decide on any regulatory action and timing of the next visit is a poor use of Committee resources, clearly disproportionate to the findings and, in ACCA’s view, contrary to the guidance contained in the Insolvency Service Regulators’ Code.”

Surely the Insolvency Service should be concentrating on outcomes, shouldn’t they?  After all, that is what Nick Howard said (in the podcast at http://goo.gl/WUst5M) was his objective as regards the Service’s monitoring of all the RPBs: to ensure that they act consistently in reaching the same outcomes.  Admittedly, in this case it does look to me like the IPA (for one) would have put the IP through the ringer, made him sweat a bit more, than ACCA appears to have done, but would it have affected the outcome?  If the IP took on board all of the ACCA monitor’s points and made the necessary changes (some which appear to have taken place prior to the visit in any event), does it matter how his report was processed?

And I would add: how does the IPS’ process – of referring reports to the Section Head – meet the Service’s apparent requirement for independence any better?

Complaints-handling

ACCA has evidently had some difficulties in the past in resourcing their complaints-handling adequately, although they do seem to have cracked it more recently.  I did smile, though, at the Service’s recommendation that “it would be helpful in future for the Insolvency Service to be kept informed of any significant changes in staffing and resources” – ACCA had increased their staffing for complaints from one member to two.  Can you imagine if authorising bodies took such a keen interest in IPs’ staff numbers?!

One of the Service’s other recommendations was that the name of the independent assessor be given to the complainant and the IP “to ensure transparency and openness throughout the process”.  This was the second recommendation that ACCA had rejected: “ACCA does not believe naming assessors will add any real value to the process…  If assessors are named, there is a danger that they may be passed extraneous material, which risks delays in progressing complaints.  There is also the risk of assessors being harassed by members and complainants where their decision is not favourable to them”.

My personal view is that this is another example of the Service trying to meddle with the processes instead of concerning itself with the outcomes.  I can see how they might feel that transparency in this matter might help “improve confidence” in the complaints regime, but is it that material?

 

Single regulator?

What worries me about all this is that the Service appears to be seeking to achieve consistency by ensuring that all authorising bodies’ processes are the same.  This is particularly unhelpful if the Service starts with what they think an authorising body should look like and then exerts pressure on every body to squeeze them into that mould, instead of looking objectively at how the body performs before looking to criticise its processes.

There are a Memorandum of Understanding and Principles for Monitoring.  The Service should be measuring the bodies against these standards.  The Service’s “Oversight regulation and monitoring in the insolvency profession” document (http://goo.gl/jipcWs) confirms that assessing compliance with the MoU and PfM is fundamental.  Thankfully, the MoU and PfM are not so prescriptive that they describe, for example, how much detail should go into monitoring reports.

In this document, the Service also claims to use “an outcomes and principles based approach” in carrying out its oversight role.  I’m afraid that its monitoring reports do not do much to support this claim.  If the Service wants to be effective in its oversight role, personally I think it needs to be thinking and acting smarter.

The clock is ticking for the reserve power to introduce a single regulator.  My problem is that not all that the Service is doing seems to be helping RPBs to achieve their objectives in the best way they think they can.  I ask myself: does the Service really want to support better delegated regulation?


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Dear IP 64: is no news good news?

1705 Yosemite

Did you wonder what the RPS was going on about when it announced (Article 54, Dear IP 64) that the recent EAT judgment would not affect its claims-processing, but it has sought advice?  Bearing in mind that the RPS gets involved some way down the insolvency process, is there anything that IPs should be taking into account right now?

The Judgment: Bear Scotland Limited & Ors v Fulton & Ors

I briefly described the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in an earlier blog post: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-8I.  In a nutshell, the EAT decided that the “normal remuneration”, to be used in calculating the employees’ claims for holiday pay, should include overtime that the employer was not bound to offer but that the employees were required to work (or could not unreasonably refuse to work), if requested (“non-guaranteed overtime”).

Permission to appeal was granted and it seemed widely-thought that an appeal was likely in relation to part of the EAT’s judgment, which limited claims for underpaid holiday pay to instances of underpayment not exceeded by a gap of more than three months.  However, the Unite union announced that it will not appeal (http://goo.gl/EqII77) and, as the Tribunal judge expressed the view that this issue alone was the arguable one, personally I’m not sure why the employers would pursue a further appeal.  Therefore, it seems unlikely that there will be an appeal (but I’m no lawyer).

The Government Task Force

I also mentioned in my earlier post that the government had set up a task force to assess the possible impact of the decision.

On 18 December 2014, the government announced its solution: http://goo.gl/kJ7sJu.  Unusually with no public consultation, it swiftly laid down regulations – the Deduction from Wages (Limitation) Regulations 2014 – to limit unlawful deductions claims to two years.  The regulations will come into force on 8 January 2015, although they will only take effect on claims made on or after 1 July 2015, so there is a 6-month window for claims to be lodged potentially going back to 1998 when the Working Time Directive was implemented in the UK.

It is undeniable that the Bear Scotland case precipitated these measures, although the Impact Assessment (“IA”) makes clear that the regulations will limit claims not only arising from this decision.  The IA mentions, for example, the ruling from the CJEU in the case of Lock v British Gas (see, e.g. my blog post: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-82).  This case concluded that sales commission should be reflected in holiday pay calculations, although the UK application of this decision will not be known until the case is heard by the Leicester Tribunal, which I understand will not happen until February (http://goo.gl/ezx8Qj).

Although the regulations don’t actually affect the Bear Scotland decision, just the extent of businesses’ (and the RPS’) exposure to claims arising from the decision, the rhetoric doesn’t suggest that the government feels there is much risk that the decision might be overturned.  Then again, the regulations do simply plug a dangerous gap in the ERA96, so they are valuable whether or not Bear Scotland happened; the future is never left wanting for unexpected court decisions.

Dear IP 64

Given this background, I am somewhat surprised that the RPS has announced that it “will continue to process claims in the usual way until the expiry of the appeal period” of the EAT decision.  However, because I assume that the appeal period is largely a valuable pause in which the RPS can take advice and consider its next steps, what puzzles me a little more is: what action might the RPS take if there is no appeal?

The IA makes clear that “it is the worker’s responsibility to prove that they have a holiday pay claim in the employment tribunal”.  Thus, I would have thought that there is no obligation on the RPS – or by extension on insolvency office holders – to examine Company records to see whether past holiday pay claims have been calculated in line with the decision and, if not, look to adjust them.  However, I would also have thought that if any employees present a claim for unlawful deductions, whether to the RPS or to an IP, this could be dealt with without the need for the tribunal process, albeit quite rightly I think after the expiry of the appeal period.

But what about holiday pay claims that have not yet been processed?  Again, understandably the RPS will not want to pay out any enhanced holiday pay until the appeal period has expired.  Also, I assume, it will be for employees to make clear on their RP1s the “normal remuneration” that they expect to form the basis of their holiday pay calculation, although I don’t think that the RP1 form lends itself well to dealing with disclosure of non-guaranteed overtime – maybe another re-write is something that might appear after the appeal period has expired.

Thoughts for IPs

Finally, what about forms RP14A, which IPs complete to provide the RPS with basic information about employees made redundant from insolvent businesses?  The forms (I think) only ask for “basic pay”, so what should IPs be answering here?  I’m sure that IPs will not be criticised for acting on the Dear IP basis and continuing to complete RP14As “in the usual way until the expiry of the appeal period”, although personally this seems a little short-sighted to me.  If an IP were to know that employees’ holiday pay claims would be different if the Bear Scotland decision were applied, should he/she not take this into account when submitting an RP14A, at the very least alerting the RPS to the possible impact of the decision on the employees’ claims against the insolvent business in question?

Other questions arise by extension: should the IP make enquiries of insolvent business’ payroll departments to explore whether the effect of the decision has already been taken into account, or if it has not been considered, what effect it would have?

Of more concern to IPs dealing with a trading-on situation would be: how is the payroll department calculating holiday pay going forward?  IPs will not be want to be taken unawares by receiving claims for unlawful deductions long after the estate funds have been disbursed.

I also envisage this decision impacting on the TUPE obligation to provide to purchasers employee liability information, which would include any claims that the employer has reasonable grounds to believe that an employee may bring.

Of course, all this will already have been considered by ERA specialists and departments and IPs will not be short of solicitors who will be happy to advise.  Eventually also, we may receive an update from the RPS.


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The Insolvency Rules Modernisation Project: an ugly duckling no more?

1229 Port Douglas

The Insolvency Service’s work on the modernisation of the Insolvency Rules has appeared swan-like: to the outside world, the project seems to have drifted on serenely, but I get the feeling that those on the inside have been paddling furiously.  I set out here how the tome has been developing, as described in an update received from the Service last week.  Please note that this project is work in progress and the items as they are described below may evolve yet further before the Rules are finalised.

The Service reports that their consultation, which closed in January 2014, generated over a thousand policy and drafting points for consideration.  Their target remains to have a new set of Rules commencing in April 2016, although they are seeking to publish finalised Rules in autumn 2015 so that all of us who will be applying the Rules can get our houses in order for the big day.  That means that the Insolvency Rules Committee will need to be provided with the bulk of the new Rules to review in spring 2015.

The Service has endeavoured to keep those of us who have expressed a particular interest in the project informed and engaged in the process of developing the draft Rules, holding meetings to discuss related chunks and following this up with “we’d appreciate your comments on…” email exchanges.  Personally, I have been impressed by these efforts, although I have been conscious that such meetings and exchanges barely scratch the surface.  Although we might expect many Rules to remain intact, I envisage that the “simple” task of ensuring consistency throughout as regards, for example, notice requirements wraps in and has a knock-on effect on a whole host of interconnected Rules.  That Herculean task of dealing with the detail is left to the Insolvency Service team and, once the ever-changing impact of other government reviews and Bills is factored in, I can see why the Rules project has a projected 2016 end point.

About-Face

Good on the Service for taking the opportunity to propose some changes that were bound to upset some people!  The Service’s recent update illustrates the value of consultation, as they have reported that consideration of consultation responses has resulted in some proposed changes of direction:

  • Withdrawal of the proposed new requirement for personal service of winding-up petition;
  • Return of the current requirement to disclose any prior professional relationships of proposed administrators; and
  • Return of the ability to have contributory members on liquidation committees.

Further Progress

The consultation responses have led to further proposed changes to the draft Rules:

  • Withdrawal of the requirement for the appointor and committee to check the IPs’ security;
  • The Rules on disclaimers and on proxies will form separate parts (in the previous draft, these appeared to be scattered somewhat within the chapters dealing with different insolvency processes); and
  • Clarification of the requisite majority rules for CVAs and IVAs.

I found that last item particularly interesting.  It was not until I came to scrutinise the Rules – both draft and existing – when I was looking at the consultation that I saw quite how confusing the provisions are.  When considering the impact of connected (or associated) creditors’ votes, I’d had the idea that these connected votes are stripped out and then one looks at which way the remaining unconnected creditors were voting: if more than 50% (in value) of those voting were voting against the VA Proposal, then the Proposal was not approved.  However, I recently realised that this is not what the current Rules say.

Rule 1.19(4) (and similarly R5.23(4), the IVA equivalent) states that “any resolution is invalid if those voting against it include more than half in value of the creditors, counting in these latter only those –
a) to whom notice of the meeting was sent;
b) whose votes are not to be left out of account under [rule 1.19(3)]; and
c) who are not, to the best of the chairman’s belief, persons connected with the company.”

“The creditors” that forms the denominator in this fraction does not relate to creditors voting, but effectively to creditors entitled to vote. This is supported by Dear IP (chapter 24, article 13). Thus, chairmen should be looking, not simply at the majority of unconnected votes cast, but whether the votes cast rejecting the Proposal amount to more than half of the total of unconnected creditors’ unsecured claims.

Now, it may just be me who has misunderstood this all this time (and I hasten to add that I have not had cause to look carefully at this Rule probably since my exam days).  However, I suspect I am not alone, as the draft new Rule dealt with this matter in exactly the same way, but in plainer English, which seemed to make the consequence far more stark and this resulted in quite some debate at the Service-hosted meeting that I attended as to exactly how the requisite majority rule should operate.

I am not sure whether the new draft Rules will follow the current Rules – or if it will reflect how I suspect many of us have been reading it for many years – but I am pleased to hear that the language used will be revisited so that hopefully it will be unequivocal.  As the Administration equivalent – R2.43(2) – clearly refers to total creditors’ claims, not only creditors voting, I suspect the new VA Rules will be consistent with this design.

Unsettled Policy

The Service has also described some areas that are still in the process of being explored.  In responding to my request that I share the Service’s update publicly, I was asked to make it very clear that this is – all – still work in progress and, particularly as regards the following items, the Service is still in inviting-comments-and-reflecting mode and they should not be treated as settled policy.

Creditors

I greeted with disappointment the news that, as some of the Administration consent requirements are contained in Schedule B1 of the Act, the Rules’ Administration approval requirements are unlikely to depart from the Act’s model.  In other words, where all secured creditors’ approvals are required for a matter, this is likely to be repeated in the new Rules.  I am pleased to note, however, that the Service has heard the complaints of difficulties in persuading some secured creditors to engage.

The Service seems to be a little more sympathetic to IPs’ difficulties when it comes to persuading preferential creditors to vote.  They are reflecting on what exactly is meant by the approval of 50% of preferential creditors etc. (for example, in R2.106(5A)): does this mean that at least one pref creditor needs to vote or does 50% of zero equal zero..?  Whether or not the new Rules will allow Para 52(1)(b) fees to be approved on a zero pref creditor basis, it seems very likely that a positive response will be needed, if not by a pref creditor, then by a secured one.

So what about the old chestnut: do paid creditors get a vote?   For some time even before I had left the IPA, this debate has rumbled through many corridors.  The current Rules present a problem: if one views a “creditor” as someone who had a claim at the relevant date, then, as an example, R2.106(5A) may be difficult to achieve.  How do you get a secured creditor who has been paid out to respond to a request to approve fees?  The key may be to seek their approval pdq on appointment before they are paid out, but what if that doesn’t happen?  Do the Rules really require their approval?  It hardly seems in the spirit of the Rules to give a creditor, whose debt has been – or even is going to be – discharged in full, the power to make decisions that could affect someone else’s recovery.

The Service has considered whether it might be possible to define creditors in the Rules to overcome this difficulty.  At present, however, their conclusion is that, largely because of existing provisions defining certain “creditor”s and “debt”s in the Act, seeking to resolve this via the Rules will be difficult to achieve.

Progress Reports

The Service’s proposals regarding progress reports appear more promising.  Several people have commented that the government’s drive to reduce costs in the insolvency process seems at odds with the ever-increasing, e.g. via the 2010 Rules, level of prescription around certain requirements such as the timing and content of progress reports.  Already, the courts seem to have improved the default position of the current Rules when it comes to block transfers of insolvency cases: I understand that more often than not courts are now making orders that disapply the Rules’ requirements for progress reports by departing office holders and the re-setting of the reporting clock to the date of the transfer order (which, if not so ordered by the court, would have the unfortunate consequence that the incoming office holder would need to produce a progress report on all of his transferred-in cases on the same day each year/six months).

The Service is currently considering the following proposals:

  • Dropping the Rules’ requirement for a progress report on a case transfer (although the court may order, or the incoming office holder may decide, otherwise);
  • Dropping the requirement for a progress report to accompany an Administration extension application/request for consent, although the Administrator would need to explain why the extension was being requested; and
  • Because progress reports would not be required in the circumstances above, the timing of the next progress report would not be affected by the event (i.e. by the case transfer or extension request); the case would continue to follow the reporting cycle relative to the insolvency date.

 

Phew!  It’s good to see that much progress has been made – the ugly duckling is already showing signs of maturing into a reasonably-looking bird – and I wish the team all the best in their labours of coming months.


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The Future is… Complicated

 

 

1933 Yosemite

My autumn has been a CPE marathon: SWSCA, the R3 SPG Forum, the IPA roadshow, and the ICAEW roadshow. Thus I thought I’d try to summarise all the legislative and regulatory changes currently in prospect:

Statutory Instruments

  • Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013;
  • Deregulation Bill (est. commencement: May/October 2015);
  • Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill (October 2015 for IP regulation items, April 2016 for remainder);
  • The exemption for insolvency proceedings from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) comes to an end on 1 April 2015;
  • New Insolvency Rules (est. to be laid in Parliament in October 2015, to come into force in April 2016); and
  • A plethora of SIs to support the Bankruptcy and Debt Advice (Scotland) Act 2014 (coming into force on 1 April 2015, but, regrettably, I feel so out of the loop on Scottish insolvency now that I don’t dare pass comment!)

Consultation Outcomes

  • IP fees (consultation closed in March 2014);
  • DROs and threshold for creditors’ petitions for bankruptcy (consultation closed in October 2014); and
  • Continuity of essential supplies to insolvent businesses (consultation closed in October 2014).

Revision of SIPs etc.

  • Ethics Code Review;
  • SIP 1;
  • SIPs 16 & 13;
  • SIP 9 (depending on how the government turns on the issue of IP fees);
  • New Insolvency Guidance Paper on retention of title; and
  • Other SIPs affected by new statute.

 

Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013

The Insolvency Service’s timetable back in 2013 was that the changes enabled by this Act would be rolled out in 2015/16, but I haven’t heard a sniff about it since. However, the following elements of the Act are still in prospect:

  • Debtors’ bankruptcy petitions will move away from the courts and into the hands of SoS-appointed Adjudicators (not ORs).
  • There was talk of the fee being less than at present (£70 plus the administration fee of £525) and of it being paid in instalments, although my guess is that the Adjudicator is unlikely to deal with an application until the fee has been paid in full.
  • The application process is likely to be handled online. Questions had been raised on whether there would be safeguards in place to ensure that the debtor had received advice before applying. This would appear important given that the Adjudicator will have no discretion to reject an application on the basis that bankruptcy is not appropriate: if the debtor meets the criteria for bankruptcy, the Adjudicator must make the order.

The ERR Act is also the avenue for the proposed revisions to Ss233 and 372 of the IA86 – re. continuity of essential supplies – as it has granted the SoS the power to change these sections of the IA86.

The Deregulation Bill

Of course, the highlight of this Bill is the provision for partial insolvency licences. It was debated in the House of Lords last week (bit.ly/1tBmMhe – go to a time of 16.46) and whilst I think that, at the very least, the government’s efforts to widen the profession to greater competition are nonsensical in the current market where there is not enough insolvency work to keep the existing IPs gainfully employed, my sense of the debate is that the provision likely will stick.

I was surprised that Baroness Hayter’s closing gambit was to keep the door open at least to press another day for only personal insolvency-only licences (rather than also corporate insolvency-only ones).  Will that be a future compromise?  What with the ongoing fuzziness of (non-FCA-regulated) IPs’ freedom to advise individuals on their insolvency options and the rareness of bankruptcies, I wonder if the days in which smaller practice IPs handle a mixed portfolio of corporate and personal insolvencies are numbered in any event.

The Deregulation Bill contains other largely technical changes:

  • Finally, the Minmar/Virtualpurple chaos will be resolved in statute when the need to issue a Notice of Intention to Appoint an Administrator (“NoIA”) will be restricted to cases where a QFCH exists.
  • The consent requirements for an Administrator’s discharge will be amended so that, in Para 52(1)(b) cases, the consent of only the secured creditors, and where relevant a majority of preferential creditors, will be required. At present Para 98 can be interpreted to require the Administrator also to propose a resolution to the unsecured creditors.
  • A provision will be added so that, if a winding-up petition is presented after a NoIA has been filed at court, it will not prevent the appointment of an Administrator.
  • In addition to the OR, IPs will be able to be appointed by the court to act as interim receivers over debtors’ properties.
  • It will not be a requirement in every case for the bankrupt to submit a SoA, but the OR may choose to request one.
  • S307 IA86 will be amended so that Trustees will have to notify banks if they are seeking to claim specific after-acquired property. The government envisages that this will free up banks to provide accounts to bankrupts.
  • The SoS’ power to authorise IPs direct will be repealed, with existing IPs’ authorisations continuing for one year after the Act’s commencement.
  • The Deeds of Arrangement Act 1914 will be repealed.

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill

I won’t repeat all the provisions in this Bill, but I will highlight some that have created some debate recently.

The proposed new process for office holders to report on directors’ conduct proved to be a lively topic at the RPB roadshows. There seemed to be some expectation that IPs would report their “suspicion – not their evidenced belief – of director misconduct” (per the InsS slide), although this was downplayed at the later R3 Forum.  My initial thoughts were that perhaps the Service was looking to produce a kind-of SARs-reporting regime and I wondered whether that might work, if IPs could have the certainty that their reports would be kept confident.

However, I suspect that the Service had recognised that IPs would have difficulty with the proposed new timescale for a report within 3 months, but hoped that this would be mitigated if IPs could somehow be persuaded to report just the bare essentials – to enable the Service to decide whether the issues merit deeper enquiries – rather than putting them under a requirement to collect together substantial evidence. I suspect that the Service’s intentions are reasonable, but it seems that, at the moment, they haven’t got the language quite right.  Let’s hope it is sorted by the time the rules are drafted.

Phillip Sykes, R3 Vice President, gave evidence on the Bill to the Public Bill Committee a couple of weeks ago (see: http://goo.gl/V1XSbX or go to http://goo.gl/jSTmI0 for a transcript).  Phillip highlighted the value of physical meetings in engaging creditors in the process and in informing newly-appointed office holders of pre-appointment goings-on.  He also commented that the proposed provision to empower the courts to make compensation orders against directors on the back of disqualifications seems to run contrary to the ending of the LASPO insolvency exemption and that the suggestion that certain creditors might benefit from such orders offends the fundamental insolvency principle of pari passu. Phillip also explained the potential difficulties in assigning office holders’ rights of action to third parties and described a vision of good insolvency regulation.  Unfortunately, he was cut off in mid-sentence, but R3 has produced a punchy briefing paper at http://goo.gl/mBeU30, which goes further than Phillip was able to do in the short time allowed by the Committee.

Last week, a new Schedule was put to the Public Bill Committee (starts at: http://goo.gl/sY5QUG), setting out the proposed amendments to the IA86 to deal with the abolition of requirements to hold creditors’ meetings and opting-out creditors.  A quick scan of the schedule brought to my mind several queries, but it is very difficult to ascertain exactly how practically the new provisions will operate, not least because they refer in many places to processes set out in the rules, which themselves are a revision work in progress.

IP Fees

The consultation, which included a proposal to prohibit the use of time costs in certain cases, closed in March 2014 and there hasn’t exactly been a government response. All that has been published is a ministerial statement in June that referred to “discussing further with interested parties before finalising the way forward” (http://goo.gl/IbQsLd).  The recent events I have attended indicate that the Service’s current focus is more on exploring the value of providing up-front fee estimates together with creditors’ consent (or non-objection) to an exceeding of these estimates, rather than restricting the use of the time costs basis.  I understand that the government is expected to make a decision on how the IP fees structure might be changed by the end of the year.

Revision of SIPs etc.

I have Alison Curry of the IPA to thank for sharing with members at the recent roadshows current plans on these items:

  • A JIC review of the Insolvency Code of Ethics has commenced. Initial findings have queried whether the Code needs to incorporate more prescription, as it has been suggested that the prevalence of “may”s, rather than “shall”s, can make it difficult for regulators to enforce. The old chestnuts of commissions, marketing and referrals, also may be areas where the Code needs to be developed.
  • Although RPB rules include requirements for their members to report any knowledge of misconduct of another member, it has been noted that, of course, this is not effective where the misconduct involves a member of a different RPB. Therefore, the JIC is looking to amend SIP1 with a view to incorporating a profession-wide duty to report misconduct to the relevant RPB or perhaps via the complaints gateway.
  • As expected, SIP16 is being reviewed in line with Teresa Graham’s recommendations. This is working alongside the efforts to create the Pre-pack Pool, which will consider connected purchasers’ intentions and viability reviews. A consultation on a draft revised SIP16 is expected around Christmas-time. I had heard that the target is that a revised SIP16 will be issued by 1 February 2015 and the Pool will be operational by 1 March 2015, but that seems a little optimistic, given the need for a consultation.
  • SIP13 is ripe for review (in my opinion, it needed to be reviewed after the Enterprise Act 2002!) and it is recognised that it needs to be revised in short order after SIP16.
  • A new IGP on RoT has been drafted and is close to being issued. We received a preview of it at the IPA roadshow. To be honest, it isn’t rocket science, but then IGPs aren’t meant to be.


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The Insolvency Service’s labours for transparency produce fruits

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The Insolvency Service has been busy over the past months producing plenty of documents other than the consultations. Here, I review the following:

  • First newsletter;
  • Report on its visit to the SoS-IP monitoring unit;
  • Summary of its oversight function of the RPBs;
  • IVA Standing Committee minutes; and
  • Complaints Gateway report.

The Insolvency Service’s first newsletter

http://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/d469cc

Although this is a bit of a PR statement, a couple of crafty comments have been slipped in.

The newsletter explains that the Service’s “IP regulation function has been strengthened and we have raised the bar on our expectations of authorising bodies”. I started off sceptical but to be fair the Service’s summary of how it carries out its oversight function of the authorising bodies – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-oversight-and-monitoring-of-authorising-bodies – does convey a more intensive Big Brother sense than the Principles for Monitoring alone had done previously.  This document puts more emphasis on their risk-based assessments, desk-top monitoring and themed reviews, as well as targeting topical areas of concern, which can only help to provide a better framework in which their physical monitoring visits to the RPBs can sit.

I commend the Service for establishing more intelligent regulatory processes, but two sentences of the newsletter stick in the throat: “We saw the impact that our changing expectations had in a few areas. Things deemed acceptable a few years ago were now being picked up as areas for improvement.” This is a reference to its report on the visit to its own people who monitor SoS-authorised IPs, the Insolvency Practitioner Services (“IPS”): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/monitoring-activity-reports-of-insolvency-practitioner-authorising-bodies.  Having worked in the IPA’s regulatory department from 2005 to 2012, I would like to assure readers that many of the items identified in the Service’s report on IPS have been unacceptable for many years – at least to the IPA during my time and most probably to the other RPBs (I am as certain as I can be of that without having worked at the RPBs myself).

I am aghast at the Service’s apparent suggestion that the following recent discoveries at the IPS were acceptable a few years ago:

  • A 5-year visit cycle with insufficient risk assessment to justify a gap longer than 3 years;
  • Visits to new appointment-takers not carried out within 12 months and no evidence of risk assessment to justify this;
  • No evidence that one IP’s receipt of more than 1,000 complaints in the previous year (as disclosed in the pre-visit questionnaire) was raised during the visit, nor was it considered in any detail in the report;
  • No evidence of website checks (which the Service demanded of the RPBs many years ago);
  • “Little evidence that compliance with SIP16 is being considered”;
  • “No evidence that relevant ethical checklists and initial meeting notes from cases had been considered”; and
  • “Once a final report has been sent to the IP, there does not appear to be any process whereby the findings of the report are considered further by IPS”.

Still, that’s enough of the past. The Service has now thrown down the gauntlet.  I shall be pleased if they now prove they can parry and thrust with intelligence and effectiveness.

Worthy of note is that the newsletter explains that, in future, sanctions handed down to IPs by the RPBs will be published on the Service’s website (presumably more contemporaneously than within its annual reviews).

IVA Standing Committee Minutes 17 July 2014

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/minutes-from-the-iva-standing-committee-july-2014

“Standardised Format”

The minutes report that the IPA will have a final version – of what? Presumably a statutory annual report template? – within “a couple of weeks” and that two Committee members will draft a Dear IP article (there’s a novelty!) to explain that use of the standard is not mandatory.

Income and Expenditure Assessments

The minutes recorded that Money Advice Service had been preparing for consultation a draft I&E statement – which seems to be an amalgam of the CFS and the StepChange budget with the plan that it will be used for all/a number of debt solutions. The consultation was opened on 16 October: https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/static/standard-financial-statement-consultation

IVA Protocol Equity Clause

As a consequence of concerns raised by an adviser about the equity clause, DRF has agreed to “draft a response” – it seems this is only intended to go to the adviser who had written in, although it would seem to me to have wider interest – “to clarify the position, which is that a person will not be expected to go to a subprime lender and the importance of independent financial advice”. It is good to have that assurance, but what exactly does the IVA Protocol require debtors to do in relation to equity?  Does the Protocol clause need revising, I wonder.

Resistance to refunding dividends when set-off applied

I see the issue: a creditor receives dividends and then sets off mis-sold PPI compensation against their remaining debt. Consequently, it could be argued that the creditor has been overpaid a dividend and should return (some of) it.  The minutes state that “it is a complicated issue and different opinions prevail” (well, there’s a revelation!), although it has been raised with the FCA.

Variations

It seems that the Committee has only just cottoned on to the fact that the Protocol does not allow the supervisor to decide whether a variation meeting should be called, so they are to look at re-wording the standard terms to “give supervisor discretion as to whether variation is appropriate so when one is called it is genuine and in these instances the supervisor will be entitled to get paid”.

I’m sorry if I sound a little despairing at this, not least because of course the cynic may see this as yet another avenue for IPs to make some easy money! It was something that I’d heard about when I was at the IPA – that some IPs were struggling with IVA debtors who wanted, say, to offer a full and final settlement to the creditors that the IP was confident would be rejected by creditors, but under the Protocol terms it seemed that they had no choice but to pass the offer to creditors.  I’m just surprised that this issue has not yet been resolved.

Recent pension changes

The minutes simply state: “InsS to enquire with colleagues as to how it is planned to treat these in bankruptcy and feed back”. About time too!  Shortly after the April proposals had been first announced, I’d read articles questioning whether the government had thought about how any lump sum – which from next April could be the whole pension pot – would be treated in a bankruptcy.  Presumably, legislation will be drafted to protect this pot from a Trustee’s hands, but that depends on the drafter getting it right.  The lesson of Raithatha v Williamson comes to mind…

Well, I’m assuming that this is what the Committee minutes refer to, anyway.

Report on the First Year of the Complaints Gateway

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-complaints-gateway-report-august-2014

Aha, so Dr Judge has been able to spin an increased number of complaints as evidence that the gateway “is meeting the aim of making the complaints process easier to understand and use”! I wonder if, had the number of complaints decreased, his message might have been that insolvency regulation had played a part in raising standards so that there were fewer causes for complaint.

The report mentions that the Service is “continuing dialogue” with the SRA and Law Society of Scotland to try to get them to adopt the gateway.

The Service still seems to be hung up about the effectiveness of the Insolvency Code of Ethics (as I’d mentioned in an earlier post, http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-6I) and have reported their “findings” to the JIC “to assist with its review into this area”.

The Service also seems to have got heavy with the RPBs about complaints on delayed IVA closures due to ongoing PPI refunds. The ICAEW and the IPA “have agreed to take forward all cases for investigation” – because, of course, some complaints are closed at assessment stage on the basis that the complaints reviewer has concluded that there is no case to answer (i.e. it is not that these complaints do not get considered at all) – “where the delay in closing the IVA exceeds six months from the debtor’s final payment”.  Does this mean that the general regulator view is that any delay under 6 months is acceptable?  Hopefully, this typical Service measure of setting unprincipled boundaries will not result in a formulaic approach to dealing with all complaints about delayed closure of IVAs.  And, although the other RPBs may license a smaller proportion of IVA-providing IPs, I wonder what their practices are…

The report also explains that the Service has persuaded the ICAEW to modify its approach a little in relation to complaints resolved by conciliation. Now, such a complaint will still be considered in the context of any regulatory breaches committed by the IP.  Years ago, the Service urged the RPBs to consider whether they could make greater use of financial compensation (or even simply requiring an IP to write an apology) in their complaints processes, but there was some resistance because it seemed that the key objective of the regulatory complaints process – to pick up IPs failing to meet standards – was at risk of getting lost: might some IPs be persuaded to agree a swift end to a complaint, if it meant that less attention would be paid to it?  To be fair, this has always been an IP’s option: he can always satisfy the complainant before they ever approach the regulator.  However, now settling a complaint after it has started on the Gateway path may not be the end of it for the IP, whichever RPB licenses him.

The Statistics

I think that the stats have been more than adequately covered by other commentaries. In any event, I found it difficult to draw any real conclusions from them in isolation, but they also don’t add much to the picture presented in the Insolvency Service’s 2013 annual review.  That’s not to say, however, that this report has no use; at the very least, it will serve as a reference point for the future.

Ok, the complaints number has increased, but it does seem that the delayed IVA closure due to PPI refunds is an exceptional issue at the moment. Given that the IPA licenses the majority of IPs who carry out IVAs, it is not surprising therefore that the IPA has the largest referred-complaint per IP figure: 0.63, compared to 0.54 over all the authorising bodies (although the SoS is barely a whisker behind at 0.62).  My personal expectation, however, is that the Insolvency Service’s being seen as being more involved in the complaints process via the Gateway alone may sustain slightly higher levels of complaints in the longer term, as perceived victims may not be so quick to assume that the RPB/IP relationship stacks the odds so heavily against them receiving a fair hearing.


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The Perilous Neglect of the Fragile Insolvency Service Enforcement Directorate

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“Trust is essential to every commercial transaction. We neglect its fragility at our peril”, says Vince Cable in his foreword to the “Transparency & Trust” Government Response. Having read the Government’s proposals, I am inclined to repeat the often-cried warning that we neglect the ever-decreasing resources of the Insolvency Service at our peril. Although some of the Government’s proposals have the veneer of reducing the costs of disqualifying directors, whatever small gains are achieved will be wiped out by the hidden burdens that look to be added the Directorate.

It’s not all about the Insolvency Service, however. The Government has tagged on what appear as afterthoughts some ideas that will impact on IPs’ approaches to antecedent transaction challenges. These ideas are poorly covered in the Government Response – they escape all the Impact Assessments – and thus it is not surprising that R3 immediately commented on its “specific concerns” regarding these proposals (http://www.r3.org.uk/index.cfm?page=1114&element=19780).

The key objective of Cable’s “Transparency & Trust” drive is the creation of a public register of beneficial owners, but in this post I have summarise the more material plans that will affect insolvency work. The Government’s full response can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/company-ownership-transparency-and-trust-discussion-paper.

Changes to the CDDA

The original proposals suggested that Schedule 1 of the CDDA, Matters for Determining Unfitness of Directors, might be added to in order to ensure that the following are taking into account in relation to disqualification orders and undertakings:

• Material breaches of “sectoral” regulation (especially the banking sector);
• The “wider social impacts” of a failure;
• Whether vulnerable creditors or those who had paid deposits had lost out in particular; and
• The director’s previous failures, possibly with a finite number of failures being allowed before unfitness is presumed.

The Government response accepts that simply adding to the Schedule 1 is not the solution, as directors might conclude that any factor not explicitly listed will not be taken into account. The response states: “we will recast a more generic set of factors that the court must take into account” (paragraph 222), although it also lists pretty-much the items described above, but with the exception of the X strikes and then you’re out idea, which does not appear to have made it through.

However, the paper does state that the court (or the Insolvency Service) will need to take into account “any previous positions as director of a company that has become insolvent and any relevant aspect of the director’s track record in running these companies… We are sympathetic to concerns we heard about the possible unwanted effect the inclusion of a ‘track record’ could have on those involved with early stage companies, or in rescuing companies that are in difficulties”, although I wonder at the depth of their sympathy: “We are clear that a director will, of course, be able to present any argument he or she might have (for instance as a business rescue professional or that the insolvency was not due to any element of unfit conduct on the director’s behalf)” (paragraph 225).

The consultation also sought views on whether – in fact, the consultation asked which – other “sectoral” regulators (again, looking mainly at the banking sector) should have the power to apply to court, or accept an undertaking direct, to disqualify a director. Although the ICAEW felt that this was appropriate, the Government’s response aligns more closely with R3’s response: disqualifications will remain with the Service, but the CDDA and gateways will be amended so that information might be exchanged more effectively, and there might be greater collaboration, between regulators. It has also suggested that expertise might be shared between regulators, which might include secondments.

The consultation proposed that the time period within which disqualification proceedings need to be commenced be increased from two years to five. The response explains that “views were mixed” (paragraph 279). However, I note that there was no support for any extension of the time period from R3, ICAEW or ICAS (the IPA did not respond – well, not the Insolvency Practitioners Association, but the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising did) – all three bodies noted that the BIS consultation document had stated that the two year timescale did not pose a barrier in the vast majority of cases and that the court can consider extensions. R3 also observed that five years would be a long time for an investigation to ‘hang’ over an individual and the ICAEW noted the potential difficulties if office holders needed to keep a case open for a long period. Despite these views, the Government proposes to increase the time limit to three years.

“Better Compensating Creditors for Director Misconduct”

The Transparency & Trust paper runs to 283 paragraphs, but this section, which contains the meaty proposed changes for IPs, runs to only 17 paragraphs! I don’t like that heading either…

The Government has expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that so few actions have been taken to challenge antecedent transactions. “Since 1986, there have only been

• around 30 reported wrongful trading cases;
• around 50 preference claims; and
• around 80 reported cases arising from undervalue transactions” (paragraph 260).

However, the response does not acknowledge that, as R3 pointed out in its response, many more cases are settled out of court. Neither does it acknowledge in any meaningful way that, in a great deal of other cases, the disqualified director simply has no money!

The Government’s proposed remedies are:

• To allow such causes of action to be sold or assigned to a third party “to increase the chances of action being taken against miscreant directors for the benefit of creditors” (paragraph 272); and
• To empower the Secretary of State to apply to court for a compensation order against, or to accept a compensation undertaking from, a director who has been disqualified.

The Government response barely makes a passing comment at some of the objections to these proposals raised by R3, the ICAEW, and ICAS, such as:

• Insolvency practitioners already have the means – and the duty and expertise – to pursue monies from errant directors, although the future of these is at risk when the insolvency exemption from the Jackson reforms ends.
• Why would a third party be any better equipped to take action than a liquidator?
• The possibility of a liquidator assigning their right to a claim already exists in Scotland.
• IPs are also limited in what they can achieve, as too few cases are being passed to IPs from the OR.
• Creditors’ returns may end up being lower, because a third party would only buy a claim in the expectation of making a profit.
• Third parties will not have the same investigative powers as liquidators.
• It would be impossible to prevent directors – or a friend etc. – from acquiring a claim with the intention of quashing it.
• It is difficult to see how assigning claims away from a liquidator to a third party intent on making a profit would increase confidence in the insolvency regime.
• It is difficult to see how compensation might be paid to anyone other than the company’s creditors via the office holder.
• If the Service were to distribute monies to creditors, it could duplicate the work done by the IP in adjudicating on claims, and the costs to the Service would be prohibitive. “The Insolvency Service would be better focusing its resources on disqualifying more directors rather than seeking to take on new activities such as distributing monies, which is already performed efficiently by insolvency practitioners” (R3).
• A compensatory award could prejudice civil claims being brought by the office holder (and, in my personal view, I could see a race develop between the IP and the Secretary of State, to see who gets their hands on the director’s limited purse first).
• “We do not think that the Insolvency Service has the resource to provide the evidence required to ensure a fair compensatory award upon which the Court can rule” (R3).
• The Service’s costs for bringing disqualification actions likely will increase substantially, and with fewer undertakings offered, given that directors will risk being pursued for compensation.

Despite these concerns, the Government is going to bring in these two remedies “when Parliamentary time allows”. Sales or assignments will be allowed of the following causes of action: fraudulent and wrongful trading – both of which will be extended to administrators to pursue (per the Red Tape Challenge outcomes); transactions at an undervalue; preferences; and extortionate credit transactions. The compensation awards/undertakings will be allowed by the court or the Secretary of State “to a particular creditor or group or class of creditors, or the creditors as a whole” (paragraph 274), although there is no mention as to how this may work in practice.

I shall leave the final word to the ICAEW, which, in its response to the consultation question on whether the proposal would improve confidence in the insolvency regime, stated: “We consider that confidence would be more likely to be improved if the Insolvency Service were resourced adequately to take disqualification action in every case where it appears to be justified.”


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And now for a qualitative review of the IP Regulation Report

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Having explored the statistics, I thought I’d turn to the Insolvency Service’s 2013 IP regulation report’s hints at issues currently at the top of the regulators’ hit list:

• Ethical issues;
• Consultation with employees;
• SIP16; and
• Dodgy introducers;

All the Service’s regulatory reviews can be found at http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/insolvency-profession/Regulation/review-of-IP-regulation-annual-regulation-reports.

Ethical Issues

The Insolvency Service has “asked that regulators make ethical issues one of their top priorities in the coming year, following concerns arising from both our own investigations and elsewhere” (Dr Judge’s foreword). What might this mean for IPs? Personally, I find it difficult to say, as the report is a bit cloudy on the details.

The report focuses on the fact that 35% of the complaints lodged in 2013 have been categorised as ethics-related. On the face of it, it does appear that ethics-categorised complaints have been creeping up: they were running at between 10% and 20% from 2008 to 2011, and in 2012 they were 24%. Without running a full analysis of the figures, I cannot see immediately which categories have correspondingly improved over the years: “other” complaints have been running fairly consistently between 30% and 40% (which does make me wonder at the value of the current system of categorising complaints!) and the other major categories – communication breakdown, sale of assets, and remuneration – have been bouncing along fairly steadily. The only sense I get is that, generally, complaints were far more scattered across the categories than they were in 2013, so I am pleased that the Insolvency Service reports an intention to refine its categorisation to better understand the true nature of complaints made about ethical issues. Now that the Service is categorising complaints as they pass through the Gateway, they are better-placed than ever to explore whether there are any trends.

In one way, I think that this ethics category peak is not all bad news: I would worry if some of the other categories – e.g. remuneration, mishandling of employee claims, misconduct/irregularity at creditors’ meetings – recorded high numbers of complaints.

Do the complaints findings give us any clues as to what these ethical issues might be about? Briefly, the findings listed in the report involved:

• Failing to conduct adequate ethical checks and a SIP16 failure;
• Failing to pay a dividend after issuing a Notice of Intended Dividend or retract the notice (How many times does this happen, I wonder!) and a SIP3 failure regarding providing a full explanation in a creditors’ report;
• Three separate instances (involving different IPs) of SIP16 failures;

Unfortunately, the report does not describe all founded complaints, but it appears to me that few ethics-categorised complaints convert into sanctions. However, it is interesting to see that some of these complaints don’t seem to go away: two of the complaints lodged with the Service about the RPBs, and which are still under investigation, involve allegations of conflict of interest, so it is perhaps not surprising that the Service’s interest has been piqued. The report describes a matter “of wider significance which we will take forward with all authorising bodies”, that of “concerns around the perceived independence of complaints handling, where the RPB also acts in a representative role for its members” (page 6). Noisy assumptions that RPBs won’t bite the hands that feed them have always been with us, but there were some very good reasons why complaints-handling was not taken away from the RPBs as a consequence of the 2011 regulatory reform consultation and I would be very surprised if the situation has worsened since then.

So, as a profession, we seem to be encountering a significant number of ethics-related complaints, few of which lead to any sanctions. This suggests to me that behaviour that people on the “outside” feel is unethical is somehow seen as justified when viewed from the “inside”. It cannot be simply an issue of communicating unsuccessfully, because wouldn’t that in itself be a breach of the ethical principle of transparency that might lead to a sanction? The Service seems to be focussing on the Code of Ethics: “we are working with the insolvency profession to establish whether the current ethical guidance and its application is sufficiently robust or whether any changes are needed to further protect all those with an interest in insolvency outcomes” (page 4). Personally, I struggle to see that the Code of Ethics is somehow deficient; it cannot endorse practices that deviate from the widely-accepted ethical norm, because it sets as the standard the view of “a reasonable and informed third party, having knowledge of all the relevant information”. I guess whether or not disciplinary committees are applying this standard successfully is another question, which, of course, the Service may be justified in asking. However, I do hope that (largely, I confess, because I shared the pain of many who were involved in the years spent revising the Guide) the outcome doesn’t involve tinkering with the Code, which I believe is an extremely carefully-written, all-encompassing, timeless and elevated, set of principles.

Consultation with employees

This topic pops up only briefly in relation to the Service’s monitoring visits to RPBs. It is another matter “of wider significance which we will take forward with all authorising bodies”: “regulation in relation to legal requirements to consult with employees where there are collective redundancies” (page 4).

Although I’ve been conscious of the concern over employee consultation over the years – I recall the MP’s letter to all IPs a few years’ ago – I was still surprised at the number of “reminders” published in Dear IP when I had a quick scroll down Chapter 11. On review, I thought that the most recent Article, number 44 (first issued in October 2010), was fairly well-written, although it pre-dated the decision in AEI Cables Limited v GMB, which acknowledged that it may be simply not possible to give the full consultation period where pressures to cease trading are felt (see, e.g., my blog post at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3i), and it all seems so impractical in so many cases – to engage in an “effective and meaningful consultation”, including ways of avoiding or reducing the number of redundancies – but then it wouldn’t be the first futile thing IPs have been instructed to do…

If this is a regulator hot topic going forward, then it may be beneficial to have a quick review of standards and procedures to ensure that you’re protecting yourself from any obvious criticism. For example, do your engagement letters cover off the consultation requirements adequately? Does staff consultation appear high up the list of day one priorities? If any staff are retained post-appointment, do you always document well the commencement of consultation, ensuring that discussions address (and contemporaneous notes evidence the addressing of) the matters required by the legislation?

SIP16

Oh dear, yes, SIP16-monitoring is still with us! It seems that 2012’s move away from monitoring strict compliance with the checklist of information in SIP16 to taking a bigger picture look at the pre-pack stories for hints of potential abuse has been abandoned. It seems that the Service’s idea of “enhanced” monitoring simply was to scrutinise all SIP16 disclosures, instead of just a sample. In addition, unlike previous reports, the 2013 report does not describe what intelligence has come to the Service via its pre-pack hotline, nor does it mention what resulted from any previous years’ ongoing investigations. Oh well.

I guess it was too much to ask that the release of a revised SIP16 on 1 November 2013 might herald a change in approach to any pre-pack monitoring by the Service. Nope, they’re still examining strict compliance, although at least there has been some progress in that the Service is now writing to all IPs where it identifies minor SIP16 disclosure non-compliances (with the serious breaches being passed to the authorising body concerned). I really cannot get excited by the news that the Service considered that 89% of all SIP16 disclosures, issued after the new SIP16 came into force, were fully compliant. Where does that take us? Will IPs continue to be monitored (and clobbered) until we achieve 100%? What will be the reaction, if the percentage compliant falls next time around?

Dodgy Introducers

The Service has achieved a lot of mileage – in some respects, quite rightly so – from the winding up, in the public interest, of eight companies that were “wrongly promoting pre-packaged administrations as an easy way for directors to escape their responsibilities”. Consequently, I found this sentence in the report interesting: “We have also noted that current monitoring by the regulators has not picked up on the insolvency practitioner activities that were linked to the winding up of a number of ‘introducer’ companies, and are in discussions with the authorising bodies over how this might be addressed in the coming year” (page 6). Does this refer specifically to the six IPs with links to the wound-up companies who have been referred to their authorising bodies? Or does this mean that the Service will be looking at how the regulators target (if at all) IPs’/introducers’ representations as regards the pre-pack process on IP monitoring visits?

Having heard last week a presentation by Caroline Sumner, IPA, at the R3 SPG Technical Review, it would seem to me that regulators are, not only on the look-out for introducers of dodgy pre-packs, but also of dodgy packaged CVLs where an IP has little, if any, involvement with the insolvent company/directors until the S98 meeting. Generally, IPs are vocal in their outrage and frustration at unregulated advisers who seek to persuade insolvent company directors that they need to follow the direction of someone looking out for their personal interests, but someone must be picking up the formal appointments…

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Unfortunately, the Insolvency Service’s report has left me with a general sense that it’s all rather cryptic. The report seems to be full of breathed threats but nothing concrete and, having sat on the outside of the inner circle of regulatory goings-on for almost two years now, I appreciate so much more how inactive that arena all seems. It’s a shame, because I know from experience that a great deal of work goes on between the regulators, but it simply takes too long for any message to escape their clutches. It seems that practices don’t have to move at the pace of a bolting horse to evade an effective regulatory reaction.


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A Closer Look at Six Years of Insolvency Regulation

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Have you ever wanted evidence-based answers to the following..?

• Which RPB issues the most – and which the least – sanctions?
• What are the chances that a monitoring visit by your authorising body will result in a sanction or a targeted visit?
• How frequent are monitoring visits and is there much difference between the authorising bodies?
• Do you receive more or less than the average number of complaints?
• Are there more complaints now than in recent years?

Of course, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, but a review of the past six years of Insolvency Service reports on IP regulation provides food for thought.

The Insolvency Service’s reports can be found at: http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/insolvency-profession/Regulation/review-of-IP-regulation-annual-regulation-reports and my observations follow. Please note that I have excluded from my graphs the three RPBs with the smallest number of IPs, although their results have been included in the results for all the authorising bodies combined. In addition, when I talk about IPs, I am looking only at appointment-taking IPs.

Regrettably, I haven’t worked out how to embed my graphs within the text, so they can be found here. Alternatively, if you click on full article, you will be able to read the text along with the graphs.

Monitoring Visits

How frequently can IPs expect to be monitored and does it differ much depending on their authorising body?

The Principles for Monitoring set out a standard of once every three years, although this can stretch to up to six yearly provided there are satisfactory risk assessment processes. The stated policy of most RPBs is to make 3-yearly visits to their IPs. But what is it in reality and how has it changed over time? Take a look at graph (i) here.

This graph shows that last year all RPBs fell short of visiting one third of their IPs. However, the Secretary of State fell disastrously short, visiting only 8% of their IPs last year. I appreciate that the Secretary of State expects to relinquish all authorisations as a consequence of the Deregulation Bill, but this gives me the impression that they have given up already. Personally, I would expect the oversight regulator to set a better example!

Generally-speaking, all the RPBs are pretty-much in the same range, although the recent downward trend in monitoring visits for all of them is interesting; perhaps it illustrates that last year the RPBs’ monitoring teams’ time was diverted elsewhere. Fortunately, the longer term trend is still on the up.

What outcomes can be expected? The Insolvency Service reports detail the various sanctions ranging from recommendations for improvements to licence withdrawals. I have amalgamated the figures for all these sanctions for graph (ii) here.

Hmm… I’m not sure that helps much. How about comparing the sanctions to the number of IPs (graph (iii) here).

That’s not a lot better. Oh well.

Firstly, I notice that the IPA has bucked the recent downward trend of sanctions issued by all other licensing bodies, although the longer term trend for the bodies combined is remarkably steady. I thought it was a bit misleading for the Service report to state that “the only sanction available to the SoS is to withdraw an authorisation”, as that certainly hadn’t been the case in previous years: as this shows, in fact the SoS gave out proportionately more sanctions (mostly plans for improvements) than any of the RPBs in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Although ACCA and ICAS haven’t conducted a large number of visits (30 and 25 respectively in 2013), it is still a little surprising to see that their sanctions, like the SoS’, have dropped to nil.

However, the above graphs don’t include targeted visits. These are shown on graph (iv) here.

Ahh, so this is where those bodies’ efforts seem to be targeted. Even so, the SoS’ activities seem quite singular: are they using targeted visits as a way of compensating for the absence of power to impose other sanctions?

Complaints

The Insolvency Service’s report includes a graph illustrating that the number of complaints received has increased by 45% over the past three years, with 33% of that increase occurring over the past year. My first thought was that perhaps the Insolvency Service’s Complaints Gateway is admitting more complaints into the process, but the report had mentioned that 22% had been turned away, which I thought demonstrated that the Service’s filtering process was working reasonably well.

Therefore, I decided to look at the longer term trend (note that the number of IPs has crept up pretty insignificantly over these six years: a minimum of 1,275 in 2008 and a maximum of 1,355 in 2014). Take a look at graph (v) here.

So the current level of complaints isn’t unprecedented, although why they should be so high at present (or indeed in 2008), I’m not sure. It also appears from this that the IPA has more than its fair share, although the number of IPA-licensed IPs has been growing also. Let’s look at the spread of complaints over the authorising bodies when compared with their share of IPs (graph (vi) here).

Interesting, don’t you think? SoS IPs have consistently recorded proportionately more complaints. Given that the SoS has no power to sanction as a consequence of complaints, I wonder if this illustrates the deterrent value of sanctions. Of further interest is that the proportion of complaints against IPA-licensed IP has caught up with the SoS’ rate this last year – strange…

Moving on to complaints outcomes: how many complaints have resulted in a sanction and have the RPBs “performed” differently? Have a look at graph (vii) here.

At first glance, I thought that this peak reflected the fact that fewer complaints had been received – maybe the actual number of sanctions has remained constant? – so I thought I would look at the actual numbers (graph (viii) here).

Hmm… no, it really does look like the number of sanctions increased in years when fewer complaints were lodged. However, I’m sceptical of this apparent link, as I would suggest that, in view of the time it takes to get a complaint through the system, it may well be the case that the 2012/13 drop in sanctions flowed from the 2010/11 reduction in complaints lodged. I shall be interested to see if the number of sanctions pick up again in 2014.

Going back to the previous graph, personally I am reassured by the knowledge that in 2013 the RPBs generally reported a similar percentage of sanctions… well, at least closer than they were in 2010 when they ranged from 2% (ICAEW) to 38% (ICAS).

The ICAEW’s record of complaints sanctions seems to have kept to a consistently low level. However, let’s see what happens when we combine all sanctions – those arising from complaints and monitoring visits, as well as the ordering of targeted visits (graph (ix) here).

Hmm… that evens out some of the variation. Even the SoS now falls within the range! Of course, this doesn’t attribute any weights to the variety of sanctions, but I think it helps answer those who allege that some authorising bodies are a “lighter touch” than others, although I guess the sceptic could counter that by saying that this illustrates that IPs are still more than twice as likely to receive a sanction from the IPA than from ICAS. Ho hum.

Overview

To round things off, here is a summary of all the sanctions handed out by all the authorising bodies over the years (graph (x) here).

This suggests to me that targeted visits seem to have gone out of fashion, despite monitoring visits generally giving rise to more sanctions than complaints… but, with the hike in complaints lodged last year, perhaps I should not speak too soon.


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Who knew the Insolvency Service had a sense of humour?

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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!”


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Last Chance to Speak Up on Partial Licences

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In December, I reported on the current position of the Deregulation Bill (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-4Z) and the Parliamentary Committee’s irritation at the apparent lack of formal consultation on the Insolvency Service’s plan to introduce partial licences for insolvency practitioners to take on either only personal or only corporate insolvency appointments.

I am sure that most of you will have become aware of the Insolvency Service’s letter, dated 23 January, inviting comments on the draft Bill, with a deadline of 21 February (http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/news/news-stories/2014/Jan/Clause10).

Having exchanged views with my fellow R3 Smaller Practices Group Committee members, I had assumed that almost all IPs consider it essential to have the full spread of insolvency knowledge and preferably experience, so that they can react competently to whatever walks in through the door. Possible exceptions to this model would be the very few that really do live the life of a personal or corporate insolvency specialist, and it could be thought that even they may come a cropper when faced with an atypical client. I had assumed that the opinion of R3 vice-president, Giles Frampton (http://www.r3.org.uk/index.cfm?page=1114&element=19677), was pretty-much the norm, with others being even more vociferous, e.g. Frances Coulson’s “Don’t dumb down the profession” http://www.moonbeever.com/category-blog-entry/696-don-t-dumb-down-the-profession). However, other IPs on a Scottish Insolvency LinkedIn discussion seem to be far more in favour of the measure, seeing it as more realistic for the world we live in, so maybe it isn’t so black-and-white.

Given that Clause 10 is already in the Bill, which claims to be designed around the noble motive of reducing regulation, it is likely that those not in favour of the measure will need to generate quite a swell in order to turn the tide. Therefore, if you do feel strongly about this, I recommend that you make your views heard. You have just over two weeks!

The Insolvency Service’s View

The Insolvency Service’s letter highlights what they believe are three advantages of the change. They say it will:

• “reduce the barriers to entry to the IP market and thereby increase competition.

• “give rise to savings on training fees, which are likely to be of proportionally greater benefit to smaller firms of insolvency practitioners, including new entrants to the market

• “remove a burden from existing IPs who already choose to specialise in a particular area but are required to study areas that have little or no relevance to their work or benefit to their clients.”

“Reduce the barriers to entry to the IP market and thereby increase competition”

Personally, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the Service’s assumptions. I’m not in business as an appointment-taker and I only really witness the business end of insolvency from the side-lines. However, what I have seen in recent years are many more IPs and other insolvency professionals changing their LinkedIn profiles to “consultant” or “available”. I have also heard far more stories recently of cases being taken off the S98 floor and undercutting for MVLs than I have since the 1990s and I certainly don’t think that the IVA market is crying out for any fast-tracked personal insolvency specialists to compete for IPs’ meagre returns.

Does the profession really suffer from a lack of competition or is this an outdated view persisting from the OFT’s market study into corporate insolvency, which was generated from 2006 data when the world was a far different place?

“Give rise to savings on training fees, which are likely to be of proportionally greater benefit to smaller firms of insolvency practitioners, including new entrants to the market”

I assume that the Service’s thought-process is that there is likely to be a lower head-count of staff per IP in a smaller practice than in a large multi-national and therefore the smaller practice will gain a greater relative benefit from reduced training costs (on the assumption that it will cost less to train and qualify as a partial licence-holder).

However, has it not occurred to the Service that the smaller practice will have next to no use for a partial licence-holder? A key to most smaller practices’ success is that their doors are open to anyone in the locality in need of help whether they be individuals, business partners, or corporate entities. They are not regimented into “centres of excellence”, but have the breadth of knowledge and experience to deal with almost anything. Their case portfolios are, almost without exception, a mixture of corporate and personal insolvencies and usually their staff, some of whom will be the appointment-takers of the future, are exposed to a variety of insolvency types. Therefore, I cannot see why any smaller practice IP would want to take on a partial licence-holder or encourage their staff to study for such a licence.

The only profile of practice that might be a home for a partial licence-holder is the volume IVA provider or the corporate department of a large multi-national. Therefore, contrary to the Service’s view, I believe that the only beneficiaries of any reduced training fees may be large firms and that the corollary could be increased fees for those training for full licences, if demand for these drops, which would be felt disproportionately by smaller practices. This doesn’t sound like a sensible measure for a pro micro-business government to introduce.

“Remove a burden from existing IPs who already choose to specialise in a particular area but are required to study areas that have little or no relevance to their work or benefit to their clients”

This is an odd one?! Has the Insolvency Service not read its own Regulations regarding CPD for IPs authorised by the Secretary of State? Even they do not specify that CPD needs to cover the range of insolvencies; it is merely “any activities which relate to insolvency law or practice or the management of the practice of an insolvency practitioner” (IP Regs 2005) and I believe that most RPBs’ views of CPD/CPE are, in a nutshell, whatever would help the licence-holder practise better as an IP. Therefore, I cannot see that IPs at present are under any pressure to study areas that have little or no relevance to their work or benefit to their clients. Hence, I can see no advantage in providing partial licences and I very much doubt that any existing IPs will downgrade to a partial licence.

Consultation

There are many more arguments against partial licences, such as those described by Giles Frampton and Frances Coulson, and no doubt R3 will be responding loudly to the consultation.

I think it is very important that the smaller practices’ voices are heard, particularly as the Service has claimed support for its plan in the expected savings to be felt by this group. I would encourage you to respond to the consultation and to R3’s Smaller Practices Group’s imminent invitation to send in your views, so that you can contribute to R3’s own response.

(UPDATE 04/03/14: The ICAEW has submitted, in my view, a storming response to the consultation: http://www.icaew.com/~/media/Files/Technical/icaew-representations/2014/icaew-rep-36-14-partial-authorisation-of-insolvency-practitioners.pdf. It reads like a gentle sledgehammer, maintaining a sense of calm reason throughout. I particularly liked the reference to the Government’s recently-disclosed proposed objectives of insolvency regulation and how partial licences may act contrary to at least one of them. The ICAEW response is unequivocal in its conclusion: “We have received through our own consultation process no indications of support at all for the proposed partial qualification regime”.)