Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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InsS Annual Review, part 3: less carrot, more stick?

The Insolvency Service’s September 2018 report pulled no punches in expressing dissatisfaction over some monitoring outcomes: we want fewer promises to do better and more disciplinary penalties, seemed to be the tone.  Has this message already changed the face of monitoring?

The Insolvency Service’s September 2018 Report can be found at www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-monitoring-and-regulation-of-insolvency-practitioners and its Annual Review of IP Regulation is at www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018.

In this article, I explore the following:

  • On average, a quarter of all IPs were visited last year
  • But is there a 3-yearly monitoring cycle any longer?
  • 2018 saw the fewest targeted visits on record
  • …but more targeted visits are expected in 2019
  • No RPB ordered any plans for improvement
  • Instead, monitoring penalties/referrals of disciplinary/investigation doubled
  • Is this a sign that the Insolvency Service’s big stick is hitting its target?
  • IPs had a 1 in 10 chance of receiving a monitoring or complaints sanction last year

 

How frequently are IPs being visited?

With the exception of the Chartered Accountants Ireland (which is not surprising given their bumper year in 2017), all RPBs visited around a quarter of their IPs last year.  It’s good to see the RPBs operating this consistently, but how does it translate into the apparent 3-yearly standard routine?

Firstly, I find it odd that coverage of ACCA-licensed IPs seems to have dropped significantly.  After receiving a fair amount of criticism from the InsS over its monitoring practices, the ACCA handed the regulating of its licensed IPs over to the IPA in October 2016.  Yet, the number of ACCA IPs visited since that time has dropped from the c.100% to 79%.

Another factor that I had overlooked in previous analyses is the effect of monitoring the volume IVA providers (“VIPs”).  At least since 2014, the Insolvency Service’s principles for monitoring VIPs has required at least annual visits to VIPs.  Drawing on TDX’s figures for the 2018 market shares in IVAs, the IPA licensed all of the IPs in the firms that fall in the InsS’ definition of a VIP.  On the assumption that each of these received an annual visit, excluding these visits would bring the IPA’s coverage over the past 3 years to 56% of the rest of their IPs.  Of course, there are many reasons why this figure could be misleading, including that I do not know how many VIP IPs any of the RPBs had licensed in 2016 or 2017.

The ICAEW’s 64% may also reflect its different approach to visits to IPs in the largest firms: the ICAEW visits the firm annually (to cover the work of some of their IPs), but, because of the large number of IPs in the firm, the gap between visits to each IP within the firm is up to 6 years.  I cannot attempt to adjust the ICAEW’s figure to exclude these less frequently visited IPs, but suffice to say that, if they were exceeded, I suspect we might see something approaching more of a standard c.3-yearly visit for all non-large firm ICAEW-licensed IPs.

These variances in the 3-year monitoring cycle standard, which cannot be calculated (by me at least) with any accuracy, mean that there is very little that can be gleaned from this graph.  Unfortunately, the average is no longer much of an indication to IPs of when they might expect to receive their next monitoring visit.

 

The IPA’s new approach to monitoring

In addition to its up-to-4-visits-per-year shift for VIPs, at its annual conference earlier this year, the IPA announced that it would also be departing from the 3-yearly norm for other IPs.

The IPA has published few details about its new approach.  All that I have seen is that the frequency of monitoring visits is on a risk-assessment basis (which, I have to say, it was in my days there, albeit that the InsS used to insist on a 3-year max. gap) and that it is a “1-6 year monitoring cycle – tailored visits to types of firm” (the IPA’s 2018/19 annual report).

In light of this vagueness, I asked a member of the IPA secretariat for some more details: was the plan only to extend the period for those in the largest firms, as the ICAEW has done, or at least only for those practices with robust in-house compliance teams with a proven track record?  The answer was no, it could apply to smaller firms.  He gave the example of a small firm IP who only does CVLs: if the IPA were happy that the IP could do CVLs well and her bond schedules showed that she wasn’t diversifying into other case types, she likely would be put on an extended monitoring cycle.  The IPA person saw remote monitoring as the key for the future; he said that there is much that can be gleaned from a review of docs filed at Companies House.  He explained, however, that IPs would not know what cycle length they had been marked up for.

While I do not wish to throw cold water on this development, as I have long supported risk-based monitoring, this does seem a peculiar move especially in these times when questions are being asked about the current regulatory regime: if a present concern is that the regulators are not adequately discouraging bad behaviour and that they are not expediting the removal of the  “bad apples”, then it is curious that the monitoring grip is being loosened now.

Also, now that I visit clients on an annual basis, I realise just how much damage can be done in a short period of time.  It only takes a few misunderstandings of the legislation, a rogue staff member or a hard-to-manage peak in activity (or an unplanned trough in staff resources) to result in some real howlers.  How much damage could be done in 6 years, especially if an IP were less than honest?  Desk-top monitoring can achieve only so much.

What this means for my analysis of the annual reports, however, is that the 3-year benchmark for monitoring visits – or one third of IPs being monitored per year – is no longer relevant ☹ But it will still be interesting to see how the averages vary in the coming years.

 

Targeted visits drop to an all-time low

Only 10 targeted visits were carried out last year – the lowest number since the InsS started reporting them – and it seems that all RPBs are avoiding them in equal measure.

But 2019 may show a different picture, as several targeted visits have been ordered from 2018 monitoring visits…

 

Are the Insolvency Service’s criticisms bearing fruit?

I was particularly alarmed by the overall tone of the Insolvency Service’s “review of the monitoring and regulation of insolvency practitioners” published in September 2018.  In several places in the report, the InsS expressed dissatisfaction over some of the outcomes of monitoring visits.

I got the feeling that the Service disliked the focus on continuous improvement that, I think, has been a strength of the monitoring regime.  Instead, the Service expected to see more investigations and disciplinary actions arising from monitoring visit findings.  The report singled out apparently poor advice to debtors and apparently unfair or unreasonable fees or disbursements as requiring a disciplinary file to be opened with the aim of remedies being ordered.  It does seem that the focus of the InsS criticisms is squarely on activity in the VIPs, but the report did worry me that the criticisms could change the face of monitoring for everyone.  

2018 is the first year (in the period analysed) in which no monitoring visit resulted in a plan for improvement.  On the other hand, the number of penalties/referrals for disciplinary/investigation action doubled.

Could the InsS’ report be responsible for this shift?  Ok, the report was published quite late in 2018, in September, but I am certain that the RPBs had a rough idea of what the report would contain long before then.  Or perhaps the Single Regulator debate has tempted some within the RPBs/committees to be seen to be taking a tougher line?  Or you might think that these kinds of actions are long overdue?

I think that the RPBs have tried hard over the last decade or so to overcome the negativity of the JIMU-style approach to monitoring.  In more recent years, monitoring has become constructive and there has been some commendably open and honest communication between RPB and IP.  This has helped to raise standards, to focus on how firms can improve for the future, rather than spending everyone’s time and effort analysing and accounting for the past.  It concerns me that the InsS seems to want to remove this collaborative approach and make monitoring more like a complaints process.  In my view, such a shift may result in many IPs automatically taking a more defensive stance in monitoring visits and challenging many more findings.  Such a shift will not improve standards and will take up much more time from all parties.

Getting back to the graph, of course a referral for an investigation might not result in a sanction at all, so this does not necessarily mean that the IPA has issued more sanctions as a consequence of monitoring visits.  Also, the IPA’s apparent enthusiasm for this tool may simply reflect the IPA’s (past) committee structure whereby the committee that considered monitoring reports did not have the power to issue a disciplinary penalty, but could only pass it on to the Investigation Committee.  As this was dealt with as an internal “complaint”, I suspect that any such penalty arising from this referral would have featured, not in the IPA’s monitoring visit outcomes, but in complaint outcomes.

So how do the RPBs compare as regards complaints sanctions?

 

Complaints sanctions fall by a quarter

Although the IPA issued relatively fewer sanctions last year, I suspect that the monitoring visit referrals will take some time to work their way through to sanction stage, so it is unlikely that this demonstrates that the monitoring visit referrals led to a “no case to answer”.

What this and the previous graph show quite dramatically, though, is that last year the ICAEW seemed to issue far fewer sanctions per IP than the IPA.  As mentioned in my last blog, the IPA does license a large majority of the VIP IPs and there were more complaints last year about IVAs than about all the other case types put together.  One third of the published sanctions also were found against VIP IPs.

 

Likelihood of being sanctioned is unchanged from a decade ago

In 2018, you had a 1 in c.10 chance of receiving an RPB sanction, which was the same probability as in 2008…

I find it interesting to see the IPA’s and the ACCA’s results converge, which, if it were not for the suspected VIP impact, I would expect given that the IPA deals with both RPBs’ regulatory processes.

There’s not a lot that can be surmised from the number of sanctions issued by the other two RPBs: they’re a bit spiky, but it does seem that, on the whole, the ICAEW and ICAS has issued much fewer sanctions.  It seems from this that, at least for last year, you were c.half as likely to receive a sanction if you were ICAEW- or ICAS-licensed as you were if you were IPA- or ACCA-licensed.

 

Is a Single Regulator the answer to bringing consistency?

True, these graphs do seem to indicate that different regulatory approaches are implemented by different RPBs.  However, I do think that some of that variation is due to the different make-up of their regulated populations.  There is no doubt that the IVA specialists do require a different approach.  To a lesser degree, I think that a different approach is also merited when an RPB monitors practices with robust internal compliance teams; it is so much more difficult to have your work critiqued and challenged on a daily basis when you work in a 1-2 IP practice.

Differences in approach can also be a good thing.  Seeing other RPBs do things differently can force an RPB to challenge what they themselves are doing and to innovate.  My main concern with the idea of a single regulator is the loss of this advantage of the multi-regulator structure.

Perhaps a Single Regulator could bring in more consistency, but it would never result in perfectly consistent outcomes.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers an exercise a certain JIEB tutor ran: all us students were given the same exam answer to mark against the same marking guide.  The results varied wildly.  This demonstrated to me that, as long as humans are involved in the process, different outcomes will always emerge.

 


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InsS Annual Review, part 2: IP number is down but complaints are up

The number of IPs just keeps on falling, but complaints have increased.  What is going on?

In this blog, I explore whether the Insolvency Service’s 2018 report on IP regulation provides the answer.  Also, is it just a blip?  And could this analysis help with the Service’s recently-issued call for evidence on IP regulation?

The Insolvency Service’s report can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018

In brief, the report indicates that, in 2018:

  • Despite insolvency case numbers increasing, IPs continued to leave the profession
  • Actions that most often appeared in RPB sanctions were: poor case progression/closure; faults in administering IVAs; and breaches of statutory filing/reporting requirements
  • Only two complaints (of the 381 referred to the RPBs) had been received from creditors! As usual, debtors were the most frequent complainers, but complaints lodged by directors and IPs showed quite an increase
  • Over 50% of the complaints lodged at the Gateway did not make it through to the RPBs
  • On average, one in three IPs received a complaint, but this figure jumped to more than one in every two for IPA-licensed IPs
  • Could this be because the IPA licenses all the IPs in the top six volume IVA provider firms (who registered over 75% of all new IVAs last year)..?
  • Over 50% of all complaints referred to the RPBs related to IVAs

 

Case numbers go up but IP numbers keep on going down

There has been a significant increase in insolvency case numbers over the past 3 years.  There were 20% more corporate insolvencies and over 40% more personal insolvencies started in 2018 than the numbers started in 2015.  Isn’t now a good time to be in insolvency..?

These statistics reflect my personal experience: over the past year, I have known of IPs who have left the profession and they’ve not all been of retiring age.  What is happening?

There’s no doubt in my mind that competition has become fiercer.  I have seen more occasions of IPs being toppled from offices and the ORs seem all the more reluctant to allow cases to leave their hands.  I have also seen some new ambulance-chasers on the field.

I think that small firms are struggling in this market.  It seems to me that larger firms seem hungrier to fight for smaller cases than they used to be.  In addition, 2018 was not a regulation-light year: it seemed that simply getting GDPR-ready was someone’s full-time job for several months, which was not at all easy for smaller firms to stomach.  Recruitment and retention are also difficult for smaller firms: new talent is attracted to big names, big cities, meaty cases and varied portfolios.

Fewer IPs and more cases mean that each IP has on average a larger caseload (or it could be that the IPs are closing them quicker, but from my personal experience, I don’t think this is happening).  If insolvency cases continue to increase, which I think is generally expected, then I think case progression is going to become a bigger concern.  Of course, IPs can always look to surround themselves with a larger team to deal with their larger caseloads, but we all know that this tends not to happen: in times of plenty, old cases tend to be shelved while people concentrate on the new excitements.

 

Is case progression already an issue?

The Insolvency Service’s report gives brief descriptions of every RPB sanction issued (including a couple that weren’t even published on .gov.uk – not sure how that happened!).  On categorising these summaries, I have come up with the following failures that appear most frequently in the disciplinary sanctions reported:

  • 7 case progression / closure issues (including one failure to realise assets and two failures to pay a dividend – not sure if these were delays or entirely overlooked)
  • 6 IVA-related faults (not including case progression / closure)
  • 6 statutory filing/reporting breaches
  • 3 SIP16 breaches
  • 3 faults in relation to directors’ RPO claims
  • 3 fee-related errors
  • 3 confidentiality breaches (perhaps related?)
  • 2 PTD-related faults
  • 2 SIP2 failures to investigate or to secure books and records

This shows that failing to progress cases promptly or appropriately can get you into hot water.  So too can failing to meet the rules on filing and reporting: four of the six instances listed arose because progress reports were not filed on time (or at all).

 

What are people complaining about?

The Top 3 topics continue to be ethics, poor communication and SIP3 issues, with the latter now counting for 34% of all complaints recorded by subject, up from 25% last year:

(Note: a complaint may appear in more than one category.  There were a total of 381 complaints referred in 2018 – see further below.)

Ok, that’s not a surprise.  We all know that the Insolvency Service’s report in September 2018 pulled no punches when it came to the RPB-monitoring of volume IVA providers.  It is also unsurprising that people are not directly complaining about late or missing progress reports, but as the sanctions demonstrate, if a statutory filing/reporting breach is identified in the course of the RPB’s investigations into a complaint, don’t be surprised if this is added to your charge sheet.

What we should perhaps be a little concerned about is that complaints on areas that attract a lot of negative press and criticism – SIP16/pre-packs and remuneration – have increased.  True, they still pale into insignificance when compared with the total number of complaints (they account for only 16 of the 429 complaints recorded by subject), but this is quite a jump from the one complaint in 2017.

 

Who is complaining?

I think this shows an interesting shift:

With IVAs featuring so heavily in complaints, it is not surprising that debtors are the most frequent complainant.  More bankruptcies were complained about in 2018 too (up from 31 to 75), which no doubt contributed to the increase in complaining debtors.

What I found interesting was that very few creditors complained last year – only two!  Even if we add in complaints from employees, this only comes to seven.  However, the number of complaints lodged by IPs more than trebled to 38.  Ok, this is still a relatively small number, but I think it hints at an interesting development in self-regulation: RPB monitors may only visit you once every 3 years or so, but your peers are watching you all the time!

 

How many complaints get through the Gateway?

(Note: the Gateway started in June 2014, so I have pro rated the partial 2014 figure to estimate for a full year.)

Complaint numbers are back up to the 2016 level: in 2016, 847 complaints were lodged and in 2018 the number was 830.  However, many more complaints fail to make it through the Gateway.  In fact, every year, the number rejected/referred has increased, even though the trend in complaint numbers shows an overall decrease.  In 2017, 48% of complaints were rejected or closed and this percentage increased to 52% last year.

 

Why are complaints not making it through the Gateway?

In their 2018 report, the Insolvency Service added a number of new reasons for rejection/closure, which personally has helped me to understand the operation of the Gateway better.  For example, I hadn’t appreciated that complaints about conduct that happened over 3 years ago are rejected.

This graph also demonstrates that a large number of complaints (145) – and a great deal more than in 2017 – are rejected because the complaint is about the insolvency process.  Again, given that most complaints are lodged by debtors and directors, this perhaps indicates that in many cases IPs may be upsetting the right people.  But it might also suggest that some IPs could do a better job of explaining the consequences of insolvency.

 

What are an IP’s chances of receiving a complaint?

Yes I know that some IPs work in a field that is more likely to attract criticism, but on average how many IPs received a complaint last year and does this average change much depending on one’s licensing body?

This shows that, generally speaking, one out of every three IPs receives a complaint.  Of course, this assumes that complaints are only about appointment-takers and that complaints are evenly spread about.

However, it also shows a large range in averages across the RPBs, with less than one in five IPs for all except the IPA, which shows an average of over one complaint for every two IPs.

The IPA has publicised that “the majority of IPs who work on IVAs are regulated by the IPA” (IPA press release 29/11/2018)… although, as the IPA does not license the majority of all IPs, a large proportion of which will have at least one IVA, presumably they’re meaning those who do IVAs in volume.  Does this, along with the graph above, mean that volume IVA providers disproportionately feature in complaints?

 

How many Volume IVA IPs does the IPA license?

The Insolvency Service now publishes data on new IVAs per firm: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/individual-voluntary-arrangement-outcomes-and-providers-2018, which helped me out with this question.

An analysis of this list shows that the IPA licenses all the IPs registered at the Top 6 firms.  These firms alone account for over 75% of all IVAs registered in 2018.  Even if we look at the whole list of Top 14 firms (two of which no longer exist!), the IPA licenses 25 of the 33 IPs registered at these firms (with the ICAEW licensing 3 and ICAS the remaining 5, all 5 of which are located at the one firm).

So clearly then, the IPA’s complaints figures are bound to be affected by the number of IVA complaints lodged.  But this assumes that IVAs count for a large proportion of complaints.  Is this true?

 

How many IVAs are being complained about?

The following graph compares the number of IVA complaints with those about other matters:

(Note: the Gateway started in June 2014.  The way complaint numbers were published by case type then changed from those recorded by the RPBs to those referred to the RPBs from the Gateway.)

So for the first time, last year there were more IVA complaints than there were complaints about all other matters/case-types combined.  It’s no wonder therefore that the IPA has recorded many more complaints per IP than any other RPB and it’s not surprising that the IPA has sought to recruit more regulatory staff… and that they have warned IPA members that fees may be increasing this year!

I appreciate that the Insolvency Service did (finally!) wake up to some of the issues around regulating volume IVA providers last year and I accept that the IPA has made some public announcements about how they have been working towards changing their monitoring regime for the IPs in these firms.  However, as someone who has spent the last few years almost exclusively helping IPs in “traditional” insolvency practices, I do wonder if a disproportionate amount of time has been spent by the regulators (and government and the press) in criticising, legislating and threatening to legislate to remedy other apparent ills of the insolvency profession.

 

Is the solution a change in regulatory approach?

Interestingly, the Service’s just-released call for evidence on IP regulation (pg 15 of the doc at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/call-for-evidence-regulation-of-insolvency-practitioners-review-of-current-regulatory-landscape) focuses in on the different firm structure that exists in some IVA specialists where the IP is an employee.  This leads them to ask the question of whether firm-regulation, rather than individual IP-regulation, may be more appropriate in some sectors.  While I think that the Service definitely has a point, I do think that there are other fundamental differences in “volume IVA providers” – the hint is in the name – that also demand a fundamentally different regulatory approach.

 

In my next blog post, I’ll look more closely at complaint – and monitoring – sanctions.