Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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ACCA and Insolvency Service monitoring: poles apart?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Catching up on overdue monitoring visits

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

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

“Independent” decision-making

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

 

The Insolvency Service’s report on ACCA

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

Early-day monitoring visits

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

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

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

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

Extensive monitoring reports

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

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

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

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

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

“Independent” decision-making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complaints-handling

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

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

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

 

Single regulator?

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

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

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

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


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

1229 Port Douglas

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

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

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

About-Face

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

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

Further Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsettled Policy

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

Creditors

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

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

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

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

Progress Reports

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

The Service is currently considering the following proposals:

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

 

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


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The Future is… Complicated

 

 

1933 Yosemite

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

Statutory Instruments

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

Consultation Outcomes

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

Revision of SIPs etc.

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

 

Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013

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

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

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

The Deregulation Bill

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

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

The Deregulation Bill contains other largely technical changes:

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

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill

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

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

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

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

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

IP Fees

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

Revision of SIPs etc.

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

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


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The Insolvency Service’s labours for transparency produce fruits

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

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

The Insolvency Service’s first newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IVA Standing Committee Minutes 17 July 2014

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

“Standardised Format”

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

Income and Expenditure Assessments

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

IVA Protocol Equity Clause

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

Resistance to refunding dividends when set-off applied

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

Variations

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

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

Recent pension changes

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

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

Report on the First Year of the Complaints Gateway

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Statistics

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

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


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Keeping the lights on for insolvent businesses

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It is 13 days and counting until the Insolvency Service’s consultation on the extension of the IA86 provisions regarding essential supplies to insolvent businesses closes. R3 pretty much said it all in its autumn 2014 magazine (pages 8 and 9), so I shall be brief – honest!

The Insolvency Service’s consultation, impact assessment, and draft statutory instrument are at: http://goo.gl/N4Tg3c

Personal guarantees in IVAs and CVAs?

As I’m sure you know, the changes seek to wrap in to the existing S233 and S372 suppliers of a number of IT services and goods. Thus, these suppliers may not hold the IP to ransom in relation to their pre-appointment debts in order to agree to supply post-appointment… but they can seek a PG from the office holder, just as utility suppliers can do at present.

The draft statutory instrument also sets out restrictions on IT/utility suppliers’ powers to terminate pre-appointment contracts (or “do any other thing”, which the Service envisages would prevent actions such as increasing charges simply because of the administration or VA). A supplier would be entitled to terminate if, within 14 days of the commencement of the VA (or administration), the supplier has asked for a PG and one has not been provided within a further 14 days.

How likely is it that a Supervisor will agree to personally guarantee the payment of IT or utility supplies to a company or an individual in a VA?! Although I think that this is an entirely unrealistic prospect, VAs at present only work if the company/individual can reach agreements with their suppliers, so I don’t think the insolvent will be any worse off – and at least this might give them a 28 days breathing space in which to get things sorted.  It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the impact assessment takes a cautious approach and puts no monetary benefit on the impact of this provision on companies/individuals trading whilst in VAs.

Pre-Administration/VA events

The draft SI lists aspects of what is described as “an insolvency-related term”, which ceases to have effect if a company enters administration or CVA (or an individual in business enters an IVA). One of these ineffective features of an insolvency-related term is:

  • “the supplier would be entitled to terminate the contract or the supply because of an event that occurred before the company enters administration or the voluntary arrangement takes effect”

I guess that “insolvency”, i.e. being unable to pay one’s debts as and when they fall due, is an event that occurs before administration or VA, isn’t it? Given that this frequently appears in termination clauses, could this be a catch-all that avoids termination in all cases where an administration or VA results?  Well, surely the problem with this is that, when insolvency first rears its head, who knows what the final outcome will be?  What if a creditor, petitioning for a winding-up order, is tussling with a company hoping to be placed into administration?  It seems that suppliers might be entitled to terminate, but only if the company does not end up in an administration or VA.  A statutory provision that seeks to impact on a past event is no provision at all, is it?

So does the draft SI have anything else to say about the pre-Administration/VA periods, e.g. when a Notice of Intention to Appoint an Administrator has been issued or when a Nominee is acting? The Explanatory Note indicates that a termination clause would not have effect when a VA is proposed, but this is not what the draft SI says. It states that the insolvency-related term ceases to have effect if “a voluntary arrangement approved… takes effect”.

The impact assessment uses the expression, “the onset of insolvency”, which is something else again. It uses this expression to describe the starting point of the 14 days in which the supplier can ask for a PG.  However, the draft SI states that this period begins with “the day the company entered administration or the voluntary arrangement took effect”.

Therefore, it would seem to me that, in more ways than one, the period during which a Nominee is acting or when a company is preparing to go into administration falls between the cracks of the draft SI that can only work, if at all, in hindsight: are supplies assured during this period?

£54 million more to unsecured creditors

The impact assessment calculates the benefits on the basis of R3’s August 2013 survey, which suggested that 7% of liquidations could be avoided. The Service has extrapolated this to mean that these liquidations instead may be tomorrow’s administrations… and, as the OFT 2011 corporate insolvency study indicated that on average unsecured creditors recovered 4% more in administrations than in liquidations, they conclude that this could result in an additional £54 million being returned to unsecured creditors.

Personally, I would have thought that the key insolvency shift that is likely to occur from these measures – especially given the Government’s appetite to act on Teresa Graham’s recommendations – is that some pre-packs may be replaced by post-appointment business sales, as IPs’ hands are freed up (if only a little) to continue to trade the business. I think it odd, therefore, that the impact assessment does not assume there would be any change in the proportion of administrations that will involve trading-on: the Service works on an assumption – both before and after the proposed changes – that 10% of administrations involve post-appointment trading-on.

Then again, didn’t Teresa Graham’s review conclude that pre-pack sold businesses are more likely to survive than post-appointment sold businesses? If this is so, is it a good or a bad thing that there could be fewer pre-packs and more post-appointment sales?  That really does depend on one’s view of pre-packs.  Still, as it seems inevitable now that the hurdles to pre-packs are going to be raised, I guess that we should welcome any lowering of the high jump bar for post-appointment trading.

Over 2,000 businesses could be saved each year

That was R3’s “Holding Rescue to Ransom” tagline. Is it realistic?

Personally, I think not. However, I don’t think I’m alone: the R3 article does remind us that its original campaign highlighted the need for all suppliers of essential services to be brought into the net, not just IT services.  Therefore, it remains to be seen if these provisions will provide enough breathing space to enable insolvency office holders to help more businesses to survive.

(UPDATE 24/02/2015: for a summary of the outcome of this consultation, go to: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-9w)


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The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill: Part 3 – Regulation

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In my final post on the Bill, I summarise the prospective changes to the IP regulatory landscape: by what standards will IPs be measured in the future? What will be the Insolvency Service’s role? And for how long will we continue with the multi-RPB model?

Regulatory Objectives

A key element of the Bill portrayed as the potential solution to several perceived problems is the introduction of regulatory objectives “as a framework against which regulatory activity can be measured and assessed”.

There has been a little refining of the objectives as originally proposed in the consultation document. They now appear (S126) as follows:

“‘Regulatory objectives’ means the objectives of:
(a) having a system of regulating persons acting as insolvency practitioners that
(i) secures fair treatment for persons affected by their acts and omissions,
(ii) reflects the regulatory principles, and
(iii) ensures consistent outcomes,
(b) encouraging an independent and competitive insolvency practitioner profession whose members:
(i) provide high quality services at a cost to the recipient which is fair and reasonable,
(ii) act transparently and with integrity, and
(iii) consider the interests of all creditors in any particular case,
(c) promoting the maximisation of the value of returns to creditors and promptness in making those returns, and
(d) protecting and promoting the public interest.”

Thus, the consultation’s suggested “value for money” objective has been replaced with reference to “high quality services at a cost to the recipient which is fair and reasonable”. However, “value for money” continues to appear large in the IA, which swings wildly from, on the one hand, conveying the sense that the introduction of a “value for money” regulatory objective will cause a sea change in regulation to, on the other hand, stating that, as RPBs say that “they already carry out an assessment of fees in monitoring visits”, they “do not anticipate this objective will add additional costs to the RPBs in terms of monitoring”.

Fees Complaints

The IA also states that “the objective makes it explicit that fee related complaints should be dealt with by the regulators”, but it states it is leaving the “how” entirely in the hands of the RPBs: “it will be for the RPBs, to create a system (whether within the existing complaints process or by combining resources to create a joint system) which adjudicates on fee issues”.

The IA sets a “high scenario” of 2,000 additional fee complaints (but with a best estimate of 300): that would be an average for each appointment-taker of three complaints every two years. However, despite this doom-saying, the IA factors in zero additional costs to the Service (in managing the Complaints Gateway) and to IPs. The IA states that the changes “should have minimal impact for individual IPs, particularly for those who already act in compliance with the existing legal and regulatory framework”. The Service does not seem to appreciate how the most compliant of IPs attracts complaints – it’s in the nature of the work – and how enormously time-consuming it can be to respond to RPB investigations, even when they end in “no case to answer”. I wonder how much work will be required to satisfy one’s RPB that the fees charged are a fair and reasonable exchange for the high quality services provided.

One consultation respondent estimated that the IP licence fee could increase by £950 pa, which prompted the IA drafter to write: “given the increased confidence and credibility to the industry which will result from a strengthened regulatory framework, is a proportionate cost for an industry which generates an estimated £1bn per annum”. In addition, the IA’s assessment of costs to the RPBs (for complaints-handling alone) shows a best estimate of £1,074 per IP, which increases to £7,184 per IP under the “high scenario”. Is this still considered a proportionate cost? It continues to sicken me that the Service seems to fail to understand the spectrum of environments within which IPs work. Yes, some do make a tidy living, but I know IPs for whom an extra £1,000 bill (let alone £7,000) would be the straw that breaks their back. For a Minister who seems so intent on “reducing a little the high bar on entry to the profession” (per her speech at the Insolvency Today conference) by introducing partial licences, which, allegedly, will encourage competition in the profession, she seems all too blind to the likely impact of burdening IPs with yet more costs; I think it will certainly threaten some sole practitioners’ survival in the industry. And for those IPs who can, inevitably the cost increase will be passed onto the insolvent estates – well done, Minister!

Will this “strengthened regulatory framework” really increase confidence in, and credibility of, the industry? Does the government feel that confidence will only increase once we see a few heads resting on platters? Well, public confidence had better improve, because the Bill will result in the Service’s hand hovering over the red button of the Single Regulator.

Partial Licences

The Small Biz Bill already makes obsolete the Deregulation Bill, which has yet even to complete its journey through the House of Lords, although principally only by adding to the Deregulation Bill’s requirements for RPBs – whether recognised for full or partial IP-licensing – by referring to the need to have rules and practices designed to ensure that the regulatory objectives are met.

Does this mean that the partial licensing debate over? The clause in the Deregulation Bill emerged intact from the House of Commons after a vote on a motion for its removal of 273 to 213. There has been some debate at the Bill’s second reading in the House of Lords, but it seems to me not nearly enough to turn the juggernaut. I find it quite striking how, on the one hand, there have been some very strong submissions against partial licensing primarily from R3 but also from the ICAEW* (which has stated that, through its own consultation process, it received “no indications of support at all” for partial licences), but on the other hand… Actually, who is fighting the “for” partial licensing corner? Why is it seen as such a great idea, where is the evidence that good people are being shut out of the market by the need to sit three exams (how many exams does it take to qualify as an accountant these days?), and has anyone with experience and knowledge of these things been arguing that partially licensed IPs will be just as skilful and competent as full licence-holders, only they will be cheaper?

* Responses on Clause 10 consultation, February 2014:
R3’s: http://goo.gl/vkqYvR
ICAEW’s: http://goo.gl/lhVNo8

Oversight Regulator’s Powers

The Bill introduces a range of powers, which will enable the oversight regulator (aka the Secretary of State, acting by the Insolvency Service) to influence an RPB’s actions – by means of directions, compliance orders, fines, reprimands, and ultimately the revocation of recognition – but also to leapfrog the RPB in its regulatory action against a licensed IP.

The Bill’s Explanatory Notes discloses the type of conditions that might prompt the Secretary of State to issue directions to an RPB: “if the RPB has failed to address the Insolvency Service’s concerns following a review of the way the RPB handles its complaints or a RPB’s failure to carry out a targeted monitoring visit of its IPs where the Insolvency Service has requested that it be done”. The Memorandum adds: “the Secretary of State will also be able to apply to the court to require an RPB to discipline an insolvency practitioner if disciplinary action appears to be in the public interest”.

When would the SoS apply to court directly to sanction an IP, rather than leave it to the IP’s RPB? The IA summary states: “where public confidence in the regime is undermined and could have serious consequences for the reputation of the profession. An example is where the activity undertaken impacts across all regulators and is so serious that action is required immediately, rather than wait for each regulator to investigate the case and come to potentially different findings”.

Personally, I find these moves worrying. In every Insolvency Service Annual Review of Insolvency Regulation, there is reported a clutch of complaints made to the Service about RPBs and, almost without exception, the Service’s investigations reveal nothing untoward. In addition, the Reviews disclose complaints made by the Service to the RPBs about individual IPs: these complaints appear to be processed by the RPBs adequately. Is this not the way things should be handled? It seems to me to be wholly inappropriate to side-step due process on the simple ground that public confidence appears to be undermined. Considering that the objective is to shore up public confidence in the existing regulatory regime, it seems to me that taking an issue out of the RPB’s hands is one sure way of destroying any confidence the public may have. If the Service were ever tempted to exercise such a power, it would seem to me that the nuclear option of a single regulator could become almost inevitable.

Single Regulator

What would prompt the SoS to designate a single regulator? The Bill’s Explanatory Notes state: “the power to move to a single regulator will only be used if the changes proposed by clauses 125 to 131 [i.e. including the regulatory objectives and the Service’s powers to sanction or direct the RPBs] do not succeed in improving confidence in the regulatory regime for insolvency practitioners”. The Memorandum also states: “the changes proposed by clauses 125 to 131 will be reviewed with a reasonable time of commencement. If there is still a lack of confidence in the insolvency practitioner regulatory regime, then the Secretary of State will consider whether to act to bring an end to the system of self-regulation by creating a single independent regulator which will apply consistent standards of regulation and will not be perceived to act in the interests of insolvency practitioners over creditors.”

I appreciate that often members of the public – and not a few IPs – express bemusement that the regulation of such a small industry should be shared amongst seven bodies and that there tends to be a natural scepticism towards the idea that a body funded (even in part) by IPs, some of whom also sit on regulatory committees, can be sufficiently independent to regulate its members satisfactorily (although I wonder how else anyone expects an insolvency regulator to be funded). However, whatever one’s criticisms are of the existing regulatory structure, I struggle to see how a single regulator would be certain to do a better job. But maybe it’s only the perception that’s important.


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The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill: Part 1 – Directors

IMGP0277 This “Small” Bill will have a big impact on IPs. Not only does it include the widely-publicised reserve powers to ban pre-packs and appoint a single insolvency regulator, but it will result in a completely new D-reporting process and will relegate physical creditors’ meetings to something that only creditors can request. The Bill contains many other smaller items that will require significant overhauling of templates and checklists… far more than the 7 hours estimated in the Impact Assessment!

The Bill’s government webpage is at http://goo.gl/VwKvPe and I have sketched out (to help myself get an overview) the clauses that will impact IPs here: Insol relevant provisions Jul-14

In this first post, I cover the key changes to reporting on directors and actions arising from directors’ misconduct. My next post will deal with the changes to the IP regulation regime, pre-packs, and the numerous technical changes to the Act.

D-Reporting

I know that R3 spins this as a success – the move from burdensome paper reports to something far speedier online – but I have to say that I am more sceptical about the advantages of this process for IPs.

The Impact Assessment (“IA”) describes the present problem as delayed reporting because “the IP must be satisfied that there is evidence of unfit conduct… The proposed design of the new form would require the IP to highlight (at an earlier stage) information or behaviour which may indicate unfit conduct as opposed to providing a significant amount of justification and evidence at that stage.” The Bill sets the timescale for submitting a report to within three months of appointment – the rationale, it says, being that “the SoS would be able to better consider behaviour identified by the IP” at this earlier stage [why?] and “the quality of information should improve due to the return being submitted with greater proximity to events” [really?] – although I thought it was charming that, in the same breath, the Bill is providing the Service with an extra year in which to commence disqualification proceedings.

Personally, I expect that this change will result in a greater number of ‘clean’ reports, as IPs will have less knowledge of past events at three months than at six months. However, as IPs will be “under an ongoing obligation to report any new information that he/she considers should have been included in the return”, I cannot see that this will result in less, or even the same amount of, work for IPs in the long run. The forms themselves might also require more work, as “there are also other pieces of information not currently requested which R3 states that IPs could usefully provide”.

The IA estimates only one hour for IPs (nothing for other staff) to familiarise themselves with the new process and one hour per director in completing the new return where misconduct is indicated, which I can see, depending on the final form of the return, would be a reduction over the present demand, although the IA has provided no time costs in relation to providing additional information to the SoS after a return has been submitted.

One sentence that really got my goat was: “Analysis undertaken on a sample of 250 cases where D1 reports were submitted but not proceeded with indicated that a significant percentage of them should not have been submitted”. Should not have been submitted?! What can the government mean? Are IPs failing to meet their statutory obligations?

I am reminded of a question raised by the House of Commons BIS Select Committee when it interviewed Richard Judge and Graham Horne in 2012 about the apparent disparity between the number of D1s filed – around 5,000 per year – and the number of disqualifications. I remember Dr Judge stating that this meant there were “5,000 indications of misconduct… there are people that are innocent in that” and Mr Horne chipping in quickly to clarify that IPs are required by statute to report directors who, by analogy, drove at 31 mph in a 30 mph zone; technically, the conduct might be reportable, but of course not all such directors will be pursued to disqualification. Although switching to a system in which IPs simply provide the facts and leave the SoS to decide whether the director’s behaviour merits action may avoid future discomfort in answering such questions, it seems to me that nothing here changes the statutory obligation for IPs to waste time reporting on the 31 mph drivers.

Compensation Awards

The IA gives us a clear hint at what has driven this measure. It states that “a frequent complaint in Ministerial correspondence from creditors is that although disqualification can prevent a director acting as a director in future, it provides no compensation to those who have suffered from their misconduct”. What types of cases might attract compensation awards? The IA states that “it is reasonable to believe that compensation could be sought from, at least those cases where there has been an identifiable loss to creditors, for example: misapplication of assets, transactions to the detriment, criminal matters and accounting records” – that’s quite a list! The IA continues: “it is also reasonable to assume that whatever the allegation, the SoS will also seek compensation for those cases where there are a lot of unsecured creditors or ‘vulnerable’ members of the public who have lost out”.

However, the IA presents a confusing picture as to how the government envisages the process of seeking compensation awards against disqualified directors working – in tandem? – with the activities currently carried on by office holders in challenging antecedent transactions. For example, the IA states: “the option of the SoS seeking a compensation order or agreeing a compensation undertaking from a miscreant director will enable greater financial redress for creditors, where the office holder (IP) has not taken any of the available actions him/herself or it is considered that further action in addition to that taken by the IP is merited”. Fair enough, as the IA points out, this may be because the office holder has insufficient funds to pursue the case (although I am irritated by the comment that an IP might feel “they don’t have the specialist expertise to bring a claim”). But, I wonder, will this exacerbate the difficulties in reaching settlements with directors who, notwithstanding any settlement agreed with the IP, could then be pursued by the SoS? At least the IA recognises that there are likely to be fewer disqualification undertakings under the future regime, as directors are less likely to give in without a fight.

Do you wonder whether this could result in the SoS and IP fighting between themselves as to who might chase after the director’s finite pot first? The IA states that IPs “should be able to proceed with any action they deem appropriate before the SoS”. Well, that’s alright then.

The Bill also indicates that compensation may be awarded to a particular creditor or creditors, a class or classes of creditors, or it may form a contribution by the director to the assets of the company. However, the IA states “the compensation award will be awarded direct to creditors” (although it makes no provision for the Service’s costs in collecting the monies from the director, adjudicating on creditors’ claims, or paying a distribution). This quote appears in the context of “free-riding amongst liquidators”! It seems that some consultation responses suggested that office holders might not pursue claims themselves, but they might sit back, wait for the Service to do the work, and then pop up to collect the funds and take a fee. The IA does nothing to counter this libellous title and simply states that, because the award is direct to creditors, they “do not think the risk of ‘free-riding’ is high” and “no evidence exists on the likely number of cases of free-riding by liquidators”. Come on, Insolvency Service, we expect better of you than that!

I am also puzzled by the repeated references to improving gateways so that the SoS and IPs might share information better, for example, “to better enable successful recovery actions to be taken forward by the office holder”. As far as I can tell, the gates only swing one way (unless there is something in the OR’s handover) and will continue to do so; there are no proposals in the Bill to help IPs have greater access to information, although the IA suggests that things may change “through updating internal guidance used by Insolvency Service staff”.

I was also puzzled at the IA highlighting a “risk” that “this will result in compensation orders being made for the benefit of HMRC as they are the major unsecured creditor in the majority of insolvencies”. Personally, I don’t see that a bit of recompense to the public purse is a bad thing. Instead of the IA pointing to the Bill’s reference to factors that the court/SoS would consider – the amount of loss, nature of misconduct, and any recompense already paid – it answered this by referring to the fact that the court/SoS could determine that compensation be awarded to a particular creditor or class or group of creditors “taking into account what is equitable in all the circumstances”. Could the prospect of deviating from the pari passu rule, especially if HMRC might not get a look-in at all, result in some creditors calling for office holders to resist taking action and leaving it to the SoS?

Power to assign certain rights of action to third parties

The apparent “problem” that the government is seeking to fix is the lack of court applications as regards wrongful and fraudulent trading (which are both extended under the Bill to Administrators), transactions at undervalue etc. However, the IA acknowledges that “a lot” of claims are settled out of court (they have heard upwards of 90%) and it reports that the other principal reasons for lack of court actions given in the consultation responses were the targets’ lack of assets and the high evidential bar necessary, so the government acknowledges itself in the IA that the Bill’s provisions are unlikely to result in many more cases going to court.

The IA does not mention the issue for an IP who agrees to share in the proceeds of any action assigned to a third party: won’t the risk of an adverse costs order deter IPs from entering into some assignments? The IA points out a risk “of speculative or opportunistic claims being brought against directors who may be ill placed to defend themselves. However, this risk should be small as we expect insolvency professionals to have regard to existing professional and ethical standards in judging when to assign causes of action.” But in the next paragraph the IA refers to the IP’s duty to maximise returns to creditors: could an IP really be justified in turning away third parties offering to pay for rights of action, if it represented a good deal for creditors?

The IA appears more thoughtful in relation to the justification for IPs selling to a third party, who after all is looking to make a profit from the action: they feel that IPs may be justified as the third party’s greater appetite for risk and economies of scale in taking the action forward compensate for the discount on the action suffered by the estate. The IA also makes the sensible point that simply opening the way for third parties may improve IPs’ negotiating position in pursuing claims directly from directors.

My part 2 on the Bill will follow in a week or so (once I’ve done some real work!)

(UPDATE 25/09/14: I read an excellent blog on the subject of the director provisions of the Bill from Neil Davies & Partners – http://goo.gl/uYp3RU.  I was particularly intrigued by the observations on the complications that could arise from the provision to empower the SoS to pursue compensation orders.)


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IP Fees & Regulation Consultation: Have Turkeys Voted for Christmas?

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Faced with an apparent government vision of heavy-handed oversight over the RPBs and some peculiar restrictions on the time cost basis for IP fees, how have the RPBs and R3 responded? Have they resisted the pressure to offer some kind of compromise? Have they offered anything that might “solve the problems”? Here I have attempted to compare and contrast the responses of ACCA, ICAEW, ICAS, IPA and R3 to the key proposals of the recent consultation.

The government consultation page is at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-and-fee-structure

The bodies’ responses are located at:

• ACCA: http://www.accaglobal.com/content/accaglobal/zw/en/technical-activities/technical-resources-search/2014/march/cdr1267.html
• ICAEW: http://www.icaew.com/en/technical/insolvency/insolvency-reps
• ICAS: http://icas.org.uk/Technical-Knowledge/Insolvency-Technical/Submissions/
• IPA: in the members’ area>public consultations>other consultations
• R3: https://www.r3.org.uk/media/documents/policy/consultation_subs/R3_response_-_Strengthening_the_regulatory_regime_and_fee_structure_for_IPs.pdf

In particular, I would recommend reading the R3 response in full, as there is not the space here to do it justice and it includes some valuable member survey results.

Regulatory Objectives

The government has proposed regulatory objectives for the statute-books, “framed” as follows:

1. Protecting and promoting the public interest

2. Having a system of regulating persons acting as IPs that:
(i) delivers fair treatment for persons affected by their actions and omissions,
(ii) reflects the regulatory principles under which regulatory activities should be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted only at cases in which action is needed, and any other principle considered to represent best regulatory practice, and
(iii) delivers consistent outcomes

3. Encouraging an independent and competitive IP profession whose members:
(i) deliver quality services transparently and with integrity, and
(ii) consider the interests of all creditors in any particular case

4. Promoting the maximisation of the value of returns to creditors and also promptness in making those returns

5. Ensuring that the fees charged by IPs represent value for money

ACCA seemed alone in considering most of the above to be “uncontentious”, even going so far as to suggest what it felt would be a useful addition to them. However, none of the proposed objectives avoided the other bodies’ critical eyes. Many of the comments revolved around the thought that any such objectives will need to be supported by detailed guidance so that everyone was clear on the standards by which IPs and the RPBs are being measured.

Here are some other fruitier comments:

• Why stop at “having a system of regulating IPs” that delivers fairness etc.? Aren’t some of these objectives appropriate to the insolvency regime itself? (ICAEW, IPA)
• Shouldn’t the regulation system “deliver fair treatment” also to IPs? (ICAEW)
• Fixing IP fees on a prescribed scale (reference to another of the consultation’s proposals) would not “encourage a competitive IP profession”. (ICAEW)
• Statute already sets out how office holders should consider creditors’ interests (ICAEW, R3), although not uniformly in all cases (IPA). Setting it as an objective may raise false hopes of some expecting greater weight to be given to their interests than provided by statute. (ICAEW)
• Promoting the “promptness of returns” could threaten consideration of longer term gains, thus encouraging a culture of “quick kills” rather than thorough investigation and pursuit of claims. (IPA)
• “You should recognise that to perform a ‘value for money’ assessment in a case will require a detailed audit… which will be a very time consuming (and therefore expensive) process.” (ICAEW)
• Setting “value for money” as a regulatory objective simply shifts the responsibility for finding a solution onto the RPBs, rather than helping to overcome the difficulties in ascertaining what actually represents value for money. (IPA)
• The regulatory process cannot alter the facts that creditors will suffer losses, but enshrining objectives 4 and 5 risks over-inflating creditors’ expectations and thus may have a detrimental effect on public confidence. (IPA)

R3 kicked back more robustly on the concept as a whole: “the proposals… prompt us to suggest that now is the time to look at, in a fundamental way, the role of the Insolvency Service, as presently structured, funded, resourced and whether it is the most appropriate body to direct and oversee as important a part of the UK’s financial support service sector as the insolvency profession”.

Oversight Regulator’s Statutory Powers over the RPBs

The government proposes to introduce statutory powers to enable the Insolvency Service/Secretary of State to take a variety of actions against RPBs and, in certain cases, to make their own enquiries of, and apply to court to decide sanctions on, IPs directly. Unsurprisingly, the RPBs – and perhaps a little surprisingly, R3 – expressed concerns over some of the proposals as well as questioning whether the powers were truly necessary (again with the clear exception of ACCA, which had few specific comments on the proposals).

• “The ‘oversight regulator’ should take care to avoid ‘micro-managing’ RPBs and their disciplinary processes. Effectively running a ‘shadow’ regulatory system on top of the existing established processes would be confusing and damaging for the insolvency profession and those it serves.” (R3)
• “The increased powers of sanction by the oversight body seem to be little more than window dressing to address non-existent illegal actions… In our view, the system of regulation operates at its most effective when the oversight regulator and the RPBs work together, as demonstrated through the introduction of the complaints gateway.” (ICAEW)
• “It is worrying that the Secretary of State would wish to acquire the ability to control individual enquiries, which could undermine the fairness of the procedure.” (ICAEW)
• “The fundamental problem… is that the proposed legislation does not envisage there being any stage at which a proper disciplinary hearing will be held to allow the IP to deal with and refute the findings of the Insolvency Service investigation and it is envisaged that the Secretary of State, through the good offices of the Insolvency Service would be investigator, prosecutor and judge (determining both guilt and sanction).” (ICAEW)
• “We wonder whether this process could be susceptible to challenge on the basis of human rights legislation given that there appears to be no provision for a fair trial by an independent tribunal.” (ICAEW)
• “Who picks up the likely significant costs?” If these are to be passed on to the RPBs, then licence fees will increase significantly, with the likely consequences of increased costs on insolvent estates and IPs leaving the market. (ICAEW and R3)
• “There are several proposals… that would see IPs potentially punished twice for the same transgression. It is both inequitable and a position that few other professionals could find themselves in.” (R3) The IPA also stated that such a process “would introduce a degree of double jeopardy and be contrary to principles of natural justice”. Although apparently the Service has clarified, in a meeting with the IPA, that it is not intended to subject an IP to a second disciplinary process, the IPA has questioned how, and in what circumstances, would the Service conduct such enquiries independent of the IP’s licensing body.
• “The power for the Secretary of State to sanction an IP directly calls into question the point of the regulation of the profession being delegated to RPBs in the first place.” (R3)
• As regards the proposed power to issue a direction to an RPB in the context of a disciplinary matter: “it would be wholly inappropriate for the Insolvency Service to mandate that a particular decision be reached.” (ICAS)
• Will the Service be adequately resourced – financially and with skilled staff – to exercise these new powers, particularly in regard to the proposed investigations and prosecutions? (R3 and ICAS)

A Single Regulator?

It seems that there has been a slight convergence of opinions of R3 and the RPBs on this question. Setting aside ACCA, which “endorsed” the proposal, the regulatory and trade bodies now seem united in their objection to the proposed reserve power to enable the Service to designate a single regulator.

However, whereas R3 brought attention to the “regulation gap” that would result as a single regulator got up to speed, the RPBs had other reasons for their objections:

• Whatever could be achieved by the Insolvency Service overseeing a single regulator equally should be achievable with multiple RPBs. Effective oversight is the key. (ICAS and ICAEW)
• “There seems to be a failure to recognise that many IPs are already members of bodies which operate with the best regulatory models for professionals.” (ICAS)
• “Competition between regulators has driven down licensing costs and led to improvements in RPBs’ offerings to their members. There would be no such incentive to innovate, were there to be a single regulatory body.” (IPA)
• The government is also proposing to introduce a formal process to de-recognise an RPB if it fails to perform, but how would that work with a single regulator? We could hardly be left with no regulator! (IPA)
• Providing even a reserve power “could be seen to demonstrate on the part of the Insolvency Service a lack of commitment to the changes proposed for the regulatory regime and a lack of confidence in its part in the RPBs.” (ICAEW)

R3 suggested a third way: a “Single Regulatory Process”, which “would reduce significantly the inconsistencies that currently exist in the insolvency profession’s regulation” and “would also be a chance to take a fresh look at the profession’s regulatory processes and standards”.

Restriction of Use of Time Cost Basis

I wonder if the Service had any inkling of the floodgate they were prising open with the suggestion that the option of seeking fees on a time cost basis be limited to certain cases. Even ACCA is opposed to this one!

The core objections will not come as a surprise:

• If the primary issue is lack of creditor engagement, then the solution should lie in improving creditor engagement, starting with the Crown creditors. (ACCA, ICAS, ICAEW)
• “Some IPs may feel minded for their own commercial protection to factor in more work than might in the event be necessary, in which case fees could end up being over-estimated.” (ACCA; similar comments made by R3)
• In 2013, only 2% of all complaints related to fees, so perhaps creditors’ concern is not so acute as perceived by the government, and any action taken to change the existing regime must be proportionate. (ACCA, R3, ICAEW, ICAS)
• Plenty of criticisms of the OFT study: out of date, limited scope (which is now being extrapolated far beyond its remit), confusion between fees and costs, assumption that engaged creditors are the only constraint on fees, etc… (primarily R3 and ICAEW)
• IPs will avoid small and risky cases, as a fixed/percentage fee would not be economical. (R3, ACCA) [Although I have heard this many times, personally I don’t get it (unless people have in mind a prescribed rate): for a case with assets of £10,000 (net of non-IP costs), how does an IP’s recovery differ, if he is paid on a time cost basis, a fixed fee of £10,000, or a fee of 100% of the first £10,000 (net) realised?]
• This would burden the public purse, as uneconomic cases will remain with the OR. Some IPs also would leave the market, resulting in reduced competition and fewer options for debtors seeking help, which would seem contrary to the public interest. (R3, ICAEW)
• Fixed fees do not incentivise IPs to pursue tricky assets or to carry out non-profitable tasks. What does an IP do when he reaches the limit but still has work to do; is he expected to work for no pay? (ACCA, R3, ICAS, ICAEW, IPA)
• As recommended by the Cork Report, percentage-based fees were largely dropped in the 1980s, as they were viewed as unfair and inequitable to creditors. (ACCA, R3) “There is nothing inherently fair in a basis of charging where the results depend upon the amount and quality of realisable assets, rather than the work required.” (ICAEW) Arguably, time costs are the fairest fees mechanism (ICAEW), whereas fixed/percentage fees will invariably result in an element of cross-subsidisation of cases. (IPA)
• There is no evidence – or reason – to support the assumption that adopting fixed/percentage fees will reduce fee levels (IPA) or creditors’ returns (ICAEW).

But here are some of the more impassioned and novel comments:

• This specific proposal has no grounding in the Kempson review nor has there been any evidence-based research. “The Insolvency Service has disclosed the rationale behind this decision is solely ‘because two methods of remuneration are simpler than three’.” (R3)
• “R3 is not aware of anywhere else in the world where fee restrictions as outlined in the consultation are in operation. In effect, the Insolvency Service proposes to introduce an untested system of IP remuneration in the UK.” (R3)
• Secured creditors have the power to negotiate discounts from IPs, but why must that mean that unsecured creditors are ‘over-charged’? If a large customer (such as the government via its own procurement policy) sought to obtain discounts, that does not mean that other buyers of the goods and services are automatically being ‘over-charged’. (R3)
• Is a 9% differential in costs (the OFT study’s conclusion) really concerning? “The differential, for instance, between prices charged for consumer goods to wholesale or retail customers could be expected to be much higher (and still not exploitative of consumers).” (ICAEW)
• Restricting fees could result in outsourcing of parts of the job to unregulated entities, shifting the cost rather than reducing it and resulting in less transparency and control. (R3)
• “It is simplistic to think that changes introduced in the personal insolvency market can be imported into the corporate sector; this view demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of corporate insolvency, This market cannot be ‘commoditised’ in the same way.” (R3)
• If creditors have difficulty assessing the reasonableness of fees based on time costs, they will have the same, if not greater, difficulty judging fixed/percentage fees, something acknowledged by Professor Kempson. (R3)
• There is no reason to believe that restricting the use of the time cost basis in this manner will impact on creditor engagement or complaints about fees. (R3)
• RICS abolished fee scales for valuations after the Monopolies and Mergers Commission concluded that “they restricted competition and worked against consumers and were against the public interest”. (ICAEW)
• It is difficult to reconcile the government’s apparent determination to improve public confidence in the insolvency regime with the World Bank’s report that shows the UK currently as one of the most effective jurisdictions for resolving insolvency. (ICAEW)
• “If the aim of the Insolvency Service is to reduce IPs’ fees in aggregate to a break-even level, it seems unlikely that a high quality profession will be sustained.” (ICAEW)
• The Impact Assessment identifies the risk that the OR might be left with more small-value cases, but the Assessment’s suggestion “that the concerns will be ‘overcome’ through regulatory objectives of RPBs and monitoring is fanciful. The consequences would result from a fee regime imposed upon the profession by the government and RPBs would not be in a position to do anything about it.” (ICAEW)
• Professor Kempson recommended greater use of mixed bases for fees, but the government is proposing to abolish this. (IPA) [Mixed bases were only introduced in 2010!]
• The government wishes RPBs to engage more actively in monitoring and assessment of fees, but this will be more difficult in non-time cost cases. (IPA)
• The 2010 reforms and revised SIP9 are still fresh, but “the Insolvency Service appears already to have concluded that those reforms failed.” (ICAEW)
• Proposals to provide different fee bases for different case types, recovery prospects, and UK jurisdictions will do nothing to clarify an already-confusing picture for creditors. (ICAEW)

The bodies’ suggestions of alternative approaches are a mixed bag (some of which, personally, I find a bit scary! But hey, a bit of brain-storming is no bad thing.):

• Greater engagement by Crown creditors (pretty-much everyone’s idea).
• Reduce the constraints on creditors’ committees, e.g. smaller quorum. (ICAS)
• Encourage committee members, e.g. small payments for attending meetings. (ICAEW)
• Introduce a Scottish-style Reporter mechanism across the UK (the consultation stated that the Scottish system’s checks and balances appeared to work reasonably well). (ICAS)
• Require IPs “to justify to creditors and regulators their use of the hourly rate, by reference to prescribed criteria”. (ACCA)
• “More targeted support… to creditors to enable them to assess the reasonableness of the amounts being claimed.” (ACCA)
• “Improved management of creditor expectations, through creditor guides, fee estimates and estimated outcome statements.” (IPA)
• “Enhanced capital requirements and/or direct financial contribution by directors to the basic costs of insolvency processes.” (IPA) [Interesting idea, but isn’t there a risk of conflict with this..?]
• Fixing a minimum fee for those statutory elements of an insolvency administration that will generally not be of direct financial benefit to creditors.” (IPA, similar suggestion by R3)
• “Data collection and benchmarking of fee data.” (IPA) [And..?]
• “Guidance and/or compulsion of IPs to make greater use of mixed fee bases for different elements of the work involved within an insolvency administration. The onus could be put on the IP to justify why the basis sought is appropriate to the nature of assets, the complexity of the task and the value that it is estimated will result.” (IPA) [But does this follow, given some of the arguments against fixed/percentage fees..?]
• Better explanation by IPs up-front of the likelihood (or not) of dividends and of the work that will need to be carried out that will not generate direct financial benefits. (IPA)
• Adjusting the requisite voting majorities so that greater creditor participation is required. (IPA) [Why penalise IPs for creditors’ inactivity?]
• Encouraging cheaper ways of conducting “meetings”, e.g. by telephone, e-meetings, or resolutions by correspondence. (ICAEW)
• Drop the Red Tape Challenge proposal to remove the requirement to hold creditors’ meetings. (R3)
• More/better guides for creditors, similar to those that the Insolvency Service already provides for debtors facing bankruptcy. (ICAEW, R3)
• More transparency/information regarding the costs to insolvent estates by the Insolvency Service, as creditors/debtors often confuse these with IPs’ fees. (R3)
• Trade bodies should help members to understand insolvency – and how to avoid it or becoming a creditor in an insolvency – better. (ICAEW)
• All relevant Insolvency Service officials should work in an IP firm for a minimum of two weeks per year as ‘on the job/CPD training’ to plug the apparent knowledge gap, given the lack of understanding of the insolvency profession evidenced by the consultation proposals. (R3) [Ooh!]
• Greater use of cost-saving measures of 2010 Rules and more time to allow them to have effect. (R3)
• “IPs should also be required to report work with more transparency, e.g. break down time-use clearly into constituent parts such as ‘communicating with x number of creditors to establish a meeting’.” (R3) [Ooer! Can we try to keep it relatively simple and proportionate..?]
• “Introducing elements of a Code of Practice for IPs (based on the model in Australia) plus changes to SIP9 could be introduced to ensure that IPs’ records of time spent (and corresponding fees on a case) are transparent and accountable.” (R3) [In what ways is the current SIP9 deficient in this area..? R3 points to the Australian part of the MF Global case report as a good example; this report provides a fee estimate of $1 million for the first month – is R3 sure this is an appropriate model for typical (non-secured creditor) cases?] R3 suggests that in this way IPs would explain the work done “in more detail” and “reporting would be clearer”.

The most widely-made suggestion as regards fee-setting is the mandatory use of fee estimates (ACCA, IPA, ICAEW, R3), with some bodies suggesting express creditor approval for exceeding an estimate could be required (IPA, R3; ACCA: “perhaps”). I’m attracted to this idea as well, but, although I agree with the idea of seeking creditors’ approval for fees in excess of an estimate, I would hope that this could be done without necessarily positive creditor response; if creditors do not respond to an invitation to vote, then is it fair to penalise the IP? It could also impact on creditors’ returns, as silence may force the IP to take further measures, perhaps by court application, to achieve approval. It might also be more likely to encourage a poor habit of over-estimating fees in the first instance, so that IPs can avoid the hassle of seeking approval to more fees later. There are many issues with this suggestion – some will complain that it is well-nigh impossible to estimate fees with any degree of confidence at an early stage – but it has to be the lesser of several suggested evils, hasn’t it? In addition, isn’t it a standard and professional way of approaching fees? After all, don’t we usually seek fees estimates – with subsequent approval for uplifts – from many suppliers, from solicitors to garage mechanics?

Regulatory Intervention in Matters of Remuneration

The consultation also sought views on proposals to have the RPBs take a greater role in assessing and deciding on fees issues, via both enhanced monitoring and dealing with complaints about the quantum of fees. Most RPBs pointed out that IP fees are already considered to a significant extent; the ICAEW described it this way: “reviewers already look in detail at the insolvency practitioner’s time records. They will question the time recorded against specific tasks, where it doesn’t appear commensurate with the work evidenced on the case files; where it appears to have been carried out by a more experienced member of staff than we would consider appropriate; or where it appears excessive.”

As regards the suggestion that RPBs should do more than look at clear regulatory breaches:

• “To suggest that RPB bodies should step into the breach – even if one exists in relation to IP remuneration – will not address the issue without a sincere attempt by the UK Government to review the legislation. Regulators should not be asked to circumvent or overrule the law and to do so will inevitably expose the regulators to legal challenge.” (ICAS; ICAEW also highlighted the risks of Court challenge of RPBs’ judgments)
• “We are unclear on what basis an RPB could interject when the fee basis has been approved by a statutory process. This would be a usurpation of Court’s powers.” (IPA)
• “If 90% of creditors have approved as IPs fees, it does not appear reasonable to allow a minority financial interest to delay the administration of an estate.” (IPA)

Whilst the IPA is “opposed to routine regulatory involvement in fee assessment”, it seems more open to the idea that more could be done practically: it suggested that, if the idea of fee estimates were taken up, it could engage in “routine monitoring of practitioner performance” against these estimates. It also stated: “we can see no reason why, in a case of apparent excessive charging, the RPB could not direct the practitioner to repay such fees as exceed the original estimate provided or else direct the IP to have their fees assessed by a Court”, although the IPA does seem to be alone in this view.

It seems clear from the responses that there is much confusion amongst the bodies as to exactly what the government is proposing; simply dropping in a “value for money” regulatory objective and telling RPBs to get on with it will not work. The IPA remarked: “The regulatory challenges presented flow from the entirely subjective nature of establishing what value for money is and in whose opinion such value should be ascertained. The government has been singularly unable to define these concepts and appears now to expect the RPBs to be able to do so on their behalf… Will a full review of time spent and how this compares to the fixed or percentage fees charged be required? Will on-site visits to review practitioners’ files be expected?” The ICAEW also stated that, if the idea is for “RPBs to effectively conclude on each file reviewed that the IP’s costs represent value for money, we would expect there to be a significant impact on our monitoring costs; potentially doubling them.” However, the ICAEW seems to have been party to a meeting with the Consultation Policy Lead that has led them to conclude that all that is envisaged of RPBs as regards “enhanced monitoring” is pretty-much what they are already doing. One would hope that the Service could do better at communicating their desires to the bodies that they directly oversee!

In summary, I don’t think the turkeys have voted for Christmas. I think they have resisted well the pressure to seek a compromise, but have endeavoured to keep their eye focussed on what truly appears to be the issue – creditor engagement – and what practically might be done to improve the situation.


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The Perilous Neglect of the Fragile Insolvency Service Enforcement Directorate

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

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

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

Changes to the CDDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better Compensating Creditors for Director Misconduct”

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

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

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

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

The Government’s proposed remedies are:

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

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

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

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

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


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And now for a qualitative review of the IP Regulation Report

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

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

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

Ethical Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consultation with employees

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

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

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

SIP16

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

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

Dodgy Introducers

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

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

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