Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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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:

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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

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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

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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:

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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

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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.

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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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And now for a qualitative review of the IP Regulation Report

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

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

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

Ethical Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consultation with employees

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

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

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

SIP16

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

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

Dodgy Introducers

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

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

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


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Tomlinson: IPs caught in the cross-fire

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Banks have become the 21st century pariahs. It seems that they can do nothing right and they cannot afford to do anything wrong. Lawrence Tomlinson may have banks, and RBS in particular, sighted in his cross-hairs, but is there much in his report that should concern the IP regulators or may herald changes for IPs?

Tomlinson’s published report can be found at: http://www.tomlinsonreport.com/docs/tomlinsonReport.pdf.

The IP’s role: pre-appointment

A large part of the report raises issues regarding companies’ routes into the RBS’ Global Restructuring Group and how, once there, companies find it almost impossible to escape it alive. IPs become wrapped into this argument via Tomlinson’s observations over the opaque nature of the Independent Business Review process: the bank selects the IP and usually only the bank sees the report. When you add to this the fact that the cost of the IBR is passed to the company, I can see how this may rankle, although I am not sure that this makes the whole process flawed.

Tomlinson raises the issue of conflict of interest: he states that “it is easy to see how these reports may be used to protect the bank’s interests at the expense of the business. Much of the high value work received by these firms comes from the banks so it is naturally in their interest to protect the bank’s financial position”. Inevitably, the work of the IBR IP is fraught – can they really act independently? But who really is expecting them to do so? The IP’s client is the bank, not the company, so, at a time when the bank’s and the company’s interests cease to be aligned, it would seem to me to be foolish to assume that the IP introduced by the bank is not advising first and foremost the bank on how to protect its interests. If the company wants its own advice, then it should instruct its own IP. Of course some do, although Tomlinson fails to mention the barriers to some companies and their instructed IPs working to find a solution acceptable to the bank.

The appointment of administrators

Tomlinson writes that there are many occasions when the IBR IP later is appointed administrator. This seems to be a general comment rather than RBS-targeted, which might have been difficult to make stack up, as I understand that it is RBS’ policy not to appoint the IBR IP as administrator, is it not?

It is also not clear whether the cases involving directors who feel mistreated by the banks are the same cases in which the IBR IP later became the administrator. I think this is important because, on its own, an IBR IP becoming administrator is not an heinous act. On the other hand, if we take one of Tomlinson’s worst case scenarios, where a business was only considered insolvent because of a property revaluation, the directors were frozen out of any opportunity to offer solutions, and they protested that the IBR leading to the bank’s decision to appoint an administrator was flawed, then one might expect the IP to decline the appointment.

The Insolvency Code of Ethics states: “Where such an investigation was conducted at the request of, or at the instigation of, a secured creditor who then requests an Insolvency Practitioner to accept an insolvency appointment as an administrator or administrative receiver, the Insolvency Practitioner should satisfy himself that the company, acting by its board of directors, does not object to him taking such an insolvency appointment. If the secured creditor does not give prior warning of the insolvency appointment to the company or if such warning is given and the company objects but the secured creditor still wishes to appoint the Insolvency Practitioner, he should consider whether the circumstances give rise to an unacceptable threat to compliance with the fundamental principles.” If an IP still decides to accept the appointment amidst protestations, clearly he should be prepared to encounter a complaint and perhaps worse.

Tomlinson makes the point that “once an administrator has been appointed, the directors lose their right to legal redress”. Whilst directors lose their management powers and the administrator acquires the power to bring any legal proceedings on behalf of the company – and I should point out that I’m not a solicitor – there is precedent for directors to take some actions, e.g. challenging the validity of the administrator’s appointment, as demonstrated in Closegate (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-4I). Challenges may also be made to court by shareholders (or creditors) (Paragraph 74 of Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986) and courts can order the removal of administrators (Paragraph 88). Of course, these measures cost money and probably will not reverse any damage done.

The IP’s role: post-appointment

More to the point, I think, is the risk of conflict of interest for bank panel IPs generally. Tomlinson puts it this way: “The relationship between the bank, IPs, valuers and receivers should undergo careful analysis. The interdependency of these businesses on banks for generating custom establishes a natural loyalty and bend towards the interests of the banks. Often the bank recommends or instructs the IP directly, so their preferential treatment is critical to their clientele. Maintaining independence and a fair hand for all parties involved appears extremely difficult.”

We’ve seen this argument play out in the pre-pack arena: if directors are in control of appointing an IP as administrator, how can creditors be confident that the IP, on appointment, will be acting with due regard for their interests? Similarly, how can other stakeholders be confident that an IP will not be persuaded by this “natural loyalty” towards the bank controlling their appointment to act contrary to his duties as administrator? In a number of cases, I would suggest that it is academic: if the bank is the only party with any real interest – or it shares that with the unsecured creditors looking to a prescribed part – then any bias towards the bank will achieve the same result as if there were none… although this may overlook the first objective of an administration, which is to rescue the company as a going concern.

Tomlinson is right: maintaining the IP’s balance here is extremely difficult, although I would be inclined to take receivers out of the equation, as there is no real change of “hat” for IPs in those cases. Until now, we have depended on the professionalism of the parties and the legal and regulatory processes to wield a stick towards any who stray, but I guess that we live in an age when that is no longer seen as adequate.

Tomlinson highlights another risk of conflict of interest in relation to selling assets: “RBS is in a particularly precarious position given its West Registrar commercial portfolio under which it can make huge profits from the cheap purchase of assets from ‘distressed’ businesses… Others have stated that they believe their property was purposefully undervalued in order for the business to be distressed, enabling West Registrar to buy assets at a discount price.” This is a new one on me and I’m not aware of any other bank being in a similarly “precarious position”. Although I would have thought that there would be little criticism levelled against IPs selling to West Registrar where it represents the best deal – and Tomlinson does not appear to be suggesting transactions at an undervalue by administrators – as we all know, there is a risk of getting caught up in allegations of stitch-ups wherever there is a connected party sale, whether that involves a director’s purchase in a pre-pack or a party connected to an appointing creditor.

The Repercussions

The most IP-relevant solution suggested by Tomlinson is:

“It is also important that the wider potential conflicts of interest between the banks, IBRs, valuers, administrators, insolvency practitioners and receivers are given careful consideration. Where these conflicts occur, it does so at the expense of the business. If collusion did not happen between these parties and their relationships were more transparent, then better fairness between the parties could be ensured. This requires further investigation and consideration by the Government to ensure that the law is being upheld and these conflicts do not impact on the businesses ability to operate.”

As mentioned previously, the Insolvency Code of Ethics covers specifically the scenario of an IP carrying out an IBR then contemplating an insolvency appointment. Personally, I think it does this rather well – it addresses not only how to view an objection by the directors, but also how the IP has acted prior to the insolvency appointment, how he has interacted with the company, whether he made clear who his client was etc. However, there is no ultimate ban on the IP accepting the appointment; as with most ethical issues, it is left to the IP to consider whether the threats can be managed or they render his appointment inappropriate. I would not be surprised if, down the line, there were a call for there to be a ban that an IBR IP could not be appointed as administrator. If it were a legislative measure, we could have fun and games defining such items as what constitutes IBR work and for how long a subsequent appointment would be prohibited, but it could be done.

But would it have the desired effect? It would certainly increase the costs of some administrations, as the built-up knowledge and in many respects positive relationships of the IBR IP would be lost to the administrator. It might also have limited effect, as the “natural loyalty” could persist in any IP who has the prospect of more than one bank appointment, be it a case on which he carried out an IBR or a case on which he’d had no prior connection. I believe it is a natural tendency in all professions and trades to protect one’s clients and work sources and I do not believe it is something that can be avoided entirely.

As with pre-packs, I would prefer the solution to involve those who feel mistreated doing something about it, calling to account anyone who acted contrary to their duties, ethical or otherwise. As with pre-packs, however, the devil is in establishing a clear understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, rather than simply trusting a gut feeling. Tomlinson has aired a few relevant issues, but also some irrelevant ones, I think, which unfortunately cloud the picture.

But is anyone listening? The FT reported yesterday (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/550c5360-5c31-11e3-931e-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz2mVVnGjFz) that George Osborne has washed his hands of the report, although Mr Cable seems more convinced that there are genuine problems. However, whatever the conclusions of the FCA’s skilled person’s review, I am sure that insolvency regulators already are contemplating their next step. Some will see the Tomlinson report as an opportunity to renew calls for the end to bank panels of IPs. With a revision of the Insolvency Code of Ethics moving up the agenda of the Joint Insolvency Committee, I can see the ethics of the move from pre-appointment work to a subsequent appointment again being the subject of debate.

(01/02/14 UPDATE: BBC4’s File on Four programme, “Design by Default?”, can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03q8z4f/File_on_4_Default_by_Design/)


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The Deregulation Bill

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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”…


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HoC BIS Committee recommendations on the Insolvency Service: will they help?

Goodness, what a busy week it has been! Consultations, draft Regulations, a DMP Protocol, and a bit of a backlog of High Court decisions… but they will have to wait.

Although the release of the House of Commons’ BIS Select Committee’s report on the Insolvency Service has already been reported widely, I wonder if you, like me, sigh at the tone of the press coverage, which all seems to lie somewhere on the spectrum between cold neutrality and wholehearted support. Don’t you wish people would come out and say what they really think? Therefore, I thought I would give it a go…

If you want to read all the Committee’s recommendations, this is not the place for you – I have only described the ones that have raised my hackles or got me thinking. You can access the report in full at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/675/675.pdf

Changes to debtors’ bankruptcy fees

“At present, individual debtor bankrupts have to pay an upfront fee of £525. Given the level of debt relief they can receive we agree with the Insolvency Service that it would not be unreasonable to increase that fee, possibly on a sliding scale. We also agree that the fee should not be automatically required to be paid up front but could be staggered along similar lines as payments to debt management companies. We will expect the Insolvency Service to set out progress in both of these areas in its response to this Report.” (paragraph 43)

It is clear that the Insolvency Service’s sums currently do not add up; something must change (and the BIS Committee made other recommendations to this effect). However, I had always thought that the charges relating to the bankruptcy process reflected the work carried out (setting aside the need for cross-subsidisation, which gives rise to another debate entirely). How does the service provided differ depending on a debtor’s level of debt? Whatever the individual’s liabilities, he/she has to go through pretty much the same process to enter bankruptcy as anyone else. True, the higher the debt level, often the more time-consuming the bankruptcy administration, but this is usually also reflected in the asset values, and as asset realisations attract a percentage fee, this already means that a high-liability bankruptcy is paying more.

I am not saying that individuals with large debts should not pay more, but I feel it is quite a step-change to structure fees, not as proportionate to the work undertaken, but to reflect somehow the level of debt relief that the individual is receiving. I am certain that it would not work in other fields of insolvency: could an IP justify basing the cost of putting a company into liquidation on the level of creditors’ claims, rather than on how much work was involved in preparing the Statement of Affairs and convening/holding the meetings? There is a Dear IP (no. 18, July 1991) warning against such a practice!

It is widely accepted that the cost of the petition and court fee restricts access to bankruptcy for many individuals. Graham Horne told the Committee that the Service would look at the DMCs’ model of paying fees in instalments. However, from the consultation and response on bankruptcy petition reform, it appears to me that the Service is looking only at the possibility of individuals paying instalments prior to entering bankruptcy, not after bankruptcy. Quite simply, this is not the DMCs’ model, which involves providing the service of administering a debt management plan whilst being paid the fee by instalments. It will be of little use to individuals to have to make payments to the Service… over how long, 6 months, 12 months..? but not get the relief of a bankruptcy order until the £700 (or more) is paid in full. I can imagine the Service’s suspense account soon bulging with countless numbers of one or two months’ staged payments from individuals who intended to go bankrupt, but because of the continuing stress of fighting off creditors they handed their affairs over to a DMC simply for a break from it all.

If a bankruptcy order cannot be made until the petition and court fees have been paid in full, it is still an up-front fee notwithstanding whether this is paid in instalments, and it will remain a barrier to bankruptcy for many.

Would the Service contemplate providing for the fees to be paid after bankruptcy? The Service already charges £1,625 to each bankruptcy estate and the report acknowledges that this is not recouped “in the majority of cases” (paragraph 35), so a post-bankruptcy application fee would simply be another unrecovered cost to write-off. There would be a few cases that could bear this cost, but then who really would be paying? The creditors.

Pre-packs

“We therefore recommend that together, the Department and the Insolvency Service commission research to renew the evidential basis for pre-pack administrations.” (paragraph 72)

Some have greeted this with an “oh please, not this old chestnut again!” Personally, I would welcome this step. Arguments against the use of pre-packs as a principle (or at least those that involve connected parties, “phoenixes”) usually relate to the perception that the connected party has achieved an unfair advantage – the directors have been able to under-cut their competitors because they have left creditors standing with Oldco and they have bought the business and assets at a steal. There is the additional allegation that there is no overall benefit to the economy because, whilst jobs may be saved in the business transfer from Oldco to Newco, jobs are lost in rival companies and/or with creditors. I think that the difficulty the insolvency profession has in responding to these arguments is that all IPs can do is their best, their statutory duty to maximise realisations of the insolvent company’s assets; even if these anti-pre-pack arguments were valid and that pre-packs were not good for the world at large, if IPs were to adjust their actions somehow to accommodate these wider concerns, i.e. resist completing a pre-pack in favour of a break-up or an expensive trading-on in the hope that an independent buyer comes along, they could be failing in their statutory duties.

If these arguments against pre-packs hold water, then let’s see the evidence and then watch the policy-makers decide whether some or all pre-packs should be banned in the public interest. In the meantime, all IPs can do is their best to fulfil their statutory duties in relation to each insolvency over which they are appointed.

One small point: I sincerely hope that the researchers avoid falling into the trap occupied by the pre-pack protesters. The arguments of unfair advantage and of creditors being left high and dry whilst the phoenix rises apply to business sales to connected parties, not to pre-packs. If an IP trades on a business in administration and then sells it to a connected party, the same allegations apply, don’t they? It seems strange to me that there is so much antagonism towards pre-packs when, really, I see little difference between a pre-pack administration and the Receivership business sales of the 1990s. In fact, I would suggest that pre-pack administrations are an improvement over Receivership business sales because at least the administrator is an officer of the court with wider responsibilities to creditors as a whole.

I’m not sure how the researchers will test the allegations. However, if they limit the research to a comparison of the direct outcomes of pre-pack sales compared with longer-running administration business sales, then I do not believe it will do anything to answer those who cry unfairness.

SIP16

“Despite the introduction of Statement of Insolvency Practice Note 16 and additional guidance, pre-pack administrations remain a controversial practice. The Insolvency Service is committed to continue to monitor SIP 16 compliance, but to make this effective, non-compliance needs to be followed through with stronger penalties by way of larger fines and stronger measures of enforcement. We have some sympathy with the concerns of the regulator R3, which argues that noncompliant insolvency practitioners are not made aware of the criteria on which they are being judged by The Insolvency Service, or given any feedback on their reports. We recommend that the Insolvency Service amend its monitoring processes to include feedback to each insolvency practitioner and their regulatory body where SIP 16 reports have been judged to be non-compliant. We further recommend that the criteria by which SIP 16 reports are judged should be published alongside the guidance.” (paragraphs 80 and 81)

This time I will cry: “oh please, not this old chestnut again!” Given the perceptions of unfairness surrounding pre-packs – or to describe the issue more accurately, business sales to connected parties – as explained above, it is not surprising that “despite the introduction of SIP16 and additional guidance, pre-pack administrations remain a controversial practice”. Even with 100% compliance with SIP16, the controversy would never fall away. SIP16 is simply about helping creditors to understand why the pre-pack sale was conducted; it will never answer the allegations that the practice of pre-packing businesses in general is unfair.

However, this limitation of SIP16 disclosures can never be an excuse for IPs failing to meet the requirements of the SIP. It is not beyond the ability of professional IPs to get this right.

Unfortunately, the key principle of SIP16 of “providing a detailed explanation and justification of why a pre-packaged sale was undertaken so that [creditors] can be satisfied that the administrator has acted with due regard for their interests” (SIP16, paragraph 8) does not fit well with a checklist of pieces of information. If an IP were to sit a creditor down and say “let me tell you why I did this sale this way”, I believe that it is very likely that, on a case-by-case basis, not every last detail required by SIP16 paragraph 9 would always be relevant to telling this story and it may even be that other factors not strictly required by SIP16 paragraph 9 would be valuable in helping the creditor understand. It makes me wonder how we got into this position – where unique stories describing a vast range of demised businesses and complex rescues are reduced to a monitoring exercise on a par with recounting Old Macdonald Had a Farm!

However, I repeat: this limitation of SIP16 monitoring should never be allowed to fuel the pre-pack critics. If IPs are being judged on strict compliance with SIP16, why can we not get it right?

There is no doubt in my mind that the absence of Insolvency Service feedback on each individual SIP16 disclosure has not helped. It also seems insensible to me that the Service would make these assessments and not inform each IP where they thought he/she had gone wrong. What on earth was the point of carrying out the review in the first place?!

However, I foresee a problem: in 2011, there were 1,341 appointment-taking IPs and 723 pre-packs. I appreciate that an average of 0.5 pre-packs per IP does not reflect reality, but even so it would seem to me that pre-packs are not that common; IPs might only conduct one or two each year and some IPs might go years before doing another pre-pack. In 2011, the Insolvency Service only reviewed 58% of all SIP16 disclosures, so there’s a big chunk of all SIP16s where no feedback is possible. In addition, 32% of the 2011 SIP16 disclosures reviewed were considered non-compliant by the Service. If our profession is lucky, it might be that these non-compliant SIP16s are being produced by the same bunch of IPs. However, my hunch (having worked in the IPA’s regulation department) is that sometimes an IP gets it right, sometimes he/she misses something. If this is the case, then years might pass before (i) an IP receives feedback on where he/she slipped up with SIP16 compliance and then when (ii) he/she can apply that feedback to his/her next pre-pack. Waiting for IPs to apply the Service’s feedback will not crack this nut: I suspect that, if the 2013 SIP16 monitoring report shows similar levels of non-compliance, there will be hell to pay!

Thus, I feel it is down to each and every IP to work at producing perfect SIP16 disclosures. Some may rebel at this formulaic approach to recounting the skills used in getting the best out of an insolvent company – I do! – but the threat of more legislation, which I suggest could be even more prescriptive and restrictive than SIP16, remains loud. Can we not just try to get it right?

Continuation of supply

“We recommend that the Department undertake a consultation as a matter of urgency on the rules relating to the continuation of supply to businesses on insolvency in order to assess whether a greater number of liquidations or further damage to businesses could be avoided if that supply was better protected.” (paragraph 86)

I shall use this opportunity to update you on the progress of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. On 21 January, I reported that the House of Lords was considering a proposed amendment to S233 regarding the continuation of utilities and other contracted services and goods (https://insolvencyoracle.com/2013/01/21/more-on-the-err-bill-and-two-cases-1-scottish-court-shows-more-than-the-usual-interest-in-provisional-liquidators-fees-and-2-court-avoids-unpardonable-waste-or-scarce-resources/). Unfortunately, the Grand Committee threw the amendments out in full on the ground that there needed to be proper consideration of the consequences of such amendments. In hindsight, I can see that it was very unlikely that such changes could be slipped in to the Bill at such a late stage, but I guess that at least it keeps the issue on the table.

My personal view is that, whilst changes to S233 will be welcome, I do feel that some are over-egging the advantages. The BIS Committee picked up on R3’s research suggesting that “over 2,000 additional businesses could be saved each year, rather than being put into liquidation”, if suppliers were obliged to continue to supply on insolvency (paragraph 82). I bow to R3’s and IPs’ greater experience, however I cannot help but wonder whether companies really are resorting to liquidation, rather than trading on in an administration, simply because contracts with suppliers are terminated on insolvency. I would have thought that there were far more substantial barriers to trading-on that will remain even after S233 is changed.

Regulating the RPBs

“We agree that the Insolvency Service, in regulating the recognised professional bodies (RPBs), should have a wider range of powers, very much akin to those that the RPBs themselves have in disciplining their members.” (paragraph 97)

I note this simply because I was stunned at this non sequitur – none of the preceding paragraphs hinted that there was a problem with the RPBs that needed to be fixed or that this was any solution.

Having said that, personally I have no issues with the Service having such powers. In my experience at the IPA, whilst there may have been some tendency to want to push back on some of the Service’s recommendations from time to time (to be perfectly honest, usually more on my part than on the part of my employer!), it would always end up with the RPB taking the required action. I cannot see that the Service needs to be able formally to warn, fine, or restrict RPBs, but if it helps perception, why not?

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As I mentioned at the start, there were other Committee recommendations, which I would encourage you to read if you have not already done so, as I believe they help us to see how the profession is viewed from the outside and, whether we agree with them or not, those views will continue to influence the shape of our profession in the years to come.