Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


1 Comment

Thank you, Santa, for delivering Red Tape Cuts

IMGP5170

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.

.
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.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Red Tape? Hang out the bunting!

IMGP2930 closeup

Any measures to reduce insolvency regulation are most welcome and, apart from the odd item that threatens to increase the burden on IPs, the proposals of the Insolvency Service’s Red Tape Challenge consultation promise to bring in a brave new world where website communication is the norm and meetings are a thing of the past. Whether these proposals will be seen as working against the tide of opinion seeking greater creditor engagement remains to be seen, but, for me, some of these changes cannot come soon enough.

Ever conscious that my articles are getting longer and longer, I have described my Top Seven proposals from the consultation document.

The consultation document (“CD”) can be found at: http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/Consultations/RedTapeChallenge?cat=open. The deadline for responses is 10 October 2013.

1. Abolition of Reg 13 Case Records, but there’s a sting in the tail

The first proposal in the document is a belter: let’s abolish the Reg 13 Case Record – yes, please! I remember spending what seemed so much wasted time ensuring that the Reg 13 (or Reg 17 in my day) schedules were complete and accurate – far more overall, I suspect, than the 1 hour per case estimated in the Impact Assessment (which strangely is assumed to apply to only 80% of all cases).

However, it seems the Service is twitchy about leaving IPs to their own devices and is recommending that “legislation should require IPs to maintain whatever records necessary to justify the actions and decisions they 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” (paragraph 32). Scary! So instead of a simple, albeit useless, two-pager listing key filing dates etc. of the case, legislation will require IPs to retain certain records. This could go one of two ways: either the provision will be so bland (e.g. as the CD describes it: records to justify actions and decisions) as to be pointless, or it will be in the style of the 2010 Rules on Progress Reports, which will introduce a whole new industry of compliance workers whose job will be to cross-check case files against a statutory list.

Why does the Service see a need to “codify” this matter? If an IP is not already retaining a sensible breadth of records (and such an IP will be rare indeed), if only to protect themselves from the risk of challenge, do they think that a statutory provision is going to force them to do it? Do they think that there needs to be a statutory requirement to assist regulators in addressing any serious failures? Such a measure has the potential to increase the regulatory burden on IPs without, as far as I can see, bringing any advantage whatsoever.

2. Abolishing almost all meetings

Although I welcome these proposals, I do think that the Service has over-egged the savings. For example, the Impact Assessment suggests that £7m would be saved by abolishing final meetings. Although the Service recognises that there will be negligible saving in relation to drafting the final documentation – even if there is no final meeting, a final report etc. will still need to be produced – they have estimated that each case will save on room hire of £64, 1 hour of an administrator’s time, and half an hour of a manager’s time. Personally, I would be very surprised if any IP makes provision for anyone attending a final meeting – does the Service picture IP staff sitting in an empty hired room twiddling their thumbs just in case someone turns up? Ok, so IP staff will save time on drafting minutes of the meeting, but that’s little more than churning off a standard template; it’s hardly 1.5 hours worth.

So if most meetings are abolished, is everything going to be handled in a process similar to the Administration meeting-by-correspondence process? Not quite, although it seems that almost all matters that will require a positive response from creditors – approval of VAs and of the basis of remuneration in any insolvency process – may be handled either as a physical meeting or by correspondence votes. The CD indicates that in other circumstances, “deemed consent” may occur: “the office-holder will issue documents to the creditors informing them of an event (as happens now) and that the contents of these documents are approved (if approval is required for that document/event) unless 10% or more by value or by number of creditors object in writing” (paragraph 64). In what kind of circumstances might this apply? I’m struggling to come up with many instances. I am aware that several IPs seek approval of R&Ps, although personally I do not believe that they need to. The CD also proposes to revise the Act’s Schedules so that Liquidators can exercise more powers without consent, but I guess that, if that does not go ahead, they might be other instances. I guess there might also be case-specific events, e.g. to pursue an uncertain asset, which might be referred to creditors. But there’s nothing wholesale that in future might be handled by “deemed consent”, is there? Unless…

Although the CD excludes office-holder’s fees from “deemed consent”, it makes no mention of SoA/S98 fees. If under the present statute, these need creditors’ approval, might they be deemed approved in future. Personally, I think this is another area, if the fees are due to the IP/firm/connected party, that also needs positive creditor approval.

Professor Kempson reported that IPs estimated that 4% of creditors attended meetings. It is not clear in the report what kind of meetings these are, but I bet they are S98s in the main. Personally, I have always viewed S98s as good opportunities for IPs to communicate something to trade creditors about the insolvency process and to convey face-to-face something of the professionalism, competence, and integrity of IPs. If it is true that no one goes to these any more, then fair enough, but even if it is only the rare S98 that attracts an audience, I feel it could just widen the gap further between IPs and creditors if no S98 meeting were ever held again. Having said that, the Service estimates that there will be only 30% fewer meetings, but if statute no longer requires physical S98s, would they be held; could the cost be justified?

3. Communication by website

The Impact Assessment does not quantify the estimated savings from these proposals, suggesting that they will be smaller than those related to the proposals to allow creditors to opt out of receiving correspondence, but, unless I have misunderstood their proposal, personally I could see this provision being used extensively.

Firstly, a bit more about creditors opting out: the Service estimates that, if they could under statute, 20% of creditors would notify office-holders that they did not wish to receive any further information on a case. I’m sorry, but I really cannot see it: this would require creditors to take action to disengage from the insolvency process – if they’re not already engaged, why would they send back such a notification? And would some then worry that they might miss out on important news, e.g. that miraculously there’s a prospect of a dividend, even though statute might be designed to ensure that Notices of Intended Dividend (“NoID”) etc. be issued notwithstanding any creditor opt-out?

As I say, much more promising I think is the Service’s suggestion that office-holders could write once to creditors to tell them that all future documents are going to be accessible on a website, which is something that office-holders can do presently but only with a court order. Wouldn’t that be great? No more need to send one-pagers to creditors informing them that a progress report has been placed on the website – you’d just put in on the website, job done. I wonder how many hits the web page would get… On second thoughts, I don’t think I want to know; I think it would only make me cry at the realisation of the huge amount of money, time and trees that had been wasted over the decades in sending reports that almost no one read.

There are a couple of catches: the Service proposes that the office-holder could do this only when he/she “considers that uploading statutory documents to a website, instead of sending hard copies, will not unfairly disadvantage creditors” (paragraph 95). I would have thought that creditors might only be unfairly disadvantaged if they are unable to access the website, no? So are we talking here about a particular profile of creditor? Or is the Service thinking, not about the creditors, but about the importance of the documentation? I could see that it might be unfair to place a NoID on a website with no announcement, leaving it to creditors’ pot luck as to whether they spotted the notice in time to lodge a claim – and I’m guessing that NoIDs would be excluded from this provision. But in what other circumstances could creditors be unfairly disadvantaged?

In another section of the CD, which covers a proposal to reduce the number of statutory circulars (which has not made it to my Top Seven), the Service states that: “Important information is being passed – to attend a meeting, to know of its outcome – which we would not want dissipated” (paragraph 102). So does the Service believe that a notice of meeting needs to be circulated, rather than pop onto a website, for fear that creditors might not see it until the meeting had been held? Ok, but then what about progress reports, the issuing of which sets the clock ticking for challenges to fees: are these similarly too important to pop onto a website unannounced? Could creditors be considered to be unfairly disadvantaged by this action? But where would that leave us: what documents would be appropriate to post to a website unannounced?

4. Extend extensions by consent

The Service proposes to extend the period by which Administrations may be extended by consent of creditors to 12 months. They also invite views on whether this should be extended further.

My personal view is that it would seem practical, whilst not making it too easy for Administrations to stagnate, to allow creditors to extend Administrations indefinitely but only by, say, 6 months at a time.

I can think of few circumstances where an Administration should move to a Liquidation, particularly if another of the Service’s proposals – that the power to take fraudulent or wrongful trading actions be extended to Administrators – is implemented. The CD also suggests empowering an Administrator to pay a dividend from the prescribed part, although I would like to see the power extend to a dividend of any description (what’s so special about the prescribed part?). These changes would seem to remove the need to move a company from Administration to CVL (although I wonder if these changes will persuade HMRC to drop its practice of modifying proposals to require that the company be placed into liquidation of some description – why do they do that?!), but then some Administrations might need to be extended for significant periods – adjudicating on claims can be a lengthy business.

I think the Enterprise Act envisaged Administrations as a holding cell, allowing the office-holder to do what he/she could to get the best out of the situation, but once the end-result was established, the idea was that the company would move to liquidation, CVA, or even escape back to solvency. But that all seems a bit over-complicated and costly when, in many respects (e.g. specific bond, R&P and currently D-report/return), the successive CVL is a completely separate insolvency case. Why does the company need to move to CVL to pay a dividend?

5. Scrap small dividends

The Service proposes that, where the dividend payment to a creditor will be less than, say £5 or £10, the dividend is not paid to the creditor. The Service suggests that these unpaid dividends might be passed to its disqualification department or to HM Treasury.

The Service has spotted the key difficulty: should the threshold apply to each interim/final dividend payment or to the total dividend? Although it would not be impossible, it could be tricky applying the threshold to the total dividend – the office holder would need to keep a tally of small unpaid dividends at each interim payment and monitor when the sum total crossed the threshold. To be fair, I guess there are few insolvencies that involve interim dividends – I am assuming that this provision would not apply to VAs (unless the debtor specifically provided for it in the Proposal), but I believe that any increased burden on declaring interim dividends should be avoided.

6. “Minor” changes

The CD provides some annexes of so-called “minor” proposals for change:

• Extend the deadline for proxies up to, and including at, the meeting. Granted very few meetings are physical meetings, but I remember the days of holding CVA meetings and having someone stand by the office fax machine just in case any last-minute proxies came in – it’s not exactly cost-free.

• Apply the VA requisite majorities rule on connected party voting to liquidations and bankruptcies. Personally, I think this is quite a naughty proposal to slip in to this consultation, particularly at the tail-end of a “minor” proposals annex – it hardly seems in keeping with the Red Tape Challenge objective of abolishing unnecessary regulation! Why isn’t it already in liquidations and bankruptcies? I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if it is something to do with the fact that the resolutions taken at VA meetings decide the fate of the insolvent entity, whether to approve the VA or not. The provision is also in Administrations, which is a bit more difficult to rationalise (as are a lot of Administration rules!): perhaps it is because Administrators’ Proposals might also decide the fate of the company, whether the Administrator pursues its rescue by means of a CVA or otherwise (see, for example, Re Station Properties Limited, http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3I). These decisions are fundamentally different from those taken at liquidation and bankruptcy meetings, where any connected party bias is far less relevant.

• “Clarify that, where ‘creditors’ is mentioned in insolvency regulation, only those creditors whose debts remain outstanding are being referred to. Currently, if a creditor has received payment in full, they would still be classed as a creditor in the insolvency (as they would have been a creditor at the commencement of the procedure, which fixes the use of that term legally). As the legislation refers to actions that can be carried out by or with the consent of creditors, engaging with those ‘creditors’ who have already received full payment (and may not consider themselves creditors any longer) can be difficult” (annex 6(a)). Well, I’m glad we got that cleared up! It makes a joke of the current position, though. For example, the ICAEW blogged that creditors need to receive copies of MVL progress reports (http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/26779). Although I dispute that this is the only interpretation of the Act/Rules, the consequence of the Service’s stance described above is that, despite what the Service apparently has told the ICAEW, even if creditors have been paid, they still receive copies of MVL progress reports – what nonsense! To my mind, however, the key issue arising from this conclusion is the application of R2.106(5A) – not only would paid secured creditors’ approval to the basis of fees need to be sought, but also paid preferential creditors. I wonder what the court would say if a paid creditor applied on the ground that the Administrator had failed to include them in an invitation to approve fees? I suspect: ”Go away and stop wasting the court’s time!” And don’t forget that the Administrator needs to seek all secured creditors’ approvals of the time of his/her discharge – personally, this seems unnecessarily burdensome to me anyway, but do we really need to seek the approval of creditors who are no longer owed anything? Also, the Act/Rules do not seem to allow the Administrator to get his/her discharge by means of anything other than a positive consent from all secured creditors. It’s a shame that this CD does not propose that silent secured creditors could be ignored, when seeking approval for discharge or for fees.

• “Consider the efficiency of the process by which administration can exit into dissolution or CVL and clarify them, if necessary” (annex 6(f)) – yes, please! Despite being tweaked and being the subject of much debate and consultation, it seems that the move to CVL process defies simplification. Now we have the unsatisfactory position that the Administrator needs to sign off and submit to Registrar of Companies (“RoC”) a final report covering the period up to the date that the company moves to CVL, but, because Administrators only learn of this event when they see it appear on the register at Companies House, they have already vacated office by the time they can sign and submit the report. Whilst Administrators can get the report pretty-much ready for signing before they vacate office – so at least they can be paid for the work! – there must be a way of avoiding this fudge, mustn’t there? I ask myself, why should the RoC be in control of the move date? Why couldn’t the Administrator sign a form with the effect that the company moves to CVL and statute simply provide that the form must be filed within a short time thereafter? After all, the dates of commencement of all other insolvency processes are fixed outside of RoC’s hands and the appropriate notices/resolutions are filed after the event.

7. Changes to D-report/return forms

I know that R3 has expended a lot of effort into seeking changes to the D-report/return forms and in putting them online, so I hope that I’m not dissing the Service’s proposals unduly out of ignorance. However, the CD left me puzzled.

Instead of asking IPs to express an opinion on whether the director “is a person whose conduct makes it appear to you that he is unfit” – because the Service believes that this can delay submission of the form, as the IP takes time to gather evidence – it proposes to ask IPs to provide “details of director behaviour which may indicate misconduct” (paragraph 209). From what I can gather, it seems there will be a tick-box list of behaviours that may indicate misconduct. But IPs will still be working on the basis of evidence in ticking the boxes, won’t they? So all that will be removed is the need for the IP to decide whether a D-return or report is appropriate (the Service’s plan is to have only one form). In fact, it could be more burdensome to IPs, as currently they use their own judgment in deciding that an action or behaviour does not, or is unlikely to, cross the threshold of misconduct, which would lead them to submit a clean return, end of story. However, under the proposed system, it seems to me that the IP would tick the box regarding the particular behaviour and the Service would then have to decide whether it warranted further investigation. Would that help anyone?

I appreciate IPs’ reluctance in expressing an opinion on misconduct, but I suggest that the main rationale for dropping this requirement is that, as currently, the Service will make its own mind up anyway, so what does it matter what the IP thinks? However, what will be lost under the new system will be the IP acting as a first-level filter, which I guess achieves the Red Tape Challenge objective, but it seems unhelpful in the greater scheme of things.

And is this tick-box approach going to be an improvement? Although the Service has promised a free text box (woo hoo!), it all sounds a bit restrictive to me.

One promising proposed change is that the Service will pre-populate returns with information that is already available (presumably from RoC). Not only will this make IPs’ lives a little easier, but also the receipt of a pre-populated return may act as a useful prompt to complete the task.

BIS is pursuing its “Digital by Default vision” and so views are sought on whether electronic submission of D-returns could be mandatory. Although personally I think it would not be a huge leap for all IPs to do this – provided the return was a moveable document that could be worked on and passed around a number of people in the IP’s office before finalisation and submission – I dislike the suggestion that there would be no other way of complying with the legislation and I did have to laugh at the image of an IP typing up his D-return in a public library (paragraph 205)!

The Service is also proposing to change the deadline to 3 months, on the assumption that this would be doable if IPs were not required to express an opinion and on the basis that “all of the information required for completion of the return will be available to the office-holder within that reduced period in the vast majority of cases” (paragraph 212). I’m not so sure, particularly if the IP encounters resistance in retrieving books and records and if directors are slow in submitting completed questionnaires – and these likely will include the cases where some misconduct has gone on. The CD does not mention what an IP’s duty would be in relation to any discoveries after the 3 months, but presumably a professional IP will go to the expense of informing the Service of material findings. I realise that resources are stretched extraordinarily within the Investigations department, but I’m not convinced that this is the best way to tackle the issue.

.
Well, I had intended to avoid prattling on for too long, but I think I failed! Hopefully, this is a reflection of the interest I have in the Service’s proposals: despite my criticisms, Insolvency Service, I am grateful for your efforts in seeking to improve things – thank you.


Leave a comment

Anticipated Changes to the Insolvency Regulatory Landscape in 2013 and Beyond

We seem to have avoided major changes in 2012: no new/revised SIPs, no significant changes to legislation… does that mean it is all being stored up for 2013?

Here are a few developments that I’ll be looking out for next year:

• A Ministerial review on IPs’ fees – preliminary report expected in April 2013 with final recommendations in June 2013: http://bis.gov.uk/insolvency/insolvency-profession/review-of-ip-fees

• Changes to the RPBs’ complaints systems, including common sanctions guidance and an Insolvency Service-hosted site for lodging complaints and for publicising sanctions: http://insolvency.presscentre.com/Press-Releases/Jo-Swinson-announces-insolvency-fees-review-and-single-complaints-gateway-6853e.aspx

• HM Treasury’s review of the Special Administration regime for investment banks – report to the Treasury by the end of January 2013 with a fuller report expected by end of June 2013: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/press_124_12.htm

• Changes to collective redundancy legislation… will there be any reference to any insolvency exemptions? Draft regulations expected in the New Year, to come into effect on 6 April 2013: http://news.bis.gov.uk/Press-Releases/Boost-for-business-as-government-sets-out-plans-to-update-employment-legislation-68512.aspx

• Progression of the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill – currently at the House of Lord Committee stage: http://discuss.bis.gov.uk/enterprise-bill/

• Outcome of the Red Tape Challenge on insolvency – Insolvency Service to set out proposals to be considered by Ministers in early 2013: Dear IP 56 (not yet posted to the Service’s website)

• Revised SIP3 and SIP16 to be issued for consultation (per IPA autumn roadshows)?

• Development of the Scottish Government’s plans for bankruptcy law reform: http://www.aib.gov.uk/news/releases/2012/11/scottish-government%E2%80%99s-response-consultation-bankruptcy-law-reform

• The Charitable Incorporated Organisations (Insolvency and Dissolution) Regulations 2012 come into force on 2 January 2013 (thanks to Jo Harris for pointing these out) – I guess they are what they are, but I would like to see a user-friendly summary of them: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/3013/pdfs/uksi_20123013_en.pdf

• The Financial Services Act comes into force on 1 April 2013… with what direct impact on IPs? I confess that it is not something that I know a lot about, but I do know that from it is created the Financial Conduct Authority, which (from 1 April 2014) will take on consumer credit regulation from the OFT so it may well affect IPs’ (and RPBs’ group) consumer credit licences: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/press_126_12.htm

• And further afield, changes to the EC’s 2000 Insolvency Regulations (although perhaps further away than 2013?): http://ec.europa.eu/justice/newsroom/civil/news/121212_en.htm

Have I missed anything, do you think..?

I’ll also take this opportunity to mention that I reproduce my blog posts into pdfs every couple of months or so – I have added these to a new page on this blog, but I email them direct to those who have asked. If you would like to be added to this emailing list, please drop me a line at insolvencyoracle@pobox.com. I have also started on twitter (@mbmoving); I am a complete novice, but I am hoping to use it to make immediate reference to news items on subjects such as those above (but I’ll continue to blog). Finally, I have given my blog a new look for the New Year – a photos from my trip to Patagonia in January 2012.

Have a lovely few days/weeks off, everyone, and I hope I get to meet up with some of you again sometime in the next year, when I emerge finally from all my unpleasant experiences of 2012.


4 Comments

Some inflammatory remarks made as the BIS Committee interrogates the Insolvency Service

On 23 October 2012, the BIS Committee put questions to Dr Richard Judge, the Inspector General and Chief Executive of the Insolvency Service, and Graham Horne, the Deputy Inspector General and Deputy Chief Executive.  The recording of the session can be found in the archive section of www.parliamentlive.tv.

Here I have set out the main points I drew from it and I have used quotes to avoid putting my own spin on the proceedings (although I could not refrain completely from adding some of my own observations).  It is a long entry, I’m afraid, but here are the topics that I have covered:

  • Allegation of “age-old problem” of asset sales at an undervalue by IPs
  • What is being done about forcing suppliers to continue to supply?
  • Apparent disjoint between number of D1 reports and number of disqualifications being pursued
  • Proposals to affect pre-packs and what is to be done about continuously “disappointing” levels of SIP16 compliance?
  • Is the lower level of complaints as a whole a reflection of the current low-value cases or an indication of increased confidence in IPs?
  • The evolving plans to change complaints processes
  • Prospects for a single regulator
  • Progress in enhancing creditors’ powers to challenge excessive fees
  • Ideas arising from the Red Tape Challenge
  • “Perceived cosy relationship between IPs and asset-based lenders”

The session also covered questions on the Insolvency Service’s current and prospective resources, their projections of insolvency case numbers, the drop in their customer satisfaction rates, and more, but I realised that I had to stop somewhere!

Asset sales at an undervalue (timed at 9.47am in the recording)

Brian Binley (Conservative MP) started the discussion: “I’m particularly concerned about many small businesses who should be in receipt of some return for a sizeable build-up of debt and that build-up occurs because they daren’t be too heavy because the business has been fragile for 5 years or so and yet insolvency agents sell off at 10% irrespective and they feel very badly let down”.

I thought that Graham Horne did a reasonable job of explaining the considerable write-down of asset value on facing a fire-sale for a company in an insolvency process, but Mr Binley had not finished: “I do know how angry it makes people and particularly people running small businesses when they know the value is sizeably higher but where there is a culture of, because of the firewall (sic.) that you talk about, oh get rid of it, 10% will do…  Can I ask you seriously to look into this matter and can I ask you to come back to me because I’m not satisfied with your answers and I think they have been sizeably complacent and I think that a consideration of SME is where hopefully the growth is going to come from and it needs to be higher up your list of priorities than it appears to be.”

It seems to me that there is still much work to do, primarily by R3 I would suggest, in progressing education of the public and politicians about the realities of insolvency.  I would add that I think this is largely outside of insolvency regulation, is it not?  An IP instructs a professional agent to do a professional job; I cannot see that they can be criticised for using accredited agents (say, by RICS and/or NAVA; I’m not sure of any other such bodies) to do their job, can they?

Continuation of supplies (10.00am)

Graham Horne stated that, in relation to the “regulated industries… we should do something about it and are doing something about it, so it’s no right that regulated industries should seek to profit because a company is going insolvent, whereas with a contracting party, it’s trickier.  We’re aware of the issues; we are discussing them with IPs and others.  It will require legislation.  It’s really those unforeseen consequences – if you put a lever over here, you’re not totally sure what the consequences are over there at the moment – but certainly I think there’s a fair amount of forbearance around at the moment.”

The Insolvency Service’s record on director disqualifications (10.10am)

Mike Crockart (Lib Dem MP) observed that last year 5,401 D-reports were submitted, but only 1,151 resulted in disqualifications and he suggested that the perception is that directors who have been alleged as guilty of misconduct are not being tackled.  Dr Judge responded by explaining the Insolvency Service’s strategy in prioritising high risk cases.  He also explained that some cases are not taken forward because, inter alia, the evidence may not be there and he accepted that the Service has not been particularly good at explaining to IPs why cases have not been taken forward.

Mike Crockart responded: “You seem to be handing it back to IPs and saying, you’re sending too many… IPs are seeing something there that they believe you should be dealing with because the numbers are going up, but you seem to be quite satisfied with the number that you’re dealing with.”

I was surprised that Dr Judge responded: “To be clear on what I’ve said, there are 5,000 indications of misconduct – I say ‘indications’ because I think that’s an important point; not every one is going to be severe or even, you know, there are people who are innocent in that…”  At least Graham Horne tempered this a little with the observation that IPs are statutorily obliged to report metaphorically those driving 31mph in a 30mph zone and consequently not all cases are taken forward, but even so I thought it was interesting to hear what comes into the new Inspector General’s mind.

Pre-packs (10.22am)

The Committee Chairman started: “Widespread dissatisfaction with them [pre-packs]; proposals that had been mooted were shelved earlier this year…”  Was there scope for further reform?

Dr Judge repeated the Insolvency Service’s view that pre-packs are seen as a useful tool in the rescue culture, they have saved jobs, and in conducting their monitoring “we haven’t come across widespread evidence of abuse”.  He also explained the general view that the real concern is sales to connected parties and that SIP16 has “tried to” address concerns over transparency.

Graham Horne explained the reason the proposals for 3 days notice was shelved, due to a desire to avoid introducing legislation affecting small businesses, “although it has not been ruled out”.  He also hinted at the relevance of the director disqualifications, reporting that 161 disqualifications were where directors had entered into transactions to the detriment of creditors; 56 for misappropriating assets; and 102 for “conduct that was quasi-criminal”.

He continued: “Transparency is something that we continue to work on and we’re not satisfied that IPs are doing enough to persuade creditors that they’re doing a good job in the way that they’ve handled pre-packs.  We don’t see evidence that the pre-pack wasn’t the right thing to do or that it wasn’t the best option in the circumstances.  What I don’t think IPs are doing enough of is explaining to people why they chose that option and giving the circumstances for that”.  He confirmed that no other specific suggestions arising from the stakeholder meetings into improving confidence in pre-packs are being considered.

Brian Binley queried the relevance of the disqualification statistics.  He added: “It is about SMEs in pre-packs, small businesses who often think that the whole deal is done above their heads; they don’t get any information whatsoever and they feel either that the Inland Revenue or the banks or the big companies have wrapped it up without any recognition of the relative size of the hit to a small business.  To a bank, £50,000 is not a great deal of money, but to a small business it’s very often the difference between survival or going under and in terms of pre-packs it is often the SME, the very small business, that is totally left out of any considerations.  Is that fair and if there is a hint of concern there, what are you doing about it to find out how great that concern is?”

Personally, I do wonder at the level of acumen of a business that provides life-or-death levels of credit to a company and thus how sensibly they could contribute to, or absorb the details of, any pre pre-pack completion process.

Graham Horne responded that he understood the concern.  He believed that the forbearance of HMRC and the banks is helping; companies are not being pushed into insolvency, but he recognised that it is the absence of information before the sale that is the concern.  “That is why we’ve not ruled out going back to the idea that people should give notice and we do encourage – and it is part of the practice of IPs – to market the company’s assets because I think one answer here would be to say to people: what is anyone prepared to pay for these assets? Because this is what it’s all about… a fair open market to say what’s anyone prepared to pay? And I think the issue on pre-packs is often that it’s behind closed doors.  The SIP is supposed to be telling IPs to give information about what marketing they’ve done and this is where we pull them up and their compliance I’m afraid is disappointing”.

I was interested to note that Graham Horne referred to sales of assets, not businesses, which supports my perception that perhaps he still does not quite appreciate the damage that can be done to some businesses in indiscreetly seeking to attract purchasers before the commencement of insolvency.  Having said that, I do wonder if some IPs may still feel that as long as sale consideration is comparable to, or a slight improvement over, a valuation, then it is as good as selling on the open market and I wonder if adequate contemplation of open market selling occurs.

In response to Ann McKechin’s (Labour MP) question of whether the Service was satisfied with the last SIP16 monitoring report’s results – 32% not fully compliant and 7% substantially deficient – Graham Horne stated: “No, I’m not at all satisfied with that.  It is disappointing that the industry has been unable to get that level up to where I’d expect it to be.  I mean, they are professional people, it’s a complicated SIP and it’s got quite a lot of elements to it, but one would expect them to be able to comply with that to a far higher level that 68%.  I would say that the non-compliances are slightly technical, so it’s not as though in those cases that the pre-pack is in any way wrong or was the wrong thing to do or there was abuse.  It is simply the point that they’re not giving enough information to creditors and that’s why again as part of the reforms we are looking at strengthening the rules and regulations relating to the supply of information to really put it on a statutory footing, rather than the footing that it is with the SIP”.

I was disappointed that, whilst Ann McKechin was seeking confirmation that “the SIP is at the moment voluntary guidance provided by your department”, Graham Horne nodded and muttered “yes”.  Ms McKechin continued by asking whether Mr Horne would prefer it to be statutory.  He responded: “I’m not sure that my personal opinion particularly carries much weight, but it is something that ministers would want to look at and it’s part of the consultation that went out”.  Then Ann McKechin asked: “Have any of the professional regulators that are involved adopted the SIP16 guidance into their own regulatory environments and the fact that there are penalties for non-compliance?”  Disappointingly again, Graham Horne did not put the Committee straight on the status of SIPs within the RPBs, but he responded: “Oh there are penalties for non-compliance, yes, and when we complain, penalties are imposed, fines are imposed and undertakings are given, so there are some regulatory consequences of the failure to comply.  My disappointment is that those penalties have not had the impact of improving compliance levels and I think what we’re trying to do with the RPBs is urge them to up the game to say, look, you need to do more, to ensure they do reach acceptable levels of compliance.  I think our view is that the penalties imposed so far have not really been of the size, of the level, that we would have liked to have seen in some cases.  In some cases we think that perhaps RPBs could have taken a little bit of a firmer line with some of the non-compliance cases.”

Personally, I was really disappointed at the style and wording of SIP16 when it was released (my disappointment perhaps is heightened, as I was the IPA secretariat attendee at the JIC when the SIP was being worked on – I believe that there was plenty of effort on the IPA’s part to get the SIP into a better shape).  I do believe that the checklist style has led to some SIP16 disclosures lacking real substance or a sensible explanation of why and how the pre-pack was undertaken.  I do think that more could be done to make the disclosures useful, although I fear that the Insolvency Service’s apparent checklist style of monitoring has not helped, as I wonder if some IPs are sticking to the checklist approach in order to prove to the Service that a disclosure does meet SIP16 requirements.  If that is the case, perhaps these IPs put too much emphasis on the bullet point list in the SIP when they perhaps should be reflecting on SIP16’s paragraph 8: “It is important, therefore, that they [unsecured creditors] are provided with a detailed explanation and justification of why a pre-packaged sale was undertaken, so that they can be satisfied that the administrator has acted with due regard for their interests”.

I would hope that the JIC could be left alone to revise SIP16 (and perhaps SIP13 too?) – and when I left the IPA in May this year, a JIC working group (including someone from the Insolvency Service) was working on this endeavour.  However, it is clear that the threat of the current SIP16-style legislation remains alive.

Complaints in general (10.39am)

Ann McKechin followed up an observation that complaints against IPs had fallen by 16% with an interesting question: does this reflect the value of cases at present or is it an indication of increased confidence in the profession?  Unfortunately, the Insolvency Service did not grasp hold of this idea, but instead Graham Horne responded: “If you read the OFT report, you might think it was possibly because of a lack of awareness of how to complain and maybe there’s a little bit of an issue there about the mechanisms by which you complain, the way in which you complain.  Levels of insolvency are fairly static at the moment, so we would not expect increasing levels of complaints and IPs in fairness do a difficult job and do it well in the main and the level of complaints is comparatively small compared to the sorts of cases they deal with.”

Evolving plans for changes to complaints processes

Graham Horne immediately continued: “What we are doing is trying to work with the RPBs on a measure to have a single gateway for complaints and we’re pretty close to hopefully announcing a basket of measures where we will host a gateway for complaints so people will be able to see the way in which they can complain.”

He confirmed to Ms McKechin that this was considered an alternative to the creation of a single complaints body and he added: “we’re close to hopefully getting ministerial approval to launch shortly.  We’re also working on common sanctions so it won’t matter which body you’re complaining to, there’ll be a consistent approach to the misconduct, common appeals process as well, so you get many of the advantages of a single regulator but by bringing it together with a single front-end and approach to complaints.”

Prospects for a single regulator (10.41am)

In response to Brian Binley’s question regarding the apparent demise of the proposal for a single regulator, Graham Horne acknowledged that the consultation had generated “quite a lot of strong support for that”, but that “ministers have ruled out at this stage legislation.  The previous minister said he would want to explore achieving the same aims through voluntary means, which is this package of measures I’ve been talking about…  We haven’t ruled out and ministers haven’t ruled out a single independent regulator, needs Parliamentary time, needs to think about that, but what we’re trying to achieve through this set of measures is some of the advantages it would give us.”

Mr Binley observed that R3’s survey reported that the vast majority would like fewer regulatory bodies and asked how quickly the Service was moving, to which Mr Horne observed that it is in the hands of ministers.  Dr Judge added that they “could probably reinforce” the Service’s oversight function; he noted that they are limited to the “nuclear action”, but he pointed out that it did not stop the Service from making their expectations clear to the RPBs.

Creditors’ powers to challenge excessive fees (10.48am)

Rebecca Harris (Conservative MP) asked what progress was being made in enabling creditors to challenge excessive fees.  Graham Horne responded: “This is an area where we’ve made some progress, but I have to say not as much progress as we would have liked with our dealings with the RPBs…  They will be able to raise complaints about fees and RPBs will look at those where the circumstances surrounding the fees amount to misconduct – so an IP has not got proper authority for fees, where an IP cannot support a calculation for the fees, or where the fee levels are very egregious – so they will look at those and that will give creditors some avenues to complain. The position is still that in most cases the recourse is to the court if you’re not happy with the way IPs have handled fees.  Most fees are approved by creditors…  We are looking at whether we can push this voluntary measure a little further because the recourse again would come back to legislation and we haven’t ruled out looking at secondary legislation to give RPBs the right to examine the quantum of fees and I think their natural concern is getting into a commercial discussion/debate about: was that the appropriate fee in that particular case?  We think it is right that there should be some mechanism where someone looks at that and decides whether, not down to the last pence (he was interrupted by a Committee member asking another question)…  We are doing all we can in our role as creditor, albeit we become a creditor after the event, to use our powers as a creditor to look at IPs’ conduct and to raise issue and HMRC do quite a lot as well, although they would have to take it on a resource basis; they can’t take on every case because they are a creditor in every case.”  Mr Horne’s additional comments suggest that the Insolvency Service has devoted new resources to this endeavour and recently formed an RPO team to look particularly, from a creditor’s perspective, at how IPs have administered cases.

The Red Tape Challenge (“RTC”) (10.53am)

Graham Horne set out the timescale: the revised rules are planned to come into force in October 2014 and a set of rules will be sent to a focus group in early 2013.  He said that the revised rules would be made available to the public at least 6 months before implementation, as he appreciated that people needed time to adjust their systems.  Personally, I thought that suggestion of any public consultation on revised rules was conspicuous by its absence.

Mr Horne explained that the “D-form issue” was a particular issue arising from the RTC; the rest of the suggestions were generally around the process of insolvency, meetings, whether modern means of communication could be incorporated more widely, for example with the current need to use first class post.  He said there were no big ideas, but “incremental pruning” should make reasonably significant improvements overall.

Mike Crockart referred to the apparent desire amongst IPs for an electronic D-form, but commented that it seemed a “moratorium” had stalled this development.  Graham Horne confirmed that the idea was certainly not shelved but he acknowledged there were some legislative barriers to look at.  He also said that the Service wants to take a wider look at the whole D-report/return process, for example is a D2 nil return really necessary?  Should there be a form or reporting requirement?  He noted that the risk of a form is that it becomes something completed by rote.

“Perceived cosy relationship between IPs and asset-based lenders” (11.01am)

The above words were what the Chairman used to introduce the next subject and he then handed over to Brian Binley: “I understand you are to meet with officials from the BIS department and with the Treasury and the Campaign for Regulation of Asset-based Finance – due to take place this week”, although Graham Horne later said that discussions were ongoing, rather than confirming a meeting this week.  Mr Binley referred to a case involving a bakery which was given 2.5 days over the Jubilee period by Bibby to find other funders and then Bibby wanted a £92,000 termination fee.  He asked whether this kind of power was unfair and continued: “Some factoring companies put companies into administration and appoint a friendly insolvency firm and some go even further – they pass leads to lenders who are owned by the insolvency practice firm themselves.  Now this is pretty-much of an unacceptable mess, isn’t it?”

Dr Judge acknowledged that this was a relatively recent concern brought to the Service’s attention and pointed out that the Service’s function is limited to insolvency and that this appeared to fall to other departments.  He encouraged people to provide specific evidence of any concerning events.  Graham Horne’s follow-up comments suggest to me that the Service may not have fully grasped Mr Binley’s particular concern: “I think that the regulatory framework is in place.  We don’t need any more tools.  If people have taken out charges late-on prior to the insolvency, those charges could be rendered invalid.  These sorts of things can be looked at in the way the company’s business was restructured just before the insolvency.  This is stuff that we can do with our current powers, so what we need to do is get complaints to us.  We’ve got powerful powers to investigate companies.”

Mr Binley was keen to highlight the banks’ role in this matter, although in so doing, I wonder if he is muddling two different issues: “It’s the banks that almost stipulate that some of their small businesses actually use an associated factoring company, so the whole loop sort-of has the smell about, which is not overly savoury.”

Shortly afterward, the Chairman wrapped up the session by reminding the Service representatives that further written evidence covering a number of matters was expected – the story continues…