Overseas entities

Registration deadline brings new risk for accountancy firms

IP image

Following the introduction of the Register of Overseas Entities, accountancy firms advising overseas entities who wish to buy, sell, or transfer property or land in the UK face a new set of risks. These include the need to undertake verification checks, and the requirement to update the register annually. Where firms fail in their responsibilities, they may be liable for any losses sustained by their clients. As a result, great care must be taken to ensure compliance.

In search of transparency

The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 came into force on 1 August 2022. It introduced a requirement for all overseas entities who wish to buy, sell, or transfer property in the UK to record information about themselves on a new Register of Overseas Entities (ROE) at Companies House, and to provide information about their registrable beneficial owners or managing officers.

Broadly speaking, this includes submitting information about anyone with more than a 25% share or voting right in the entity, or who is otherwise in a position of significant influence or control. An overseas entity includes any legal entity, such as a company or other organisation, that has legal personality and is governed by the law of a country or territory outside the UK.

Entities must also provide evidence of verification of identity. Those permitted to undertake such verification are UK-based agents supervised under the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017 and includes accountants and solicitors.

Entities that fail to register will find themselves unable to buy, sell, transfer, lease or charge property or land in the UK. Failure to comply with the rules may also be punishable by fines, or imprisonment of an entity’s directors.

Verification presents a challenge

In particular, the introduction of the verification process presents significant risk for accountants who fail to get up to speed with the new rules. These rules go beyond what accountants may be used to in relation to anti-money laundering (AML) requirements, so it is not simply a case of replicating the checks already carried out.

As above, failure by a client to register in the ROE could mean that the client is unable to dispose of (or deal effectively with) property. Where such failure was caused by an accountant’s advice (or lack thereof) the client could make a claim against that accountant for the financial loss suffered as a result. There may also be a risk of claims for loss of a chance, or the loss of a potential profit, on a property transaction where an accountant fails to verify beneficial owners.

Accountants may also be at risk of claims from lenders. The impact of the new rules on securities over property held by overseas entities may see lenders review their existing portfolios (as well as their back book, given that the Act has retrospective effect), and take steps to ensure borrowers are properly registered. This could potentially result in claims against accountants if they have failed to ensure compliance.

In addition, accountants may be exposed to criminal and regulatory proceedings where they fail to comply with the strict requirements of the verification process.

Annual updates bring ongoing risk

Under the conditions of the ROE, overseas entities must file an annual update one year after it was registered, and every year after that. This will be used to inform Companies House of any changes, or to confirm that information held is still correct. Updates must be filed no later than 14 days after the due date.

For accountancy firms, this requirement could result in claims where accountants fail to advise clients of the need for updates, or if it is not made clear in the scope of work in the letter of engagement whether such updates will be dealt with by the firm.

Filing of annual updates is also likely to demand significant resources. Firms should consider the requirement for annual updates to the ROE, and whether they are prepared to take on the responsibility of diarising and complying with that requirement.

Where firms are not prepared to take on these responsibilities, they should consider explaining that position clearly to the client, and explicitly exclude such updates from the scope of work in the letter of engagement.

Insurance considerations for firms

Accountancy firms seeking to offer ROE verification services would also be wise to check this with their professional indemnity insurance (PII) providers. Insurers may consider the risk is too onerous and will want to be satisfied that a firm has adequate systems and processes to undertake this work.

Similarly, Lockton has observed numerous cases in which an overseas entity has directors or shareholders who are politically exposed persons (PEPs), or who are domiciled in Russia or other sanctioned countries. This is of particular concern to insurers, who will undertake their own compliance and sanctions checks.

While PII policies will almost certainly have a ’sanctions exclusion’ in the policy wording, insurers will often go further and apply a specific exclusion for an individual or entity. Where a specific exclusion is applied, accountants may need to refer to their regulatory body to ensure the PII requirements are satisfied.

The non-payment of tax, penalties and interest by an overseas entity is also presenting concern to insurers, particularly if the appropriate checks have not been carried out.

Regardless of the area of practice, firms will need to keep up to date with how the changes might affect their clients. In all cases, firms should be clear with their clients about the scope of a piece of work and whether that includes ROE verification. Above all, caution should be exercised before a firm chooses to carry out verification, and the circumstances of each request should be considered individually.

Additional resources

As part of its autumn series of free technical webinars for practitioners, ACCA is running a webinar on 13 October on tax issues for overseas entities holding UK property. Register to join live or watch on demand at your convenience.

Catherine Davis, ACCA relationship manager, Lockton companies

If you have any questions about professional indemnity insurance please contact your Lockton Account Manager for further advice or email ACCAaccountants@uk.lockton.com

Lockton is ACCA’s recommended broker for professional indemnity insurance