Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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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.


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A Closer Look at Six Years of Insolvency Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

Monitoring Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not a lot better. Oh well.

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

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

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

Complaints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overview

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

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


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IP Fees Consultation: a case of failing to see the wood for the trees..?

1525 Sequoia

Unfortunately, my case law reviews have become a bit log-jammed, so I’m afraid all I can offer at present is my response to the Insolvency Service’s IP fees and regulation consultation: MB IP fees response Mar-14

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


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Who knew the Insolvency Service had a sense of humour?

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Well, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry!

I am conscious that my top ten jokes below make this a fairly destructive, not constructive, post about the Insolvency Service’s “Strengthening the regulatory regime and fee structure for insolvency practitioners” consultation. In addition, I do not cover many of the common concerns about the proposals, nor do I suggest here any real solutions. Nevertheless, I do think that it’s important, not to dismiss the proposals out of hand, but to think seriously about what might work. Our own ideas may not be what the Service has in mind, but we become the joke, if we plough on claiming that we see no ships (even if, yes I know, it may look as though that’s what I’m saying below… but rarely does public opinion concern itself with facts).

I have one week left to chew over my own suggestions before setting pen to paper in my formal response. Therefore, in the meantime, here are my top ten jokes told by the Service in its consultation document and two impact assessments (“IA”), which can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-and-fee-structure.

1. “Each year IPs realise approximately £5bn worth of assets from corporate insolvency processes, and in doing so charge about £1bn in fees, distributing some £4bn to creditors” (paragraph 88 of the consultation document)

The Insolvency Service has repeated this most absurd statement from the OFT’s market study. So, I ask myself, who is paying the solicitors’ fees, the agents’ fees, all the necessary costs of insolvencies such as insurance, advertising, bond premiums etc., and finally what about the Insolvency Service’s own fees that are payable from the assets in all (bankruptcies and) compulsory liquidations in priority to everything else? This statement just cannot be true!

It also grossly distorts the position and perception of IP fees: are we really talking about £1bn of IP fees here or costs on insolvent estates? The OFT’s explanation of how they came up with the £1bn (footnote 11 at http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/reports/Insolvency/oft1245) mixes up fees and costs, so it is difficult to be sure. However, as this debate has built up momentum, few seem bothered any longer about the facts behind the fees “problem”.

2. “Cases where secured creditors will not be paid in full and so remain in control of fees. The market works well in this instance so we do not want to interfere with the ability for secured creditors to successfully negotiate down fees” (paragraph 113 of the consultation document)

Both Professor Kempson’s report and the OFT market study drew conclusions about the effectiveness of secured creditors’ control. However, the OFT’s study looked only at Administrations and Para 83 CVLs (which are so not S98s) and Professor Kempson built on this study and therefore concentrated on the effect of IPs obtaining appointments via bank panels. And, from this relatively narrow focus, we end up with the conclusion above that the Service proposes to apply to all insolvencies (except, it is proposed, for VAs and MVLs, where it is suggested other fees controls work well… so maybe those cases have a different lesson for us about the level of engagement of those responsible for authorising the fees..?).

But, I ask myself, what about other cases involving secured creditors? What about less significant liquidations or even bankruptcies where the mortgaged home is in negative equity? Do the secured creditors really control the level of fees in these cases? It seems highly unlikely, when you remember that the bases of liquidators’ and trustees’ fees are fixed by resolutions of the unsecured creditors. And let’s not worry too much about the effectiveness (or not) of non-bank secured creditors…

Some might react: let it lie. If the Service wants to leave well alone all cases where secured creditors will not be paid in full – regardless of whether or not, in practice, they control fees – why make a fuss? The same could be said about my next point…

3. “The basis of remuneration must be fixed in accordance with paragraph (4) where… there is likely to be property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors…” (draft Rule 17.14(2)(b))

This is supposed to be the way the objective mentioned in 2 above is achieved, i.e. that fees may only be fixed on the bases described in “paragraph (4)” (i.e. percentage or set amount, but not time costs) where secured creditors are not in control of fees (plus in some other circumstances).

I am sure it has taken you less than a millisecond to work it out: “where a distribution to unsecured creditors is likely” is patently not the same as “where secured creditors do not remain in control of fees”. What about the vast majority of liquidations, which must represent by far the greatest proportion in number of insolvencies, where the asset realisations are not enough to cover all the costs (including IPs’ time costs)? In these cases, the Service’s proposal is that they would like the IP’s fees to be on a percentage or set amount, but in fact the draft Rules would entitle the liquidator to seek approval on a time cost basis. That must be a joke!

The problem for me in leaving these flaws alone is that IPs could be lumbered with Rules that do not implement the Government’s policy objectives, which may result in the Service/RPBs pressing for behaviours and approaches that are not supported by the statutory framework, which will do no one any good.

4. The use of the Schedule 6 scale rate for fees “ensures that there are funds available for distribution and not all realisations are swallowed up in fees and remuneration” (paragraph 117 of the consultation document)

Firstly, I object to “swallowed up”. It seems to me an emotive phrase, generating the image of an enormous whale greedily scooping up trillions of helpless krill in its distended maw. In fact, this image – and the reference to “excessive” fees/fee-charging, even though the consultation document acknowledges at one point that Professor Kempson did not interpret over-charging as deliberate but as largely related to inefficiencies – seems a constant throughout.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, as explained in (1) above, simply reverting to office holder fees being charged as a percentage, even the relatively low percentages of Schedule 6, will not ensure there are funds available for distribution. But this objective seems to be the raison d’etre of the fees proposals (and not just the Schedule 6 default), as Ms Willott MP explains in her foreword: “[The consultation document] also includes proposals to amend the way in which an insolvency practitioner can charge fees for his or her services, which should ensure that there will be funds available to make a payment to creditors” (page 2). This can only feed into some creditors’ misconceived expectations, not only about the post-new Rules world, but also about the insolvency process in general. If every insolvency were required to result in a distribution, there would be far more work for the OR and far fewer IPs in the country.

5. “The transfer of returns from IPs to unsecured creditors has the potential to deliver a more efficient dynamic economic allocation of resources as these creditors are more likely to reinvest these resources in growth driving activities” (paragraph 17 of the IP fees IA)

Actually, this isn’t funny; it’s just insulting. Even if you imagined a typical IP as a beer-bellied pin-striped man smoking a cigar of £50 notes, with more spilling out unnoticed from his pockets (which was the image in an Insolvency Service presentation to IPs last year), his ill-gotten gains are still going be passed on to the home sauna builders or the Michelin Star restaurants, aren’t they? But, of course, that’s beside the point; as someone who has worked decades in the insolvency profession, I take exception to the suggestion that the UK would be better off if my wages were paid to unsecured creditors.

6. “The OFT report states that some unsecured creditors say that if their recovery rate from insolvency increased, they would extend more credit. While this effect is likely to be slight, even a small increase in the £80bn of unsecured credit extended by SME’s will amount to many millions of pounds” (paragraph 56 of the IP fees IA)

How much better-off does the IA suggest unsecured creditors will be if the alleged “excessive fee charging” is passed to them? At the top end, 0.1p in the £ (paragraph 52) – will they even feel it..? Talk about a “slight” effect!

7. “We would estimate that familiarisation would take up to 1.5 hours of an IP’s time based on the assumption that this change is not complex to understand and would only need to be understood once before being applied… IPs are already required to seek the approval of creditors for the basis on which their remuneration is taken and it is anticipated that at the same time they will seek agreement to the percentage they are proposing to take. We do not therefore anticipate any additional costs associated with this” (paragraphs 35 and 43 of the IP fees IA)

1.5 hours once and nothing more? Ha ha!

For IPs to switch to a percentage basis (but only in certain circumstances/cases) will require days – weeks, perhaps months – of organising changes to systems, procedures and templates and a greater time burden per case. The challenges for systems, procedures and staff will include:

• Assessing a fair percentage of estimated future realisations to reflect the value of work done. This seems an almost impossible task on Day One. For example, book debts: will the money just fall in or will it be a tough job, involving scrutinising and collating records and re-buffing objections and procrastinations? How much do you allow for the SIP2 investigations, what if you need to follow a lead? So many questions…

• Ongoing monitoring to check if/when fees can no longer be fixed on a time cost basis. You’d think this would be relatively easy, until you read how the draft Rules deal with the tipping point for a dividend: a time cost basis falls away when “the office holder becomes aware or ought to have become aware that there is likely to be property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors” (draft R17.19(1)(b)). Hours of fun!

• Reverting to creditors when a revised fee basis needs to be sought, whether that be because the time costs basis is no longer available or because the case hasn’t progressed as originally anticipated or potential new assets are identified during a case, thus warranting a change in the percentage or set amount, with the potential for court applications if creditors don’t approve the revision.

• Calculating fees on a percentage basis. Again, it sounds easy, but… what about VAT refunds (will the use (or not) of VAT control accounts make it easier or more difficult?), trading-on sales (which are excluded under the draft Rules’ statutory scale), “the value of the property with which the administrator has to deal” (per the draft Rules)?

• Dealing with creditors’ committees, which the consultation document suggests will be encouraged under the proposed regime.

• More complex practice management to ensure that percentages are pitched correctly and potentially greater lock-up issues where IPs do not have the security of realisations in hand to fund ongoing efforts.

But these measures are intended to reduce IPs’ fees..?

8. Professor Kempson “highlights that the starting point for reforms in this area should be on providing greater oversight, therefore reducing the numbers of complaints and challenges relating to fees… Currently there are very few fee related complaints handled by the RPBs… Complaints about the insolvency profession are relatively low given the nature of insolvency, the number of creditors (and other stakeholders) involved in cases and the extent of financial losses that can be incurred” (paragraphs 29 and 46 of the IP fees IA and 1.60 of the regulation IA).

To be fair, I should put paragraph 46 in context: “Currently there are very few fee related complaints handled by the RPBs, but this is likely to be a result of RPBs stating publicly that they do not consider fee-related complaints and does not reflect the current level of concern around fees. In the past 6 months 23% of all IP related ministerial correspondence has been in relation to fees”, which admittedly does put a different colour on things.

The difficulty as I see it is: if an aim is to reduce the number of fees complaints and challenges, but the IA estimates 300 (new) fee complaints per annum and 50 appeals post-implementation of the proposals. Would such an outcome mean that the measures are hailed as a success or a failure?

9. Not taking the steps proposed by the Insolvency Service as regards regulatory objectives and oversight powers proposals “would not address concerns around an ineffective tick-box prescriptive type of regulation… The same prescriptive type of regulation would continue to exist whereas the intention is to move to a principles and objectives based regulatory system as suggested by the OFT report” (paragraphs 1.49 and 1.51 of the regulation IA)

Ooh, I could relate some stories from my time at the IPA about who was usually at the forefront in driving tick-box regulation! There were times when I had to be dragged kicking and screaming down that road. Still I should stay positive: maybe this signifies a new commitment to Better Regulation – after all, the draft regulatory objectives do not refer to ensuring that IPs meet prescriptive statutory requirements that do not contribute to delivering a quality service or maximising returns to creditors, and if value for money is an objective..?

The Service puts it this way: “As an example, rather than targeting regulatory activity to where there may be only potentially small losses to creditors from any regulatory breach, the regulators will focus attention on areas where creditors are likely to suffer larger losses” (paragraph 1.71). Oh well, that’ll put me out of a job! 🙂

10. “We do recognise that giving the RPBs a regulatory role in monitoring fees will increase the burden on them when dealing with complaints around the quantum of fees and have therefore included the estimated cost of this” (paragraph 100 of the consultation document)

Since when was “monitoring” all about dealing with complaints? The IAs provide nothing for the additional costs to RPBs of dealing with anything but complaints.

It would seem that a typical monitoring visit in the eyes of the Service would have the objective of aiming “to ensure that fees charged by IPs represent value for money and are ‘fair’ and valid for the work undertaken, by requiring the RPBs to provide a check and balance against the level of fees charged… The regulators will be expected to take a full role in assessing the fairness of an IP’s fees, including the way in which they are set, the manner in which they are drawn and that they represent value for money for the work done. This would be done via the usual monitoring visits and complaint handling processes” (paragraph 101). The Service believes that this is possible as the RPBs have “access to panels with the relevant experience, to adjudicate on fees” (paragraph 102).

Are they serious?! Do they have any idea how impossible it would be to achieve this practically, not least within the confines of the current visit timetable? And how are the “panels”, presumably the Service means committee members, going to engage in this process: is the Service really expecting them to adjudicate on fees? You might as well forget about the rest of the Act/Rules, SIPs and Ethics Code: the inspectors’/monitors’ time will be spent entirely looking at fees and RPBs’ committees/secretariat will be hard-pushed to make any adverse findings stick.

Oh, it’s alright for the Service, though; they’ve incorporated the cost of two new people in-house to handle their enhanced RPB supervisory functions. But they don’t think that this will add to RPBs’ costs in dealing with the Service’s queries, monitoring visits, demands for information on regulatory actions in general and in specific cases (apparently)?

The biggest joke of all is: where will all these costs land? In IPs’ laps, when their levies and licence fees increase. Remind me, what was the key objective of these proposals..?

Although the Service doesn’t mince words about its/the Government’s sincerity on these issues – e.g. “given the clear evidence of harm suffered by unsecured creditors, the Government feels strongly that reforms are required in order to address the market failure” (paragraph 93 of the consultation document) – I can’t help but hope that I’ll wake up a couple of days after the consultation has closed to a new announcement from the Insolvency Service: “April fool!”


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The Insolvency Rules “2015”: A Moveable Feast

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I realise that talk of the Insolvency Service’s IP fees consultation has pretty-much smothered the draft Rules consultation. However, I’ve yet to get to grips with that one, so here are my thoughts – and a copy of my response – on the (already superceded!) draft “2015” Rules.

The consultation closed on 24 January and it seemed to me that, despite the enormity of the task, many IPs and associates went to a lot of effort to make thorough responses. Regrettably, personally I only managed to review a few of the sections in detail – and only then did I look at the consultation questions (yes, I know, that was a pretty stupid way of doing things!). I attach my response here: MB response 24-01-14. The Government’s consultation homepage is: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/modernisation-of-the-rules-relating-to-insolvency-law.

This is not meant to be an overview of the proposed changes – I’ve not covered the non-controversial aspects (that would be too boring!) – but I consider (but I don’t really answer – sorry!) the following:

• Just how draft are the Draft Rules and are we going to get to see how current/future initiatives impact on them?
• How huge a task will it be to absorb the changes and is there anything that can be done to make the job easier?
• Does the Consultation Document cover all the changes or do we have to look closer at the detail?

The condition of the Draft Rules

The Insolvency Service is between a rock and a hard place, but personally I think they have made the right decision in releasing these draft Rules even whilst they are draft to a greater degree than we’re accustomed for statutory instruments opened to consultation.

The Service acknowledges that the draft is a work in progress document and that there are inconsistencies across the different insolvency processes. The Service did pre-empt the outcome of the Red Tape Challenge somewhat and included within the draft Rules some of the proposed measures, such as removing more statutory meetings (which seems very odd now in the context of the fees consultation) and enabling creditors to opt out of receiving communications, but other measures arising from the Red Tape Challenge exercise – such as avoiding the payment of small dividends and effectively communicating by website alone – are not reflected in the draft Rules. Given that the RTC outcome had not been revealed when this consultation commenced, this is not surprising, but it demonstrates the moveable feast of insolvency legislation and the difficulties in seeking to set in stone – at pretty-much any point in the next half-decade or so – a revised set of Rules.

In the face of this continually moving conveyor belt of legislative proposals, it is understandable that the Service does not wish to hold up the process of revising the Rules and, personally, I am pleased that we have been given this work-in-progress look at the draft. In reading the draft, I have suppressed any nagging concern that much of my effort has already been wasted in view of more recent proposals and yet more of the draft will be overtaken by future events, because the alternative – that we don’t get to see a draft until the last minute – doesn’t bear thinking about.

But what are the Insolvency Service’s plans now? Will they continue to work on the draft, absorbing the responses to this consultation, the further RTC outcomes, the IP fees conclusions, the fall-out from Teresa Graham’s review of pre-packs, perhaps the rules around the S233 changes (which are yet to be the subject of a consultation, right?), and give us little opportunity to review a further draft on the basis that we’ve had our chance? I hope not. I hope we get to have another opportunity to comment on a draft. Whilst matters of agreed policy may not be up for debate in the Rules arena, my review of only a few sections of these draft Rules has demonstrated to me the value of having others input on the practicalities of the processes set out.

The Big Picture

I pity the first JIEB students after the Rules are enforced, although it will be a fantastic opportunity to get ahead of the pack and become the go-to person in one’s practice. How us old’uns with our rubbery neurons are going to get the hang of it all, I don’t know!

I shudder to think about the amount of time – and (non-chargeable) money – that will be expended to get internal systems, diaries, and templates new Rules-compliant… and the inevitable mistakes that will be made; after all, templates always require a bit of fine-tuning after the first (second… third…) version, don’t they? One way that firms can cushion the blow right now is to future-proof standard documents, strip out all those Rules references: after all, do readers really need to know that something has been produced pursuant to Rule xxx?

The Consultation Document is silent on a key issue, I think: are the Rules going to apply to all cases existing as at R-Day or only to new appointments after the new Rules begin to take effect? I appreciate that it would be a rare thing for the new Rules to apply to all cases, rather than just new cases, but it is not entirely unheard-of, and think of the safeguards that would need to be put in place if a firm’s case-load were a mixture of pre- and post-new Rules cases. It’s been tough enough for practices to handle the complexities of running a portfolio of mixed pre/post-2009 and pre/post-2010 Rules cases, but these changes go so much further, it will make our heads spin!

Little has been said of making any changes to the Act. I am sure there is a reluctance to go there, given the more significant difficulties in seeking changes to primary legislation. However, I think it undermines some of the effort made to modernise the Rules, if we cannot fix the Act provisions at the same time. In particular, I think the practical difficulties arising from the Enterprise Act 2002 have now become evident and it seems a wasted opportunity not to tweak those whilst we’re at it. And aren’t there Act changes, such as extending the phoenix provisions to companies that don’t survive Administration, that have been given an airing but seem to have now gone quiet? It would also seem useful to wrap in some of the other statutory instruments that involve significant overlap with the Rules, such as the Insolvency Practitioners Regulations (which will need to be revisited in view of the RTC anyway) and what about Insolvent Partnerships? Then again, I guess the Service has enough on its plate already!

The Detail

Although pretty-much all of the Rules have been re-jigged, the Consultation questions focussed around some of the more fundamental changes, such as the overall structure, which is a massive change, but well worth doing, in my view.

They invited us to comment on the format of setting out in the Rules the prescribed content of notices, forms etc., rather than prescribing a statutory form, the suggestion being that this makes “it easier to enable documents to be delivered by electronic means, preparing the system for moving to electronic delivery of information when the forms would become redundant”. I appreciate that the aim is to future-proof the process, but I don’t think we have to accommodate any transmission process other than textual, do we? We’re not exactly future-proofing for Elysium-style neural downloads, are we? Therefore, I really don’t think that it helps to do away with prescribing forms, as it just means that someone else is going to have to create them (and get paid for it). Even if every IP in the country only goes to a handful of suppliers, that’s still an unnecessary amount of duplication in my books, and micro-businesses will be burdened with a disproportionate expense. Perhaps a middle-ground would be to provide forms, but prescribe only that the information set out in the forms need be delivered? Anyway, do we know whether Companies House will stomach just any old form..?

The Consultation Document lists ten “minor and technical changes” (paragraph 42) – and I think they’re right: they are pretty minor. However, what I think is a little disingenuous is the fact that, if you have the time and the determination to scrutinise the detail of the draft Rules, I’m sure you’ll find far more technical changes that aren’t quite so minor!

I knew there was no way I’d get through the complete draft Rules, so I decided to focus on the sections that will impact mostly on Administrations – Parts 3 and 17. I managed to shoe-horn my thoughts into the consultation’s question 20 (“Do you have any other suggestions or comments on the structure or the content of the rules?”). My full response (MB response 24-01-14) lists my observations, but here are a select few:

• The current R2.48 Conduct of Business by Correspondence for approval of the Administrator’s Proposals is to be replaced by a new correspondence-based process whereby creditors can lodge a “notice of objection” (the only other option appearing to be that they keep silent) and, if 10% or more of the creditors by number or value object, the Administrator “may convene a meeting of creditors to seek their approval or seek approval of a revised statement of proposals” (R3.37). My thoughts are: what is wrong with the current process? What if a creditor just wants to modify the Proposals? How is an IP supposed to calculate whether the 10% threshold has been over-reached? This 10% threshold – of creditors by value (and sometimes by number) of the total – is repeated throughout the Rules. Research has shown that lack of creditor engagement is a recurring problem, so why erode the process whereby creditors who actually make the effort to vote are most influential?

• The Service has made yet another attempt to tidy up the filing and reporting processes when a Paragraph 83 move from Administration to CVL form is filed. This time, they are suggesting a return to the issuing of a final report simultaneously with the ADM-CVL form. However, they have drafted a requirement that, “if anything happens between the sending of the notice to the registrar of companies and its registration which the administrator would have included in the report had it happened before then”, the (former) Administrator must file and circulate “a statement of appropriate amendments to the report”. My issue is that, technically, “anything” could include the crediting of additional bank interest or even the incurring of time costs, so this could result in IPs needing to issue – at some cost – pretty meaningless statements. Ideally, I would prefer the Act (if only!) to be amended so that the date when the ADM-CVL move takes effect is the date that the form is signed, not registered, so that we can escape all this nonsense. After all, I can think of no other event such as this where the timing is in the hands of Companies House. Alternatively, if we are stuck with Companies House controlling the conversion date, couldn’t the Liquidator report on “anything” that had happened in that small window when he issues his annual report?

• The Service has made a big deal about the savings that will be made from reducing the requirements to have creditors’ meetings – and indeed the draft Rules include a general process for conduct by correspondence (in addition to R3.37 for Administrators’ Proposals). However, this excludes fees decisions, which need to be dealt with either by a committee or resolution of creditors (apart from Para 52(1)(b) cases, the provisions for which, disappointingly, are left unchanged). Given that this is pretty-much the only matter to be addressed at creditors’ meetings, I cannot see that many meetings will be avoided, other than final ones (which, let’s face it, already are a complete non-event and cost nothing other than a Gazette fee, as all the expense arises from the need to issue a final report etc.). Of course, if the IP fees consultation proposals are taken forward, we may find IPs trying harder to generate creditor interest in meetings, which erodes to some extent the Service’s message that great savings will be made by these Rules/RTC measures.

These are just a few of the intriguing changes I’ve spotted. I do sympathise with those who have the job of revising these Rules. I’ve only had to deal with few-pager SIPs and the Ethics Code before and they were tough enough. In those cases, we certainly didn’t please all the people all of the time and I am sure the same will be true of the Rules. All that I ask is that we’re kept informed, so that we can manage the transition as best we can… and, if questions continue to be raised about whether IPs are giving “value for money”, that the critics remember that it’s the enormous costs associated with these kinds of changes that IPs have no choice but to pay.


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Thank you, Santa, for delivering Red Tape Cuts

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I owe the Insolvency Service an apology. I must have sounded like an ungrateful child at Christmas when I tweeted that we’d heard all their Red Tape-cutting measures before. Such is the disadvantage of having lived with my list for Santa for several months already and such is the immediacy of Twitter. Sorry, Insolvency Service!

The Insolvency Service’s release on 23 January 2014 – http://insolvency.presscentre.com/Press-Releases/Reforms-to-cut-insolvency-red-tape-unveiled-69853.aspx – announced that several measures, aired in its consultation document in July 2013, are to be taken forward, either via primary legislation changes “when Parliamentary time allows” or via changes to the Rules, which are “due for completion in 2015/16”. I’d blogged about the consultation document’s proposals on 16 August 2013 at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3Q. Here, I try to decipher exactly which of the consultation’s proposals are being taken forward, which is not as simple a task as it may sound!

“Allowing IPs to communicate with creditors electronically, instead of letters”

The consultation had set out a proposal that IPs could use websites to post creditors’ reports etc., as they do now, but without the need to send a letter to each creditor every time something is posted to the website. The proposal was that there would be one letter to creditors informing them that all future circulars would be posted to the website.

In my view, this really would save costs. I see quite a few IPs are now posting reports to websites, so it would be lovely to avoid even the periodic one-pager to creditors informing them of the publication of something new, although I’d love to see the statistics on how many people (other than us insolvency people) actually look at the reports on websites…

Of course, the Rules already provide that an IP can post everything onto a website, but at present only with a court order. Thus, I’m wondering, is the next bullet point simply another way of describing this first of Santa’s gifts..?

“Removing the requirements for office holders to obtain court orders for certain actions (e.g. extending administrations, posting information on websites)”

It’s not exactly clear what the Service has in mind on administration extensions. The consultation document suggested that administration extensions might be allowed with creditors’ consent for a period longer than 6 months. It suggested that creditors could be asked to extend for 12 months (with a 6-month extension by consent still an option), although it asked whether we thought that creditors should be allowed to approve longer extensions. So is the plan that creditors be allowed to extend a maximum of 12 months or longer?

And I’d like to know if the Service is persuaded to make any changes to the consent-giving process: are they going to stick to the requirement that all secured creditors must approve an extension (whether it is a Para 52(1)(b) case or not and no matter what the security attaches to or where the creditor appears in the pecking order), as is currently the case, or could they – please?! – lighten up on this requirement? And are they going to clarify that once a creditor is paid in full, they do not count for this, and other, voting purposes? So many questions remain…

The consultation document contained several other proposals for avoiding the court, such as “clarifying” that administrators need not apply to court to distribute a prescribed part to unsecured creditors (although I’m not sure why administrators should not be allowed also to distribute non-prescribed part monies to unsecured creditors). Coupled with changes to the extension process, administrations are no longer appearing to be the short-term temporary process that the Enterprise Act seemed to present them as.

“Reducing record keeping requirements by IPs which are only used for internal purposes”

I’m not entirely sure what this means. Does this refer to the current need to retain time records on all cases, including those where the fees are fixed on a percentage basis? These are internal records (even though they probably serve no purpose), but does that also mean that Rules 1.55 and 5.66, requiring Nominees/Supervisors to provide time cost information on request by a creditor, will be abolished?

Or does this statement relate to the maintenance of Reg 13 IP Case Records in their entirety? These are, in effect, records for internal purposes (in fact, they’re not even that, are they? Does anyone actually use them?), although the Regs provide that the RPBs/IS are entitled to inspect the Reg 13 records. So does that still make them an internal-purpose record?

I would like to think that the Service has accepted that the Reg 13 record is a complete waste of time and is planning to abolish it entirely. However, as I flagged up in my earlier post, the consultation document proposed that “legislation should require IPs to maintain whatever records necessary to justify the actions and decisions they may have taken on a case. It is not expected that such a provision would impose a new requirement, but rather codify what is already expected of regulated professionals.” Does this recent announcement mean that the Service will not seek to implement this measure? Let’s hope so!

“Simplifying the process of reporting director misconduct to make the process quicker by introducing electronic forms to ensure timely action is brought against them in a timely way, providing a higher level of protection to the business community and public”

Electronic D-forms? Lovely, we’ll have those, thank you, although in my view it’s not a big deal: it just avoids a bit of printing.

What makes me a little nervous is the use of “timely” twice in this statement. The consultation proposed to change the deadline for a D-form to 3 months and the Service believed that this would not be an issue for IPs if its other proposal – to drop the requirement for IPs to express an opinion on whether the conduct makes it appear that the person is unfit to be a director and replace it with a requirement to provide “details of director behaviour which may indicate unfitness” – is also taken up.

As I explained in my earlier post, personally I don’t see this as a great quid pro quo for IPs and I don’t think it will help the Service catch the bad guys much quicker. When faced with slippery directors, 3 months is a very short time to gather all the threads.

“Allowing office-holders to rely on the insolvent’s records when paying small claims, reducing the need for creditors to complete claim forms”

The consultation document proposed that IPs could admit claims under £1,000 per the statement of affairs or accounting records without any claim form or supporting documentation from creditors (although creditors would still be free to submit claims contradicting statements of affairs).

It doesn’t seem right to me – there’s a sense of fudginess about it, particularly in view of the shabbiness of most insolvents’ records just before they topple – but I guess that, in the scheme of things, it’s not a big deal if a creditor receives a few pounds more than he’s entitled to on one case, but a bit less on another. It might be academic anyway, given the final measure…

“Reducing costs by removing the requirement to pay out small dividends and instead using the money for the wider benefit of creditors”

The Service had proposed that, where a dividend payment would be less than, say, £5 or £10, it would not be paid to the creditor, but would go to the disqualification unit or the Treasury. The consultation document had asked whether the threshold should be per interim/final dividend or across the total dividends. Given the likely difficulties of keeping track of small unpaid dividend cheques, I do hope that the Service has its eye clearly set on saving costs and will stick with a threshold for each dividend payment declared. As with the previous measure, although it brings in a sense of creditor equality that seems more suited to Animal Farm, we are only talking about small sums here, so I guess it makes practical sense.

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Thank you, Insolvency Santa, for giving us a peek into your big red sack of goodies. It’s great to see some really promising outcomes from the Red Tape Challenge, even if we have to see at least one more Christmas pass by before we get to open our prezzies.


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A Janus View of Developments in Insolvency Regulation

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I thought I would take a look at where we’ve got to on a few of the current developments in insolvency regulation:

• The Deregulation Bill: who says limited IP licences are a good idea?
• SIP3.2 (CVA): a preview of the final SIP3 (IVA) or an ethical minefield?
• The JIC Newsletter: grasping the nettle of the commissions issue
• Insolvency Service update to the BIS Committee: promises, promises!

It’s by no means a complete list, but it’s a start!

The Deregulation Bill: when is a consultation not a consultation?

The Joint Committee of the Houses of Lords and Commons published its report on the draft Deregulation Bill on 19 December 2013, available here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-deregulation-bill/news/draft-deregulation-bill-report/.

Insolvency features relatively insignificantly in the wide-ranging draft Deregulation Bill, the so-called Henry VIII Power attracting far more attention, so in some respects it is quite surprising that insolvency got a mention in the Committee report at all. However, the background to this report included oral evidence sessions, one of which was attended by Andrew Tate representing R3’s Small Practices Group. A recording of the session can be accessed at: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14073&player=windowsmedia – insolvency pops up at c.50 minutes.

Andrew had a chance to express concerns about the draft Bill’s introduction of IP licences limited to personal or corporate insolvency processes. He raised the concern, which I understand is shared by many IPs, that IPs need knowledge of, and access to, all the tools in the insolvency kit, so that they can help anyone seeking a solution, be they a company director, a practice partner, or an individual, and some situations require a combination of personal, corporate and/or partnership insolvency solutions.

What seemed to attract the attention of the Committee most, however, was learning that there had been no public consultation on the question. It’s worth hearing the nuanced evidence session, rather than reading the dead-pan transcript. It fell to Nick Howard, who was not a formal witness but presumably was sitting in the wings, to explain that there had been an “informal consultation”, which had revealed general support, and I thought it was a little unfair that a Committee member seemed sceptical of this on the basis that they had not heard from anyone expressing support: after all, I don’t think that people tend to spend time shouting about draft Bills with which they agree.

Personally, I do not share the same objections to limited licences, or at least not to the same degree. I see the value of all IPs having knowledge of both personal and corporate insolvency, but even now not all fully-licensed IPs have had experience in all fields, so some already start their licensed life ill-equipped to deal with all insolvency situations. I believe that there are more than a few IPs who have chosen a specialist route that really does mean that practically they do not need the in-depth knowledge of all insolvency areas, and, given that they will not have kept up their knowledge of, and they will have little, if any, useful experience in, insolvency processes outside their specialist field, does it really do the profession or the public any favours for them to be indistinguishable from an IP who has worked hard to maintain strong all-round knowledge and experience? Surely it would be more just and transparent for such specialists to hold limited licences, wouldn’t it?

From my perspective as a former IPA regulation manager, I believe that there would also be less risk in limited licences. As things currently stand, an IP could have passed the JIEB Administration paper years’ ago (even when it was better known as the Receivership paper) and never have touched an Administration in his life, but (Ethics Code principle of professional competence aside) tomorrow he could be talking to a board of directors about an Administration, pre-pack, or CVA. Personally, I would prefer it if IPs who specialise were clearly identified as such. Then, if they encountered a situation that exceeded their abilities, which they would be less likely to encounter because everyone could see that they had a limited licence, at least they would be prohibited from giving it a go.

Clearly, with so many facets to this issue, it is a good thing that the Committee has recommended that the clause proposing limited licences be the subject of further consultation!

The other insolvency-related clauses in the draft Bill have sat silently, but presumably if limited licences stall for further consultation, the other provisions – such as fixing the Administration provisions that gave rise to the Minmar/Virtualpurple confusion and modifying the bankruptcy after-acquired property provision, which allegedly is behind the banks’ reluctance to allow bankrupts to operate a bank account – will gather dust for some time to come.

SIP3.2 (CVA): a preview of the final SIP3 (IVA)?

I found the November consultation on a draft SIP3.2 for CVAs interesting, as I suspect that this gives us a preview of what the final SIP3 for IVAs will look like: the JIC’s winter 2013 newsletter explained that the working group had reviewed the SIP3 (IVA) consultation responses to see whether there should be any changes made to the working draft of SIP3 (CVA). Consequently, it seems that there will be few changes to the consultation draft of SIP3 (IVA)… although that hasn’t stopped me from drawing from my own consultation response to the draft SIP3 (IVA) and repeating some of those points in my consultation response to the draft SIP3 (CVA). I was pleased to see, however, that few of my issues with the IVA draft had been repeated in the CVA draft – it does pay to respond to consultations!

I’ve lurked around the LinkedIn discussions on the draft SIP3.2 and been a bit dismayed at the apparent differences of opinion about the role of the advising IP/nominee. Personally, I believe that the principles set out in the Insolvency Code of Ethics and the draft SIP3.2 handle it correctly and fairly clearly. In particular, I believe that an IP’s aim – to seek to ensure that the proposed CVA is achievable and strikes a fair balance between the interests of the company and the creditors – as described in Paragraph 6 of the draft SIP3.2 – is appropriate (even though, as often it will not be the IP’s Proposal, this may not always be the outcome). In my mind, this does not mean that the IP is aiming for some kind of mid-point between those interests, as the insolvent company’s interests at that time necessarily will have particular regard for the creditors’ interests, and so I do not believe that the SIP supports any perception that the advising IP/nominee sides inappropriately with the directors/company. However, given that apparently some have the perception that this state exists, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the working group to see whether it can come up with some wording that makes the position absolutely clear, so that there is no risk that readers might misinterpret the careful responsibility expected of the advising IP/nominee.

I would urge you to respond to the consultation, which closes on 7 January 2014.

The JIC Newsletter: all bark and no bite?

Well, what do you think of the JIC’s winter 2013 newsletter? I have to say that, having been involved in reviewing the fairly inconsequential reads of previous years whilst I was at the IPA, I was pleasantly surprised that at least this newsletter seemed to have something meaningful to say. Personally, I wish it had gone further – as really all it seems to be doing is reminding us of what the Ethics Code already states – but I am well aware of the difficulties of getting something even mildly controversial approved by the JIC members, their respective RPBs, and the Insolvency Service: it is not a forum that lends itself well to the task of enacting ground-breaking initiatives. And anyway, if there were something more than the Ethics Code or SIPs that needed to be said, a newsletter is not the place for it.

Nevertheless, I would still recommend a read: http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/post/Joint-Insolvency-Committee-winter-2013-newsletter (I’d love to be able to direct people to my former employer’s website, but unfortunately theirs requires member login).

Bill Burch quickly off the mark posted his thoughts on the Commissions article: http://complianceoncall.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/dark-portents-from-jic-for-commissions.html, which pretty-much says it all. Personally, I hope that this signifies a “right, let’s get on and tackle this issue!” attitude of revived enthusiasm by the regulators, but similarly I fear that some offenders may just seem too heavy-weight to wrestle, at least publicly, although that does not mean that behaviours cannot be changed by stealth. Many would shout that this is unfair, but it has to be better than nothing, hasn’t it?

My main concern, however, is how do the regulators go about spotting this stuff? Unless a payment is made from an insolvent estate, it is unlikely to reach the eyes of the monitor on a routine visit. It’s all well and good asking an IP where he gets his work from, if/how he pays introducers, and reviewing agreements, but if someone were intent on covering their tracks..? I know for a fact that at least one of the examples described in the JIC newsletter was revealed via a complaint, so that would be my personal message: if you observe anyone playing fast and loose with the Ethics Code, please take it to the regulators, and if you don’t want to do that personally, then get in touch with R3 and they might help do it for you. If you don’t, then how really can you cry that the regulators aren’t doing enough to police your competitors?

However, the theoretic ease with which inappropriate commissions could be disguised and the multitude of relatively unregulated hangers-on to the insolvency profession, preying on the desire of some to get ahead and the fear of others of losing out to the competition, do make me wonder if this issue can ever be tackled successfully. But the JIC newsletter at least appears to more clearly define the battle-lines.

Insolvency Service Update to the BIS Committee: all good things come to those who wait

Jo Swinson’s response to the House of Commons’ Select Committee is available at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/business-innovation-and-skills/20131030%20Letter%20from%20Jo%20Swinson%20-%20Insolvency%20Service%20update.pdf. It was issued on 30 October so by now many items have already moved on, but I wanted to use it as an opportunity to highlight some ongoing and future developments to look out for.

Regarding “continuation of supply”, which was included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 but which requires secondary legislation to bring it into effect, Ms Swinson stated: “We intend to consult later this year on how the secondary legislation should be framed”. I had assumed simply that the Insolvency Service’s timeline had slipped a bit – understandably so, as there has been plenty going on – but I became concerned when I read the interview with Nick Howard in R3’s winter 2013 Recovery magazine. He stated: “We are in the process of consulting on exactly how that [the supply of IT] works because the power in the Act is fairly broad and we want to ensure we achieve the desired effect”. Have I missed something, or perhaps there’s another “informal consultation” going on?

I’m guessing the Service’s timeline has slipped a bit in relation to considering Professor Kempson’s report on fees, however, as Ms Swinson had planned “to announce the way forward before the end of the year” in relation to “a number of possible options for addressing this fundamental issue [that “the market does not work sufficiently where unsecured creditors are left to ‘control’ IP fees”], by both legislative and non-legislative means. Still, I imagine this isn’t far away, albeit that Ms Swinson is now on maternity leave.

This might be old news to those with their ears to the ERA ground, but it was news to me that the Insolvency Service will be implementing the Government’s Digital by Default strategy in the RPO “with a digital approach to redundancy claims anticipated to be launched in the autumn of 2014”. My experience as an ERA administrator may date back to the 1990s when people were comforted more by the feel of paper in their hands, but I do wonder how well the news will go down with just-laid-off staff that they need to go away and lodge their claims online. A sign of the times, I guess…

Finally, don’t mention the Draft Insolvency Rules!

No summary of regulatory goings-on would be complete without referring to the draft Insolvency Rules, on which the consultation closes on 24 January 2014. And no, I’ve still not started to look at them properly; it feels a bit futile even to think about starting now. But then, if we don’t pipe up on them now, we won’t be able to complain about the result, even if that may be yet years’ away…


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What will “Transparency & Trust” mean for IPs?

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My thanks to Mr Cable for re-appearing in the headlines and making this two month old consultation suddenly seem current again. The proposal in his “Transparency & Trust” paper that got everyone talking was the attempt to curb future excesses of the banks and demand by legislation that their directors take care to be socially responsible, but is there anything in the paper for IPs..?

The consultation can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/company-ownership-transparency-and-trust-discussion-paper, although regrettably it closed to responses yesterday. Well, it’s been a busy summer!

Identifying Beneficial Owners

I’ve been doing a bit of work recently on compliance with the Money Laundering Regs and it has reminded me of the rigmarole around identifying, and verifying the identities of, an insolvent company’s beneficial owners. Identifying the >25% shareholders is the easy bit (although, of course, it gets a bit more complicated where the shareholders are corporate entities), but how, on day minus-one of an insolvency appointment, are you supposed to identify other beneficial owners, those who “otherwise exercise control over the management of the company”? People don’t often stand up and introduce themselves as shadow directors. The consultation describes other complications to identifying the beneficial owners, such as where a number of shareholders have agreed to act in concert.

BIS’ suggested solution: let’s make it a requirement for companies to disclose their beneficial owners. The consultation considers the details of such a system: when companies would be required to make such disclosure; to which companies it would apply; what about trusts; what powers would need to be granted and to whom to ensure compliance; whether such a registry would be publicly available or restricted only to law enforcement and tax authorities… but what I cannot help asking myself is: if a company is being misused for illegal purposes by some hidden beneficial owner, would the company really have complied with the legislation and disclosed him/her? Or is it more likely that such requirements would just put more burden on law-abiding companies in ensuring that their registers of beneficial owners, in which no one is really interested (the information only really has any value if money laundering has taken place, doesn’t it?), are kept up-to-date?

Although, personally, I cannot see such a system doing anything much to help prevent illegal activity, at least if IPs are able to see information on companies’ beneficial owners, it might help in their Anti-Money Laundering checks, and I think that anything that helps with that chore would be a bonus. So how likely is it that the information would be made public? It seems from the consultation that it is the Government’s preference and, even if that doesn’t happen, the second option is that it might be accessible to “regulated entities”, i.e. anyone who is required to make MLR checks.

There’s a sting in the tail, however. Slipped into the consultation is: “If they were given access to the registry, regulated entities would incur additional costs if they were required to check and report any inconsistencies between their own data and that held on the register” (paragraph 2.74). Can you imagine? Would they seriously require office holders to inform whoever that a defunct company’s register of beneficial owners was not up to date? My perception is that IPs do not really feature as a separate group in the minds of those who oversee the MLR, so I doubt that they would see the pointlessness of such a task.

Changing Directors’ Duties

Okay, this proposal won’t directly affect IPs, but I couldn’t help passing a quick comment. As no doubt you’ve heard, the proposal is to amend the directors’ duties in the CA06 “to create a primary duty to promote financial stability over the interests of shareholders” (page 61). It is noticeable that more consultation space is taken up listing the potential drawbacks of the proposal than its advantages. In addition to the described issues of how to enforce such a duty, how shareholders would react, how UK corporate banks would fare competing against banks not caught by the CA06, I was wondering how you could measure promoting financial stability: it seems to me that it would depend on whether you were to ask Vince Cable or George Osborne.

The consultation includes many other proposals, which would affect the disqualification regime – some of these are:

• whether the regime should be tougher on directors where vulnerable people have suffered loss (is the absence of a jubilant Christmas for a Farepak customer a more worthy cause than that for a redundant employee who’d worked hard up to the end of an insolvent company’s life?)
• whether the courts should take greater account of previous failures, even if no action has been taken on them (surely the just and socially-responsible solution would be to fund the Service adequately to tackle any misconduct of the first failure?)
• whether to extend the time limit for disqualification proceedings from two to five years (what about the Service’s method of prioritising cases? I appreciate that this is a gross simplification, but don’t they hold a big pile of potentials and progress those that they feel are in the public’s greatest interest, leaving the rest in the pile until it gets to the critical time when they have to make a decision one way or the other? Won’t the extension to five years simply mean that their potential pile holds four years’ worth of cases, rather than one year’s? Again, unless the Service is granted more resources, I cannot see that this measure would really help. I also object to the consultation’s comment that “it can quite easily be several months before the relevant insolvency practitioner reports to the Secretary of State detailing the areas of misconduct that may require investigation. In such cases, the limitation period might mean that misconduct is not addressed” (paragraph 12.2))
• whether “sectoral regulators”, such as the Pensions Regulator, FCA and PRA, should be granted the ability to ban people from acting as a director in any sector.
• whether directors who had been convicted/restricted/disqualified overseas should be prevented from being a director in the UK.

“Improving Financial Redress for Creditors”

The Government anticipates that, if liquidators and administrators (as the Red Tape Challenge outcome proposes to extend the power to take S213/4 actions to administrators) were entitled to sell or assign fraudulent and wrongful trading actions, a market for them would develop. Do you think so..?

BIS has thought about the possibility that directors (or someone connected to them) might bid for the action and, although they suggest an, albeit not water-tight, safeguard, they also point out that, if the director did buy the right of action, at least the estate would benefit from the sale consideration. Although, personally, I’d feel uncomfortable with that – and I’m not sure what the creditors would say (but, of course, the office holder could ask them, and maybe that would be a better safeguard?) – I guess it makes commercial sense.

The consultation also proposes to give the court the power to make a compensatory award against a director at the time it makes a disqualification order. The consultation states: “This measure could potentially affect the timeliness of obtaining disqualifications if it deterred directors from offering a disqualification undertaking and therefore resulted in more disqualification cases needing to be taken to court” (paragraph 11.16), but personally, I would have thought that this measure would increase exponentially the number of director undertakings, as there seems to be no suggestion that an undertaking would expose a director to the risk of an award.

It is envisaged that the award would not be used to cover the general expenses of the liquidation and “there is a question as to who should benefit from any compensatory award. This could be creditors generally or it could be left to the court to determine based on the facts of the case” (paragraph 11.14), although I assume that, if it were for the general body of creditors, the office holder would be expected to pay the dividend. I wonder how the office holder’s fees and costs would be viewed, if he had to keep the case open purely for the purposes of seeing through the outcome of any such action.

The consultation also states that “Liquidators would still be expected to consider whether there are any actions they could bring themselves, as they ought to now” (paragraph 11.15). Could liquidators be criticised for taking actions, the proceeds of which would settle first their costs, when, if it were left to the court on the back of a disqualification order, the creditors would see the full amount? It is a liquidator’s function to get in and realise the assets, so probably not, but administrators..?

The same paragraph states: “If by the time the disqualification action comes before the court, liquidators have successfully recovered monies from the directors, that is something the court would be expected to take into account when deciding whether or not to make a compensatory award (or in setting the amount of it)” – it could get fun if the actions were running in parallel.

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Despite my quibbles, generally I think the proposals are a step in the right direction. However, I wonder how those in the Service’s Intelligence and Enforcement Directorate feel about the proposals, which would lead to so much more work and high expectations laid upon them. Let’s hope that these proposals give them a sound case for increasing their access to funds and people.