But while there is no sense of mea culpa in last week’s consultation paper, it does seem to mark a belated attempt by ministers to backtrack at least partly on one the most controversial government policies to bite accountants in recent years.
When the much delayed and highly controversial money laundering regulations were finally laid before parliament last December, they were met with deserved fury from accountants.
The regulations require accountants to file reports on any suspicious transactions to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, or face a potential prison term of up to 15 years. Ignorance is no defence: accountants who argue they were unaware of money-laundering activity are unable to avoid prosecution, unless there is proof they were not trained to a sufficient level. If so, the firm itself would become liable.
But last week’s announcement signalled a partial change of heart, albeit one forced on the government by apparent disparities between European and UK law.
The changes would amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to extend the reporting exemptions available to lawyers encountering information in privileged circumstances to ‘other relevant professional advisers’. These would include accountants and tax advisers.
The profession has been demanding for months that it be allowed to hold privileged client conversations about past misdemeanours or misunderstandings that might have cost the Exchequer. The changes under discussion would grant that, and benefit both clients and advisers without harming the flow of anti-money laundering intelligence to the authorities. Responsibility to report ongoing money laundering is, of course, mandatory.
But before anyone gets too excited, there is no sign of a minimum level for the amount of money involved in a suspicious transaction before it must be reported. That remains a ludicrous anomaly.
And it’s important to remember that the exemption is not yet secured, and will not apply until the consultation period is finished and a statutory instrument is in place.
But assuming that happens, we would at last be moving towards a policy that borders on the sensible. Debate on a proper de minimis level should follow.
Mark McMullen joins the private client services team from Smith & Williamson
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