Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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Annual review: IPs, complaints and visits down, but sanctions up

The Insolvency Service’s 2016 Review of IP Regulation always makes for interesting reading. This year, the headlines include:

  • The number of IPs falls again
  • Regulatory sanctions generally increase and for one RPB in particular
  • Complaints handled by the RPBs drop by 28%… although 17% of all complaints seem to be held in the Gateway
  • Apparent missing of the mark for 3-yearly visits
  • Current regulatory priorities include IVAs and fees, whereas routine monitoring appears less popular

The report can be found at https://goo.gl/Jkwz19.

 

IP number falls again

The Review reveals another drop in the number of appointment-taking IPs. In fact, there was the same number on 1 January 2017 as there was on the same day in 2009: 1,303.

Is it a surprise that the number of appointment-taking IPs has dropped again? The 2016 insolvency statistics show modest increases in the numbers of CVLs and IVAs compared with 2015 and of course there was a bumper crop of MVLs in early 2016. Why is it that fewer IPs seem to be responsible for more cases?

My hunch is that the complexity of cases in general is decreasing and I suspect that the additional hurdles put in place as regards fees have encouraged IPs to look at efficiencies, to create slicker processes, and to be more risk-averse, less inclined to go out on a limb with the result that some cases are despatched more swiftly and require less IP input.

I also suspect the IP number for next January will show another drop. The expense and effort to adapt to the 2016 Rules will make some think again, won’t it?

Does the presence of the regulators breathing down one’s neck erode IPs’ keenness to remain in the profession? How worried should IPs be about the risk of a regulatory sanction?

 

Regulatory actions on the increase

The RPBs seem to have shown varying degrees of enthusiasm when it comes to taking regulatory action.

To me, this hints at regulatory scrutiny of a different kind. Is it coincidental that the ACCA issued proportionately far more sanctions than any other RPB last year? Could the Insolvency Service’s repeated monitoring visits to the ACCA over 2015 and 2016 have had anything to do with this spike?

What are behind these sanctions? Are they generated from the RPBs’ monitoring visits or from complaints?

 

Monitoring v complaints sanctions return to normality

Last year, I observed that for the first time RPBs’ investigations into complaints had generated more sanctions than their monitoring visits. Regulatory actions in 2016 returned to a more typical pattern.

Does this reflect a shifting RPB behaviour or is it more a result of the number of complaints received and/or the number of monitoring visits undertaken?

 

Dramatic fall in complaints

Well, no wonder there were fewer disciplinary actions on the back of complaints: the RPBs received 28% fewer complaints in 2016 than they did in 2015.

Why is this? Is it because fewer complaints were made? Undoubtedly, IVAs have generated a flood of complaints in recent years not least because of the issues surrounding ownership of PPI claims, but those issues were still live in 2016, weren’t they?

Perhaps we can explore this by looking at the complaint profile by case type:

Yes, it looks like IVAs continued to be contentious last year, although perhaps the worst is over. It seems, however, that the most significant drop has been felt in complaints relating to bankruptcies and liquidations. The reduction in bankruptcy complaints is understandable, as the numbers of bankruptcies have dropped enormously over the past few years, but liquidation numbers have kept reasonably steady, so I am not sure what is going on there.

But are fewer people really complaining or is there something else behind these figures?

 

An effective Complaints Gateway sift?

When the Complaints Gateway was set up in 2014, it was acknowledged that the Insolvency Service would ensure that complaints met some simple criteria before they were referred to the RPBs. There must be an indication of a breach of legislation, SIP or the Code of Ethics and the allegations should be capable of being supported with evidence. Where this is not immediately apparent, the Service seeks additional information from the complainant.

The graphs above are based on the complaints referred to the RPBs, so what is the picture as regards complaints received before the sifting process occurs?

This shows that the Complaints Gateway sifted out more complaints last year: the percentage rejected rose from 25% in 2014, to 27% in 2015, to 29% in 2016.

The Insolvency Service’s review explains that in 2016 a new criterion was added: “Complainants are now required in the vast majority of cases to have raised the matter of concern with the insolvency practitioner in the first instance before the complaint will be considered by the Gateway”. This is a welcome development, but it did not affect the numbers much: it resulted in only 13 complaints being turned away for this reason.

But this rejected pile is not the whole story. The graph also demonstrates that a significant number of complaints – 144 (17%) – were neither rejected nor referred last year, which is a much larger proportion than previous years.   Presumably these complaints are being held pending further exchanges between the Service and the complainant. Personally, I am comforted by this demonstration of the Service’s diligence in managing the Gateway, but I hope that this does not hint at a system that is beginning to get snarled up.

 

How many complaints led to sanctions?

When I looked at the Insolvency Service’s review last year, I noted that the IPA’s sanctions record appeared out of kilter to the other RPBs. It is interesting to note that 2016 appears to have been a more “normal” year for the IPA, but instead the ACCA seems to have had an exceptional year. As mentioned above, I wonder if the Insolvency Service’s focus on the ACCA has had anything to do with this unusual activity (I appreciate that 2010 was another exceptional year… and I wonder if the fact that 2010 was the year that the Insolvency Service got heavy with its SIP16-reviewing exercise had anything to do with that particular flurry).

The obvious conclusion to draw from this graph might be that an ACCA-licensed IP has a 1 in 3 chance that any complaint will result in a sanction. However, perhaps these IPs can rest a little easier, given that the ACCA’s complaints-handling is now being dealt with by the IPA.

What about sanctions arising from monitoring visits? How do the RPBs compare on that front?

 

All but one RPB reported an increase in monitoring sanctions

These percentages look rather spectacular, don’t they? It gives the impression that on average almost one third of all monitoring visits result in some kind of negative outcome… and it appears that 90% of all the CAI’s monitoring visits gave rise to a negative outcome! Well, not quite. It is likely that some monitoring visits led to more than one black mark, say a plan for improvement and a targeted visit to review how those plans had been implemented.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that almost all RPBs recorded increases in the number of negative outcomes from monitoring visits over the previous year. I am not sure why the IPA seems to have bucked the trend. It will be interesting to see how the populations of ACCA and IPA-licensed IPs fare this year, as they are now being monitored and judged by the same teams and Committees.

 

How frequently are visits being undertaken?

The Principles for Monitoring, which forms part of a memorandum of understanding (“MoU”) between the Insolvency Service and the RPBs, state that the period between monitoring visits “is not expected to significantly exceed three years but may, where satisfactory risk assessment measures are employed, extend to a period not exceeding six years”. However, most if not all the RPBs publicise that their monitoring programmes are generally on a 3-yearly cycle.

The following graph shows that the RPBs are not quite meeting this timescale:

If we look at each RPB’s visits for the past 3 years as a percentage of their appointment-taking licence-holders, how far off the 100% mark were they..?

ICAEW’s missing of the mark is not surprising, given that they publicise that their IPs in the larger practices are on 6-year cycles. At the other end of the spectrum is the ACCA, which managed to visit all their IPs over the past 3 years and then some. However, as we know, the ACCA has relinquished its monitoring function to the IPA, so it seems unlikely that this will continue.

 

What is the future for monitoring visits?

The Insolvency Service’s 2015 review hinted that the days of the MoU may have been numbered. Their 2016 review strengthens this message:

“We propose to withdraw the MoU as soon as is reasonably feasible, subject to working through some final details”.

The review goes on to explain that the Service will be adding to their existing guidance (https://goo.gl/wDHElg). As it currently stands, prescriptive requirements such as the frequency of monitoring visits is conspicuously absent from this guidance. Instead, it is largely outcomes-based and reflects the Regulator’s Code to which the Insolvency Service itself is subject and that emphasises the targeting of monitoring resources where they should be most effective at addressing priority risks. The Service itself seems to be lightening up on its own monitoring visits: the review states that, having completed their round of full monitoring visits to the RPBs, they are now moving towards a number of risk based themed reviews. If this approach filters through to the RPBs’ monitoring visits, will we see a removal of the 3-yearly standard cycle?

 

Current priorities for the regulators

Does the 2016 review reveal any priorities for this year?

Not unsurprisingly, given one particularly high profile failure, IVAs feature heavily. The review refers to “general concerns around the volume IVA business model and developments in practice” and continues:

“The Insolvency Service is working with the profession to tackle some of these concerns; for example, through changes to guidance on monitoring and protections for client funds, and also a review of insurance arrangements. We are also engaging with stakeholder groups to better understand their concerns and how these may be tackled. We expect that this will be a key focus of our work for the coming year.”

Other projects mentioned in the review include:

  • Possible legislative changes to the bonding regime – consultation later this year;
  • Progression of the Insolvency Service’s recommendation that the RPBs introduce a compensation mechanism for complainants who have suffered inconvenience, loss or distress;
  • Publication of the Insolvency Service’s review into the RPBs’ monitoring and regulation processes, including consistency of outcomes, the extent of independence between the membership and regulatory functions, and the RPBs’ financial capabilities – report to be released within 12 months;
  • Progress on a review into the RPBs’ approach to the regulatory objective to encourage a profession which delivers services at a fair and reasonable cost, including how they are assessing compliance with the Oct-15 fee estimate regime – report to be released by the end of the year; and
  • A consultation on revisions to the Code of Ethics – expected in the spring.

 


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Is the IP regulation system fair?

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The Insolvency Service’s 2015 review of IP regulation was released in March and, as usual, I’ve dug around the statistics in comparison with previous years.

They indicate that complaint sanctions have increased (despite complaint numbers dropping), but monitoring sanctions have fallen. Why is this?  And why was one RPB alone responsible for 93% of all complaints sanctions?

The Insolvency Service’s report can be found at https://goo.gl/HlATlf.

I honestly had no idea that the R3 member survey issued earlier today was going to ask about the effectiveness of the regulatory system. I would encourage R3 members to respond to the survey (but don’t let this blog post influence you!).

IP number falls to 6-year low

I guess it was inevitable: no IP welcomes the hassle of switching authorising body and word on the street has always been that being authorised by the SoS is a far different experience to being licensed by an RPB. Therefore, I think that the withdrawal from authorising by the SoS (even with a run-off period) courtesy of the Deregulation Act 2015 and the Law Societies was likely to affect the IP numbers.

Here is how the landscape has shifted:

Graph1

As you can see, the remaining RPBs have not gained all that the SoS and Law Societies have lost and ACCA’s and CARB’s numbers have dropped since last year. It is also a shame to note that, not only has the IP number fallen for the first time in 4 years, it has also dropped to below the 2010 total.

Personally, I expect the number to drop further during 2016: I am sure that the prospect of having to adapt to the new Insolvency Rules 2016 along with the enduring fatigue of struggling to get in new (fee-paying) work and of taking the continual flak from regulators and government will persuade some to hang up their boots. I also don’t see that the industry is attracting sufficient new joiners who are willing and able to take up the responsibility, regardless of the government’s partial licence initiative that has finally got off the ground.

Maybe this next graph will make us feel a bit better…

Number of regulatory sanctions fall

Graph2

Although the numbers are spiky, I guess there is some comfort to be had in seeing that the regulatory bodies issued fewer sanctions against IPs in 2015. [To try to put 2010’s numbers into context, you’ll remember that 1 January 2009 was the start of the Insolvency Service’s monitoring of the revised SIP16, which led to a number of referrals to the RPBs, although I cannot be certain that this was behind the unusual 2010 peak in sanctions.]

But what interests me is that the number of sanctions in 2015 arising from complaints far outstripped those arising from monitoring visits, which seems quite a departure from the picture of previous years. What is behind this?  Is it simply a consequence of our growing complaint-focussed society?

Complaints on the decrease

Graph3

Well actually, as you can see here, it seems that fewer complaints were registered last year… by quite a margin.

I confess that some of these years are not like-for-like comparisons: before the Complaints Gateway, the RPBs were responsible for reporting to the Insolvency Service how many complaints they had received and it is very likely that they incorporated some kind of filter – as the Service does – to deal with communications received that were not truly complaints. However, it cannot be said for certain that the RPBs’ pre-Gateway filters worked in the same way as the Service’s does now.  Nevertheless, what this graph does show is that 2015’s complaints referred to the regulatory bodies were less than 2014’s (which was c.half a Gateway year – the “Gateway (adj.)” column represents a pro rata’d full 12 months of Gateway operation based on the partial 2014 Gateway number).

It is also noteworthy that the Insolvency Service is chalking up a similar year-on-year percentage of complaints filtered out: in 2014, this ran at 24.5% of the complaints received, and in 2015, it was 26.5%.

So, if there were fewer complaints lodged, then why have complaints sanctions increased?

How long does it take to process complaints?

The correlation between complaints lodged and complaint sanctions is an interesting one:

Graph4

Is it too great a stretch of the imagination to suggest that complaint sanctions take somewhere around 2 years to emerge? I suggest this because, as you can see, the 2010/11 sanction peak coincided with a complaints-lodged trough and the 2013 sanctions trough coincided with a complaints lodged peak – the pattern seems to show a 2-year shift, doesn’t it..?

I am conscious, however, that this could simply be a coincidence: why should sanctions form a constant percentage of all complaints?  Perhaps the sanctions simply have formed a bit of a random cluster in otherwise quiet years.

Could there be another reason for the increased complaints sanctions in 2015?

One RPB breaks away from the pack

Graph5

How strange! Why has the IPA issued so many complaints sanctions when compared with the other RPBs?

I have heard more than one IP suggest that the IPA licenses more than its fair share of IPs who fall short of acceptable standards of practice. Personally, I don’t buy this.  Also more sanctions don’t necessarily mean there are more sanctionable offences going on.  It reminds me of the debates that often surround the statistics on crime: does an increase in convictions mean that there are more crimes being committed or does it mean that the police are getting better at dealing with them?

Nevertheless, the suggestion that the IPA’s licensed population is different might help explain the IPA peak in sanctions, mightn’t it? To test this out, perhaps we should compare the number of complaints received by each RPB.

Graph6

Ok, so yes, IPA-licensed IPs have received more complaints than other RPBs (although SoS-authorised IPs came out on top again this past year).  If the complaints were shared evenly, then 58% of all IPA-licensed IPs would have received a complaint last year, compared to only 43% of those licensed by the other three largest RPBs.  I hasten to add that, personally, I don’t think this indicates differing standards of practice depending on an IP’s licensing body: it could indicate that IPA-licensed (and perhaps also SoS-authorised) IPs work in a more complaints-heavy environment, as I mention further below.

Nevertheless, let’s see how these complaints-received numbers would flow through to sanctions, if there were a direct correlation. For simplicity’s sake, I will assume that a complaint lodged in 2013 concluded in 2015 – although I think this is highly unlikely to be the average, I think it could well be so for the tricky complaints that lead to sanctions.  This would mean that, across all the RPBs (excluding the Insolvency Service, which has no power to sanction SoS-authorised IPs in respect of complaints), 12% of all complaints led to sanctions.  On this basis, the IPA might be expected to issue 36 complaint-led sanctions, so this doesn’t get us much closer to explaining the 76 sanctions issued by the IPA.

I can suggest some factors that might be behind the increase in the number of complaints sanctions granted by the IPA:

  • The IPA licenses the majority of IVA-specialising IPs, which do seem to have attracted more than the average number of sanctions: last year, two IPs alone were issued with seven reprimands for IVA/debtor issues.
  • The IPA’s process is that matters identified on a monitoring visit that are considered worthy of disciplinary action are passed from the Membership & Authorisation Committee to the Investigation Committee as internal complaints. Therefore, I think this may lead to some IPA “complaint” sanctions actually originating from monitoring visits. However, analysis of the sanctions arising from monitoring visits (which I will cover in another blog) indicates that the IPA sits in the middle of the RPB pack, so it doesn’t look like this is a material factor.
  • Connected to the above, the IPA’s policy is that any incidence of unauthorised remuneration spotted on monitoring visits is referred to the Investigation Committee for consideration for disciplinary action. Given that it seems that such incidences include failures that have already been rectified (as explained in the IPA’s September 2015 newsletter) and that unauthorised remuneration can arise from a vast range of seemingly inconspicuous technical faults, I would not be surprised if this practice were to result in more than a few unpublished warnings and undertakings.

But this cannot be the whole story, can it? The IPA issued 93% of all complaints sanctions last year, despite only licensing 35% of all appointment-takers.  The previous year followed a similar pattern: the IPA issued 82% of all complaints sanctions.

To put it another way, over the past two years the IPA issued 111 complaints sanctions, whilst all the other RPBs put together issued only 14 sanctions.

What is going on? It is difficult to tell from the outside, because the vast majority of the sanctions are not published.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about that.  If the sanctions were evenly-spread, I could not believe that c.16% of all IPA-licensed IPs conducted themselves so improperly that they merited the punitive publicity that .gov.uk metes out on IPs (what other individual professionals are flogged so publicly?!).

The Regulators’ objective to ensure fairness

This incongruence, however, makes me question the fairness of the RPBs’ processes.  It cannot be fair for IPs to endure different treatment depending on their licensing body.

You might say: what’s the damage, when the majority of sanctions went unpublished? I have witnessed the anguish that IPs go through when a disciplinary committee is considering their case, especially if that process takes years to conclude.  It lingered like a Damocles Sword over many of my conversations with the IPs.  The apparent disparity in treatment also does not help those (myself included) that argue that a multiple regulator system can work well.

One of the new regulatory objectives introduced by the Small Business Enterprise & Employment Act 2015 was to secure “fair treatment for persons affected by [IPs’] acts and omissions”, but what about fair treatment for IPs?  In addition, isn’t it possible that any unfair treatment on IPs will trickle down to those affected by their acts and omissions?

The Insolvency Service has sight of all the RPBs’ activities and conducts monitoring visits on them regularly. Therefore, it seems to me that the Service is best placed to explore what’s going on and to ensure that the RPBs’ processes achieve consistent and fair outcomes.

 

In my next blog, I will examine the Service’s monitoring of the RPBs as well as take a closer look at the 2015 statistics on the RPBs’ monitoring of IPs.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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SIP1: must you make a formal complaint?

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Sorry for the long silence. SIP9/fees have ruled my life for the past few months and I’ll share my thoughts on those when the fog has cleared.  In the meantime, I thought I’d catch up on something far less controversial (you’d think!): SIP1’s requirement to “report” IPs to the Complaints Gateway or to the RPB.  Does this mean that reports will be handled as full-blown complaints or is there another way?

Why shouldn’t all reports be handled as formal complaints? 

Well, imagine you are a licensed IP working for other licensed IPs. Maybe you’re in that boat now.  Maybe you’re in a firm’s compliance department.  Maybe you’re a case manager.  Say you become uncomfortable about something you’ve seen, something that you think triggers the SIP1 reporting requirement.  Should you to report it via the Insolvency Service’s Complaints Gateway?

What would happen next? Would the RPB write to the IP providing a copy of the report?  The IPA’s complaints procedure, for example, states that this is done in all complaint cases.

Clearly, this is unhelpful. But does elevating the need to report concerns to a SIP requirement rule out any alternative to lodging a formal complaint?

Does SIP1 allow IPs to discharge their reporting duty by whistle-blowing to the RPB?

SIP1 states:

“An insolvency practitioner who becomes aware of any insolvency practitioner who they consider is not complying or who has not complied with the relevant laws and regulations and whose actions discredit the profession, should report that insolvency practitioner to the complaints gateway operated by the Insolvency Service or to that insolvency practitioner’s recognised professional body.”

This appears to give IPs a choice: either they may lodge a (formal) complaint via the Gateway or they can report to the IP’s RPB.

What is the destiny of a “report” to the RPB?

The MoU between the Insolvency Service and the RPBs (https://goo.gl/ICqHEo) suggests that there is no practical distinction.  It defines a complaint as “a communication about a person authorised as an insolvency practitioner expressing dissatisfaction with that person’s conduct as it relates to his or her professional work as an insolvency practitioner in Great Britain, or with the conduct of others carrying out such work on that person’s behalf.”  The MoU then states: “Each Recognised Professional Body will forward to the Authority any Complaint received by it within five Working Days of receipt” and then the Authority, the Insolvency Service, will process the Complaint in the usual manner.

So this would appear to complete the circle. It appears that however an IP seeks to report a matter, it is going to be handled as a complaint sooner or later.

Is there no way to whistle-blow to a regulatory body?

So it seems that all reports will end up in the Complaints Gateway. This seems wrong, doesn’t it?  After all, the Insolvency Service is a “prescribed person” for the purposes of whistle-blowing about misconduct in companies generally (https://goo.gl/cIkGL4).  It doesn’t make sense to leave those working within the insolvency profession with nowhere to turn.

Surely the Service appreciates that IPs (and others employed by IPs) might want to use a far more discreet method than a formal complaint to bring their concerns to the attention of the regulatory bodies. I certainly hope that the Service would not look to enforce this aspect of the MoU against the RPBs.  We must be able to trust our regulatory bodies to act sensibly when dealing with such sensitive situations.

To be honest, I haven’t asked anyone at the Service for comments. However, I have sought the views of some within the RPBs.

The IPA’s view

Alison Curry gave me this answer:

“If the practitioner is reporting regulatory intelligence, in discharge of their SIP 1 obligations (and their membership rules, as the case may be) then they may do so to the RPB of the practitioner reported upon.  In such an instance, presumably, they could maintain anonymity if they chose, but could not be expected to be appraised of an outcome (i.e. they would not be a complainant in the formal sense). Presumably then the RPB will have a process by which that intelligence is fed into their monitoring processes. We certainly do and expect the IS to be monitoring that others do also.”

Alison also pointed out that, as information may end up in the monitoring stream, it could result in a referral to the Investigation Committee (which deals with complaints). However, this would be a referral from the Membership & Authorisation Committee (which deals with monitoring), so I think the whistle-blower’s identity would be unlikely to feature in the “complaint” referral, as the chances are that the IPA’s monitoring team will have gathered their own evidence in order for the M&A Committee to consider the issue in the first place.

ICAS’ view

David Menzies gave me this answer:

“You will be aware that the normal complaint procedures as agreed by the IS and the RPBs are that complaints should be made through the Complaints Gateway. RPBs also receive regulatory intelligence and it is possible that information relating to an IP’s misconduct could also be received by the RPB in that manner. In reality whether information is submitted through the complaints gateway or via an RPB is not critical, the important aspect being that the information is transmitted in the first place…

“The issue of the reporter’s identity being disclosed is of course something that no guarantees can ever be given on. If matters eventually proceeded to a disciplinary tribunal then certain documents would have to be put before the tribunal and that would most likely include correspondence with the complainer. There is also the possibility that if the IP who was being complained against submitted a subject access request under Data Protection legislation then it may be difficult to justify not disclosing the correspondence containing the complaint. There may well be circumstances where we can withhold a complainant’s identity but I think that this would need to be looked at on a case by case basis.”

The Other RPBs

I won’t quote my ACCA contact here, as it wasn’t an “official” response. Nevertheless, I did learn that ACCA’s monitoring team receives intelligence – from IPs as well as the other RPBs – and this is similarly absorbed into its monitoring processes, rather than put through the formal complaints process where the discloser doesn’t wish to lodge a formal complaint.

I suspect also that this is the case with the ICAEW and, to be fair to them, they were hoping to revert to me with a consensus view once this matter had been discussed at the Regulators’ Forum a couple of months’ ago. I expect that the demands of other SIP revisions have overtaken the publication of any guidance on this matter.

So whistle-blowing to the IP’s RPB can count as SIP1 compliance?

From the comments I have received, it would seem so. It also seems to me that the RPBs would not treat it as a formal complaint and thus pass it to the Insolvency Service for processing via the Gateway.  Confidential intelligence-delivery worked within RPBs before the revised SIP1.  The revision certainly was not intended to close any doors that were previously open.

What about your duty under your RPB’s Membership Rules?

Within all the RPBs’ membership rules/regulations, there is an obligation to report the misconduct of another member. The purpose of the revised SIP1 was to expand this obligation so that, in effect, the same rules apply whether the offending IP is a member of your RPB or not.

However, this means that, technically, if you have lodged a complaint via the Insolvency Service’s Gateway, you may need to report the matter also to your RPB so that you comply with its membership rules. This does seem a bit of unnecessary duplication, however, and I would hope that an IP would not be beaten about the head for complaining only to the Gateway.

What acts should be reported?

As quoted above, SIP1 sets out two criteria:

  • non-compliance with “the relevant laws and regulations” AND
  • actions that discredit the profession.

I am pleased to see that, at least with the IPA, its rules have been amended in the past few months clearly to bring them in line with the revised SIP1. Previously, their rules had stated “misconduct” needed to be reported, which could have constituted simply a breach of a SIP, statutory provision or the Ethics Code.  Now, the IPA has also imported reference to discrediting the profession (although also, interestingly, discredit to either the member, the IPA, or any other member) as a must-have in order to trigger the reporting requirement.

What actions discredit the profession? Actions at the far end of the spectrum will be blindingly obvious, but I reckon there is a huge swathe of greyness where subjectivity reigns.  To be fair though, we have always lived with this issue.  The revised SIP1 wasn’t meant to make our lives more difficult – I don’t think so anyway – but rather to emphasise our personal responsibility to keep our profession clean.  With this objective in mind, I have no complaints about the revised SIP1.


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Ethics hits the headlines again: should we be worried?

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The big story of last week was the disciplinary sanction ordered to an EY IP for breaches of the Ethics Code.  But I think this is just one more straw on the camel’s back.  Every new criticism of apparent poor ethical standards that is added to the pile increases the risk of a regulatory reaction that would be counter-productive to the effective and ethical work of the majority.

 

Journalistic fog

Plenty has been said about the “noise” around pre-packs.  Therefore, I was not entirely surprised – but I was disappointed and frustrated – to read that the latest sanction had been twisted to fit one journalist’s evident attempt to keep shouting: “It was the classic cosy insolvency I wrote about last month: a company calls in insolvency advisers who conduct an ‘independent business review’, take the job of administrator and act on the sale as well.  On Wind Hellas, the creditors could not see how Ernst & Young could take both appointments without compromising their integrity. Six-and-a-half years later, the professional body has at last agreed with them.” (http://goo.gl/aIY9rU)

Actually, a look at the ICAEW notice (https://goo.gl/H7jUov) suggests that they did nothing of the sort.  The relationship that got the IP into hot water related to the fact that an associated company, Ernst & Young Societe Anonyme, had carried on audit related work during the three years before the IP took the appointment as Joint Administrator of the company.

It is unfortunate that a failure to join the ethical dots between a potential insolvency appointment and the firm’s audit-related connection with the company has been used to pick at the pre-pack wound that we might have hoped was on the way to being healed.

 

Speed of complaints-handling

Is the journalist’s reference to 6½ years another distortion of the facts?  I was surprised to read an article in the Telegraph from February 2011 (http://goo.gl/8902YO).  Apparently, the ICAEW’s investigation manager wrote to the IP way back then, saying that “the threat to Ms Mills’ objectivity ‘should have caused you to decline, or resign, from that appointment’”.  Given that that conclusion had been drawn back in 2011, it does seem odd that it took a further four years for the ICAEW to issue the reprimand (plus a fine of £250,000 to the firm and £15,000 to the IP).  Perhaps the recouping of £95,000 of costs is some indication of why it took four years to conclude.

I found it a little surprising to read in the Insolvency Service’s monitoring report in June 2015 (https://goo.gl/Lm5vdU) that the Service considers the that ICAEW operates a “strong control environment” for handling complaints, although it did refer to some “relatively isolated and historical incidents” as regards delays in complaint-processing (well, they would be historic, wouldn’t they?). In addition, in its 2014 annual review (https://goo.gl/MZHeHK), the Service reported that two of the other RPBs evidenced “significant delays” in the progression of three complaints referred to the Service.

Although I do understand the complexities and the need for due process, I do worry that the regulators risk looking impotent if they are not seen to deal swiftly with complaints.  I also know that not a few IPs are frustrated and saddened by the length of time it takes for complaints to be closed, whilst in the meantime they live under a Damocles Sword.

 

Ethics Code under review

In each of the Insolvency Service’s annual reviews for the last three years (maybe longer, I didn’t care to check), the Service has highlighted ethical issues – and conflicts of interest in particular – as one of its focal points for the future.  In its latest review, it mentions participating in “a JIC working group that has been formed to consider amendments to the Code”.

Ethical issues still feature heavily in the complaints statistics… although they have fallen from 35% of all complaints in 2013 to 21% in 2014 (SIP3 and communication breakdown/failure accounted for the largest proportions at 27% apiece).  Almost one third of the 2014 ethics-based complaints related to conflicts of interest.

The Service still continues to receive high profile complaints of this nature: its review refers to the Comet complaint, which appears to be as much about the “potential conflict of interest” in relation to the pre-administration advice to the company and connected parties and the subsequent appointment as it has to do with apparent insufficient redundancy consultation.

I suspect that the question of how much pre-appointment work is too much will be one of the debates for the JIC working group.  Personally, I think that the current Ethics Code raises sufficient questions probing the significance of prior relationships to help IPs work this out for themselves… but this does require IPs to step away and reflect dispassionately on the facts as well as try to put themselves in the shoes of “a reasonable and informed third party, having knowledge of all relevant information” to discern whether they would conclude the threat to objectivity to be acceptable.

It is evident that there exists a swell of opinion outside the profession that any pre-appointment work is too much.  Thus, at the very least, perhaps more can be done to help people understand the necessary work that an IP does prior to a formal appointment and how this work takes full account of the future office-holder’s responsibilities and concerns.  Are Administrators’ Proposals doing this part of the job justice?

 

Criticisms of Disciplinary Sanctions

Taking centre stage in the Insolvency Service’s 2014 review are the Service’s plans “to ensure that the sanctions applied where misconduct is identified are consistent and sufficient, not only to deal with that misconduct, but also to provide reassurance to the wider public”.

Regrettably, the body of the review does not elaborate on this subject except to explain the plan to “attempt to create a common panel [of reviewers for complaints] across all of the authorising bodies”.  I am sure the Service is pleased to be able to line up for next year’s review that, with the departure of the Law Society/SRA from IP-licensing, the Complaints Gateway will cover all but one appointment-taking IP across the whole of the UK.

But these are just cosmetic changes, aren’t they?  Has there been any real progress in improving consistency across the RPBs?  It is perhaps too early to judge: the Common Sanctions Guidance and all that went with it were rolled out only in June 2013.  Over 2014, there were only 19 sanctions (excluding warnings and cautions) and seven have been published on the .gov.uk website (https://goo.gl/F3PaHj) this year.

A closer look at 2014’s sanctions hints at what might be behind the Service’s comment: 15 of the 19 sanctions were delivered by the IPA; and 20 of the 24 warnings/cautions were from the IPA too.  To license 34% of all appointment-taking IPs but to be responsible for over 80% of all sanctions: something has got to be wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?

The ICAEW has aired its own opinion on the Common Sanctions Guidance: its response to the Insolvency Service’s recommendation from its monitoring visit that the ICAEW “should ensure that sanctions relating to insolvency matters are applied in line with the Common Sanctions Guidelines” was to state amongst other things that the Guidance should be subject to a further review (cheeky?!).

 

Other Rumbles of Discontent

All this “noise” reminded me of the House of Commons’ (then) BIS Select Committee inquiry into insolvency that received oral evidence in March 2015 (http://goo.gl/CCmfQp).  There were some telling questions regarding the risks of conflicts of interest arising from pre-appointment work, although most of them were directed at Julian Healy, NARA’s chief executive officer.  Interestingly, the Select Committee also appeared alarmed to learn that not all fixed charge receivers are Registered Property Receivers under the RICS/IPA scheme.  Although it seems contrary to the de-regulation agenda, I would not be surprised to see some future pressure for mandatory regulation of all fixed charge receivers.

The source of potential conflicts that concerned the Select Committee was the seconding of IPs and staff to banks.  I thought that the witnesses side-stepped the issue quite adeptly by saying in effect, of course the IP/receiver who takes the appointment would never be the same IP/receiver who was sitting in the bank’s offices; that would be clearly unacceptable!  It was a shame that the Committee seemed to accept this simple explanation.  But then perhaps, when it comes to secondments, the primary issue is more about the ethical risk of exchanging consideration for insolvency appointments, rather than the risk that a seconded IP/staff member would influence events on a particular case to their firm’s advantage.

Bob Pinder, ICAEW, told the Committee: “It used to be quite prevalent that there were secondments, but he [a Big Four partner] was saying that that is becoming less so these days because of the perception of conflict… There is a stepping away from secondments generally”, so I wonder whether there might not be so much resistance now if the JIC were to look more closely at the subject of secondments when reconsidering the Ethics Code.

The FCA’s review of RBS’ Global Restructuring Group, which was prompted by the Tomlinson report (and which clearly was behind much of the Committee’s excitement), is expected to be released this summer (http://goo.gl/l96vtl).  When it does, I can see us reeling from a new/revived set of criticisms – one more straw for the camel’s back.


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The Value of RPB Roadshows: Forewarned is Forearmed

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Having just returned from a fantastic trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, I have yet to catch up on domestic news, so I thought I’d plug the silence gap with some tips that I picked up from the RPBs’ autumn roadshows.

Ethical issues featured heavily at the ICAEW roadshow, whilst the IPA roadshow raised some controversial Administration points, and both RPBs had much to say about handling complaints in the wake of the Insolvency Service’s Complaints Gateway.

Ethical Issues (ICAEW Roadshow, Birmingham, 9 October 2014)

Allison Broad of the ICAEW described the following ethical dos and don’ts:

• In order to identify any prior relationships before deciding whether to take an appointment, do not rely solely on the company director signing off confirmation that s/he is not aware of any conflicts/relationships; internal checks are still required.

• Ensure that relationships are evaluated, not merely identified. Allison gave the example of an IP who had noted on his ethics checklist that the director of the prospective appointment had been a director of eight other companies that had gone insolvent with the IP acting, but the checklist evidenced no evaluation of the threat to the ethical principles that these prior relationships presented. Personally, I have also seen cases – although not quite as striking as this – where a prior relationship existed but it was not noted on the ethics checklist. Even though an IP may have concluded that a relationship is not sufficiently significant to require the introduction of safeguards or to raise concerns about the appropriateness of taking the appointment, files should disclose the relationship and evidence the IP’s consideration of its significance. In my view, failure to do so, not only could constitute a breach of the Ethics Code (paragraphs 74 and 75), but is also bound to raise suspicions that checklists are completed on auto-pilot and insufficient thought is given to ethics matters.

• Ensure that the IP signs off the ethics checklist, if not before the appointment, then as close to it as possible in order to demonstrate that consideration of ethical matters had been considered before appointment.

• Keep ethical threats under review throughout the life of the case, e.g. by including on case reviews a question – not a simple tick-box – as regards how any safeguards employed to manage a threat have been working.

• Review regular introducers’ websites prior to taking the first appointment from those sources and regularly thereafter, as website contents are frequently refreshed. Allison acknowledged that pre-packs and phoenix services may be covered on websites, but she urged caution when dealing with introducers who position these items at the top of their lists or prominently.

• If an IP feels that the quality of an introducer’s advice to directors/debtors is below par, it is not sufficient to allow the relationship to continue on the basis that at least the IP can ensure that s/he provides good advice. The ICAEW expects IPs to write to the introducer with any concerns and ask that changes be made to their websites and practices. They would then expect IPs to check whether these had been actioned and, if the introducer does not do so, the IPs should terminate the introduction relationship.

Administration Technicalities (IPA Roadshow, London, 22 October 2014)

Caroline Sumner of the IPA highlighted several issues identified on monitoring visits.  However, I think I must have been in a particularly argumentative mood on the day, as my notes are fairly scant on Caroline’s comments about SIP16, SIP13, and the new SIPs 3 – from memory, I think that none of this was rocket science; Caroline just highlighted the need to get them right – but I went to town on some other points she made:

  • Caroline described the Insolvency Service’s view that Administrators’ Proposals should describe only one of the Para 3 administration objectives that the Administrators propose to achieve.

I have a problem with this: firstly, in what respect is this reflected by the statutory requirements?  R2.33(2)(m) requires Proposals to include “a statement of how it is envisaged the purpose of administration will be achieved”.  An old Dear IP (chapter 1, article 5) referred to this and also to Para 111(1) of Schedule B1, which states “’the purpose of administration’ means an objective specified in paragraph 3”, leading to the Service’s conclusion that “administrators should not simply include all three objectives with no attempt to identify which is the relevant objective”.  That’s all well and good – and I think that IPs have moved away from many early-style Proposals, which did reproduce Para 3 verbatim – but I do not see how these statutory provisions require an IP to pin to the mast only one Para 3 objective to endeavour to achieve.

Here’s an example: what would be wrong with an Administrator’s Proposals stating that the company in administration is continuing to trade with a view to completing a sale of the business as a going concern, which should generate a better result for creditors as a whole – and thus achieve administration objective (b) – but if a business sale is not possible, a break-up sale is likely to result only in a distribution to secured/preferential creditors – and thus achieve administration objective (c)?  In my mind, this is the most transparent, comprehensive, and helpful explanation to creditors and certainly is far better than that which the Insolvency Service seems to expect IPs to deliver: for Proposals simply to state that a going concern sale is being pursued to achieve objective (b) is to provide only half the story and, I would argue, would not comply with R2.33(2)(m), as the Proposals would not be explaining “how it is envisaged the purpose of administration will be achieved” in the event that a business sale is not completed.  Para 111(1) simply leads me to an interpretation that an Administration’s eventual outcome – not necessarily the Administrator’s prospective aim – is the achieving of a single objective, which is supported by the Act’s presentation of the objectives as an hierarchy notwithstanding that in practice it is easy to see how more than one objective might be achieved (e.g. rescue of the company and a better result for creditors as a whole).

At the roadshow, I asked Caroline whether she felt that, if the singly-selected objective turned out to be not achievable, the Administrator would need to go to the expense of issuing revised Proposals.  She accepted that, of course, the IP would need to consider that requirement (although I wonder how the decision in Re Brilliant Independent Media Specialists (https://insolvencyoracle.com/2014/10/07/how-risky-is-it-to-act-contrary-to-a-creditors-committees-wishes-and-other-questions/) impacts on this).  Is this really what the government intended?  What happened to the drive to eliminate unnecessary costs?

Finally, I think that this view puts a new colour on the statutory requirement to issue Administrators’ Proposals as soon as reasonably practicable.  Could it be argued that asarp is only reached once the Administrator is reasonably confident of the single objective that he/she envisages achieving?  The RPBs have tried hard to promote the asarp requirement, rather than the 8-week back-stop, but insisting on a single objective in Proposals could encourage a turn in the tide.

I have asked Caroline to clarify the Insolvency Service’s view.  However, if the Service does expect IPs to adopt this approach, I think they should set it down in a Dear IP – of course, assuming that my arguments hold no water – so that all IPs are forced to accept the same burdens.

  • Caroline repeated the Dear IP article that extensions should be sought at the outset only in exceptional cases where it is clear that more than 12 months will be required to complete the Administration.

Although Caroline didn’t go into the technicalities of how an extension might be agreed at an early stage, it gave me cause to revisit the Dear IP article (chapter 1 article 12).  It describes the “questionable” practice of seeking consent for an extension “with the administrator’s proposals including a conditional resolution regarding the extension of the administration, along the lines that if the administrator should think it desirable, then the administration would be extended by an additional six months”.  Over the years I have seen this done, but I have not seen it done properly, i.e. compliant with the Rules.

R2.112(2) requires requests to be accompanied by a progress report, but Proposals are not a progress report.  I guess that a Proposals circular could be fudged to fit the prescription for a progress report as set out in R2.47, but this would have consequences, such as the need to file the Proposals/report with a form 2.24B (as well as filing the Proposals individually) and the clock would be re-set so that the next progress report would be due 6 months afterwards.  Also, how does an Administrator meet the statutory requirement to issue a notice of extension as soon as reasonably practicable after consent has been granted, if s/he has obtained such a “conditional” resolution?

My recommendation would be to avoid seeking extensions in the Proposals altogether, but instead leave them until the first progress report is due.  Of course, if an Administrator has to convene a general meeting (or deal with business by correspondence) at a time other than the Para 51 meeting, this will attract some additional costs, but if the request is made at the time of the statutorily-required 6-month progress report, those additional costs are relatively small, aren’t they?

Complaints-Handling

Complaints-handling was covered at both the ICAEW and the IPA roadshow, which I suspect has as much, if not more, to do with the likely pressure from the Insolvency Service on RPBs as it has with any perceived extent of failings on the part of IPs.

Both Allison and Caroline covered the need to explain how complaints can be made to the Complaints Gateway, although I do feel that generally RPBs have not done much to publicise their “requirements”.  The only guidance I’ve seen is on the ICAEW’s blog – http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/post/Launch-of-the-insolvency-complaints-gateway – that refers to the need to disclose the Gateway to anyone who wants to complain and in engagement terms, if they refer to the firm’s complaints procedure.  This blog also stated that there was no need to inform creditors of existing cases, which leaves me wondering what the expectation is to communicate with creditors generally on post-Gateway cases.  Given the Insolvency Service’s emphasis on the Gateway, I am a little surprised that the RPBs seem to be relying on some kind of process of osmosis to get the message of their expectations out to IPs.

From the two roadshows that I attended, I sense that there is a general expectation that IPs’ websites will display details of the Gateway (although I hope that the RPBs will take a proportionate approach, given that some smaller practices’ websites are little more than a homepage).  I do not get the sense that the RPBs expect the Gateway’s details to be added to circulars to creditors generally, but only that they should be included in any correspondence with (potential) complainants.

Allison also highlighted that, whilst the ICAEW’s bye-laws (paragraph 1.2 at http://goo.gl/1frWQo) include a requirement that all new clients be informed of their right to complain to the ICAEW and be provided with the name of the firm’s principal to whom they should complain, when writing as an insolvency office-holder the need to refer parties to the Complaints Gateway takes precedence over this requirement.

Caroline commented that IPA monitoring visits will include a review of the practice’s internal complaints process to see how these are handled before the complainant resorts to the Gateway.  If complaints are not handled by the IP, the monitors will also be exploring how the IP is confident that complaints are dealt with appropriately.

Why Attend the Roadshows?

I hope that the above illustrates the value of attending an RPB roadshow.  However, I think it also illustrates the risk that we learn about previously unknown and not altogether satisfying views on regulatory matters.  I realise that I am not blameless in this regard: when I worked at the IPA, I also used the roadshows as a medium to convey my thoughts on issues identified in visits and self certifications, so I should not be surprised that this practice is continuing (or indeed that others hold views different to my own!).  I and many of my colleagues were ever conscious that there was no other medium for Regulation Teams to deliver such messages and forewarn IPs of hot topics and evolving regulatory expectations.  Dear IP was the only other method that came close, but as this is controlled by the Insolvency Service, I could only hope that the RPB perspective would not become lost in translation.

The Advantage of Written Guidance?

I hope that, if I’ve got the wrong end of any stick waved at either of the two roadshows, someone will shout – please?  Given the limited audience at roadshows and the risk of Chinese Whispers, it must be better for the RPBs to convey their messages in written form, mustn’t it?

“The 18 month Rule”

A recent example, however, illustrates that even written communications can be unsettling.  At http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/post/The-18-month-rule—it-s-for-real, a QAD reviewer’s blog starts by stating that “there is a suggestion from some compliance providers and trainers that the 18 month rule for fixing fees may not be definitive, and that you still have the option of applying to creditors after the expiry of the 18 month period”.  I shall start by confessing that it’s not me, honest: I’ve never had cause to scrutinise these provisions.  However, now that I do, I have to say that I am struggling to see how the Rules can be interpreted in the way that the Service and the ICAEW are promulgating.

The blog states: “Our interpretation is that if fees haven’t been fixed within 18 months it will be scale rate in bankruptcies or compulsories or a court application. We recently raised the issue with the Insolvency Service and their view is: ‘. . . after 18 months the liquidator is only entitled to fix fees in accordance with rule 4.127(6) unless the stated exceptions apply’.  Clearly this relates to liquidators in compulsory liquidations, but the principal extends.”

I have long thought that this indeed was what the Service had intended by the Rules amendments, but on closer inspection I’m afraid I really can’t see that this is what the Rules state.  R4.127(6) states: “Where the liquidator is not the official receiver and the basis of his remuneration is not fixed as above within 18 months… the liquidator shall be entitled to remuneration fixed in accordance with the provisions of Rule 4.127A.”

“Shall be entitled…”  When I reach state-pensioner age, I shall be entitled to travel on buses free of charge, but that does not mean that the only way I will be able to get to town is by taking a bus.  Similarly, after 18 months, the liquidator shall be entitled to remuneration on the scale rate, but does this mean that the liquidator is only entitled to fees on this basis?  What statutory provision actually prohibits the liquidator from seeking creditors’ approval of fees on another R4.127(2) basis after 18 months?

And how do the Rules “extend” this compulsory liquidation principle to CVLs?  R4.127(7-CVL) states: “If not fixed as above, the basis of the liquidator’s remuneration shall… be fixed by the court… but such an application may not be made by the liquidator unless the liquidator has first sought fixing of the basis in accordance with paragraph (3C) or (5) and in any event may not be made more than 18 months after the date of the liquidator’s appointment.”  Given that the construction of this rule is so different from R4.127(6), it is difficult to see how both rules can be considered as reflecting the same principle.  And in any event, this simply states that a court application may not be made after 18 months (which seems to be precisely the opposite of the ICAEW’s blog post!).  How can this rule be interpreted to the effect that the liquidator cannot seek creditors’ approval for fees after 18 months?  The Rule starts: “If not fixed as above…”, so the rest of the Rule is irrelevant if the fees are fixed as above, e.g. as specified in R4.127(5) by a resolution of a meeting of creditors; I see no provision “above” prohibiting the seeking of a creditors’ resolution after 18 months.

I shall be interested to see how this matter gets handled in a future Dear IP.  In the meantime, what should IPs do?  I reckon that the only certain approach is: seek approval for fees before the 18 months are ended!

(UPDATE 12/01/2015: for another view of the 18-month rule, take a look at Bill Burch’s blog, which to be fair pre-dated mine by some months: http://goo.gl/4ucKaF.  Bill posted another article today at http://goo.gl/jL3WNu, reminding IPs that the wisest course is to seek early fee approval whether or not we agree with the regulators’ interpretation.)

This blog illustrates to me that there must be a better way for the regulatory bodies to convey – considered and sound – explanations of certain Rules and their expectations to IPs.  As a compliance consultant, I suffer many a sleepless night worrying about whether my interpretation and understanding of current regulatory standards are aligned with my clients’ authorising bodies’ stance.  I do value my former colleagues’ openness and I do try to keep my ear to the ground with many of the authorising bodies – I’ll take this opportunity to make a quick plug for the R3 webinar on regulatory hot topics that I shall be presenting with Matthew Peat of ACCA in February 2015.  However, I believe there is a need and a desire in all quarters for the creation of a better kind of forum/medium for ensuring that we all – regulators, IPs, and compliance specialists – are singing from the same hymn sheet.

Have a lovely long break from work, everyone.  I’ll catch up again in the New Year.


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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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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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The Deregulation Bill

1228 Port Douglas

Tuesday’s announcement from the Insolvency Service reminded me that I’d buried its 2012 Annual Review of IP Regulation deep within a pile of court judgments that I’ve also not blogged about. I’ll tackle the easy job here: let’s look at the recent IS/BIS announcements…

“New Measures to Streamline Insolvency Regulation Announced” (1 July 2013)
http://insolvency.presscentre.com/Press-Releases/New-measures-to-streamline-insolvency-regulation-announced-68efa.aspx

SoS authorisations to come to an end

The Business Minister, Jo Swinson, announced proposals to transfer the regulation of SoS-authorised IPs to “independent regulators” in the interests of removing “a perceived conflict of interest” and in view of the limited powers of sanction when compared with the RPBs’.

This is not new. At the end of 2011, Ed Davey – two Ministers’ ago – described the Government’s intention to remove the Secretary of State from direct authorising, which was a conclusion of the consultation into IP Regulation. This also was a recommendation emanating from the OFT’s study into corporate insolvency, which was published in June 2010. And the idea has been bubbling along for years earlier than that.

However, perhaps I should not focus on how long it is taking the Department to progress this change; finally it has a name: the “Deregulation Bill”.

Limited Licences

The announcement also referred to proposals to allow “IPs to qualify as specialists in either corporate insolvency or personal insolvency, or both, [which] will reduce the time and money it takes to qualify for those who choose to specialise. This will open up the industry to more people and improve competition”.

This also is not new. Almost as soon as S389A was introduced via the IA2000, people have been asking for it to change. That Section sought to allow IPs to specialise by only authorising them to act as Nominee and Supervisor of (Company or Individual) Voluntary Arrangements. The regulatory structure was never put in place to allow such licences to be issued – the Secretary of State never recognised any bodies for the purpose of issuing such limited licences – but it was also soon appreciated that there would be little use in such licences: for example, if someone wanted to administer an IVA, it would also be useful for them to be able to become a Trustee in Bankruptcy, but this is not possible under S389A.

However, there was also much clamour from many IPs who felt that it was dangerous to allow IPs to specialise only in one field of insolvency. Many felt that the knowledge of someone who has passed only the personal insolvency JIEB paper was insufficient to enable them to deal successfully with the range of debtor circumstances that likely they would encounter even if they only took formal appointments on IVAs and Bankruptcies.

It certainly seems that the current Government proposals, which highlight the benefit of a fast track to a licence – 1-2 years for “the new qualifications” – will lead to limited-licence IPs narrowing their field of vision at the JIEB-stage.

Although there are many IPs who only take appointments in either the personal or corporate insolvency arena, I doubt that many would have chosen a limited licence route, even if that had been available. The corporate specialists tend to have got where they are either through a relatively many-runged large firm ladder or by having begun as a jack-of-all-trades, albeit with a corporate emphasis, in a smaller firm. Of course, the IPs who have lived and breathed IVAs for much of their professional life may have taken advantage of a limited licence route and they are unlikely to be taking on the complex bespoke IVA cases for which knowledge of corporate insolvency might be valuable, so personally I don’t feel too strongly about this being a bad idea… although I’m reluctant to call it a good idea, and I am not convinced that the profession needs to be opened up to more people and competition improved, does it?

Other aspects of the Deregulation Bill

The press release mentions a couple of other planned changes regarding the SoS’s and OR’s access to information on directors’ misconduct and the choice of interim receivers. Also hidden in the small print is reference to the Government’s proposals “to strengthen the powers of the Secretary of State as oversight regulator” – I’m not quite sure what they are, though…

“Consumers benefit and business to save over £30m per year from insolvency reforms” (5 June 2013)
http://insolvency.presscentre.com/Press-Releases/Consumers-benefit-and-business-to-save-over-30m-per-year-from-insolvency-reforms-68db0.aspx

Complaints Gateway

Business Minister, Jo Swinson, said: “An easy route to complain is important for consumers… This new Complaints Gateway will help consumers dealing with the insolvency industry to get speedier resolution of problems and easier access to the right information”.

“An easy route”? Firstly, the Complaints Gateway does not include complaints about Northern Ireland insolvencies. Nor does it include complaints against IPs licensed by the SRA/Law Societies. Nor does it, presumably, cover complaints about an IP’s conduct in relation to Consumer Credit Licensable activities..? Or at least it won’t if the IP/firm has their own Consumer Credit Licence… I’m not certain about IPs covered by a group licence… clear as mud!

“Speedier resolution”? Well the Service’s Complaints FAQs admit that complainants will normally be informed whether or not their complaint is being passed to the relevant authorising body within 15 working days of the Gateway receiving the complaint”. That’s a 3-week delay that would not have occurred under the old system.

Having said that, if the Complaints Gateway at least makes the public perceive IP regulation as more joined up and less self-serving than has been the perception to date, then that’s great!

Red Tape Challenge Outcomes

The press release details other proposed changes, although I do wonder at the “savings of over £30m per year” tagline:

• “Removing the requirement for IPs to hold meetings with creditors where they are not necessary”. Final meetings, presumably? With the exception of S98s, meetings are never actually held, are they, so I can’t see this measure resulting in less work/costs for IPs?
• “Enabling IPs to make greater use of electronic communications, for example making it easier to place notices on websites instead of sending individual letters to creditors”. So perhaps moving away from an opt out of the snail mail process to a default of website-only communication..? Anything less than that is pretty-much what we have already, isn’t it?
• “Allowing creditors to opt out of receiving further communications where they no longer have an interest in the insolvency.” Hmm… personally I can’t see creditors bothering to put “pen” to “paper” and opt out…
• “Streamlining the process by which IPs report misconduct by directors of insolvent companies to the Secretary of State, enabling investigations to be commenced earlier.” Well, yes, a much-reduced wishlist from the Service would be welcome, although that doesn’t require legislation, just re-revised Guidance Notes. Not sure how else you can “streamline” the process unless you make in online… but is that really going to make much difference..?
• “Removing the requirements on IPs to record time spent on cases, where their fees have not been fixed on a time cost basis, and to maintain a separate record of certain case events.” – good, about time too! No more Reg 13s..? What will the RPB monitors find to have a gripe about now?!
• “Removing the requirement for trustees in bankruptcy and liquidators in court winding-ups to apply to creditor committees before undertaking certain functions, to achieve consistency with powers in administrations”
• Radically reducing the prescriptive content required for progress and final progress reports – sorry, this one is a fiction; it’s my own suggestion of how a huge chunk of unnecessary regulation might be removed in an instant!

2012 Annual Review of Insolvency Practitioner Regulation (June 2013)
http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/insolvency-profession/Regulation/review-of-IP-regulation-annual-regulation-reports

This was released without a murmur, slipped into the notes of the press release above. It’s not really surprising that it created little noise – has everyone had enough of pre-pack bashing for now? – but I thought I’d try to extract some items of interest.

Monitoring of SIP16 Compliance

Given that only 51% of SIP16 statements were reviewed by the Service during the first six months of 2012, it would seem to me that the decision to move away from box-ticking SIP16 compliance was made some time before it was abandoned half way through 2012, but at least the Service could report that their work was “in line with [their] previous commitments”. Consequently, I really can’t get excited about the Service’s findings on their SIP16 compliance monitoring, although it still irritates me to read that the Service considers IPs have not complied with SIP16 because they have not provided information “as to the nature of the business undertaken by the company”, which is not a SIP16 requirement (and I cannot see that this is essential to explaining every pre-pack) but only appears in Dear IP 42.

Monitoring of pre-packs using SIP16 disclosures

In the second half of the year, the Service reports that they “moved to sample monitoring of the pre-pack itself in order to identify whether there is any evidence of abuse of pre-packs”.

The statistics are interesting. Out of 42 cases referred to the authorising bodies, over 80% of them, 34, related to IPs authorised by the Secretary of State. Given that the SoS authorised less than 5% of all appointment-taking IPs in 2012, that’s a fair old hit-rate. It has to be mentioned, however, that the 34 referrals involved only six IPs, so perhaps they are zoning in on particular IPs who seem to attract a disproportionate amount of criticism. It is a shame that, although the report describes the outcome of referrals to the RPBs, nothing is mentioned about the outcome of these 34 referrals to the SoS. Perhaps we will read it in next year’s regulatory report… or perhaps the Service hopes that the plans to drop their authorisation role will intervene…

It is also a shame that the Service does not report on the outcome of the 23 complaints on pre-packs/SIP16 received in the year from external parties; it mentions only that six were referred to the RPBs. The report’s Executive Summary states that “pre-pack administrations continue to cause concern amongst the unsecured creditor community”, but it would be very interesting to learn exactly what kinds of concerns are being reported. In view of the fact that 17 complaints did not make it past the starting post after the Service had only “considered the nature of the complaint”, it would seem to me that there is still a lot of dissatisfaction out there about the process itself, which unfortunately is sometimes translated into suspicions of IP misconduct. I will give the Service some credit, though, as their website now includes some FAQs on pre-packs that do attempt to counter the “it just cannot be right!” reaction.

A good news point to take away from the report is: “we have not found evidence of any widespread abuse of the pre-pack procedure”.

Themed Review on Introducers

It is good to see the Service taking action to tackle websites that misrepresent professional insolvency services, although the limit of the Service’s powers appears evident. The report indicates that five websites, which were not identified as being connected with an IP, were changed as a consequence of the Service’s requests, but it seems that several more likely made no changes. The report mentions recourse available to the Advertising Standards Authority and recent coverage of an ASA ruling (www.insolvencynews.com/article/15416/corporate/insolvency-ad-banned-after-r3-complaint), albeit on the back of an R3 complaint, does show that this can generate results.

The report indicates that IPs can expect the RPB monitors/inspectors to be more inquisitive in this area: the Service believes that RPB monitors should be “robustly questioning insolvency practitioners as to their sources of work and testing the veracity of answers to ensure confidence that insolvency practitioners are complying with the Insolvency Code of Ethics”.

Regulatory and disciplinary outcomes

Let’s look at the visit stats for 2012: IS stats 2012

Hmm… does this hint at perhaps another reason why the SoS might think the time is right to drop authorising..? I’m referring to the average number of years between visits – 5.82 years for SoS-authorised IPs compared to an average of 2.92 for the RPBs as a whole – not the percentage of IPs subject to targeted visits, as I think that’s a two-edged sword for authorising bodies: it could mean that you have more than the average number of problem cases or it could mean that you are tougher than the rest.

The only other points I gleaned from this section were:

• The ICAEW clearly takes its requirement for IPs to carry out compliance reviews very seriously: three out of its four regulatory penalties were for failures to undertake compliance reviews.
• The heftiest fines/costs resulting from the complaints process were generated as follows:
o £10,000 fine for failure to register 884 IVAs with the Insolvency Service
o £10,000 fine for failure to comply with the Ethics Code by reason of an affiliation with a third party website that contained misleading and disparaging statements about IPs and the profession
o £4,000 penalty and £30,000 costs for taking fees from a bankrupt as well as being paid by the AiB as agent
• According to the Executive Summary, apparently there have been concerns about “the relatively low number of complaints that are upheld and result in a sanction”… so can we expect the RPBs to “please” the Service by issuing more sanctions in future or will the RPBs satisfy the Service that their complaints-handling is just and that it is simply that there is nothing in the majority of complaints?

The future

The Service intends to look further at the “considerable concern in relation to ensuring that insolvency practitioners consult employees as fully as is required by law in an insolvency situation”. I think the case of AEI Cables v GMB (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3i) demonstrates the issues facing a company in an insolvency situation – something has to give: which statutory duty takes precedence? – and I cannot believe that the position for IPs is any easier. It will be interesting to learn what the Service discovers.

And of course, we’re all waiting expectantly for the outcome of the Kempson review on fees; the Service’s regulatory report states: “A report is expected by July”…