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Should you bother to submit a SARS?

2nd Jan 2019
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Jennifer Adams considers the role of accountants in anti-money laundering and asks whether the time spent on preparing and submitting SARS is time well spent.

Accountants have many demands on their time, whatever time of year. Completing and submitting a SARS (suspicious activity reports) takes a long time: unpaid time spent on someone who to all intent and purposes will cease being or not become a client.

When questions about the anti-money laundering (AML) SARS procedure have been asked on accountancy forums or media, a typical response has been the one from AccountingWEB reader Ken Howard:

“I've made a number of SARs re tax evasion, but they've been completely ignored by HMRC, even when I've handed them the information on a plate, with full details of identity, tax references, dates of transactions, etc. One case alone was tax evasion of around £10k in just a single year. If HMRC can't be bothered to act on that kind of information, I can't be bothered to tell them anymore."

We need to dig a little further. Is Howard right? Are they a waste of time? Let’s first look at some facts:

The National Crime Agencies Report of 2017 states that 6,693 SARS were submitted by accountants during the period Oct 2014 to March 2017: 1.06% of the total number of 634,113. Unsurprisingly the majority of SARS were submitted by banks (525,361 - 82.85%). Page 46 of the report details SARS per month and for accountants, the average is 350/400 with the largest number unsurprisingly submitted in February.

SARS data has been used by HMRC’s Connect database on a monthly basis for more than five years now. 'Connect' looks at data using a mathematical technique known as 'social network analysis', which ploughs through disparate, previously unrelated information to detect otherwise invisible networks of relationships

SARS is an ideal addition to this analysis, and the ICPA quoted tax barrister Jonathan Fisher as saying that it has been estimated that one in four HMRC investigation cases have been triggered by a SARS submission.

What is a SARS and when should one be completed?

It is worth remembering what a SAR is. SAR stands for 'suspicious activity report', via which law enforcement departments are made aware that certain client or customer activity is in some way suspicious with possible money laundering or terrorist financing.

The relevant acts are the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 Part VII (POCA) or the Terrorism Act 2000 Part III. Failure to make a disclosure when the law requires may amount to a criminal offence.

There is very little guidance in any publication as to what actually constitutes ‘suspicion’ so the concept remains subjective.

The CCAB's guidance states that we are looking at situations (including those where there may be no specific evidence but based on what knowledge and experience) where there is 'a positive feeling of actual apprehension or mistrust'.

There have been questions posted on AccountingWEB’s Any Answers forum as to whether a SARS should be submitted in a particular circumstance. For example, 'anonymous' detailed a case of a number of omissions, non-payment of tax etc. that lead them to believe that the client had deliberately run down the company before applying for 'strike off'.

In response, anonymous was advised to submit, as by not setting aside monies to pay creditors the director had obtained a benefit which was a crime under s 993 Companies Act 2006.

Privilege reporting exemption

The ICEAW’s guidance confirms that accountants are not entitled to privilege (unlike lawyers), but what they do have is 'limited exemption'. The guide gives clear examples. If the client in the question asked by 'Anonymous' had asked their advice on correcting past returns, paying back tax etc, then that would be covered by the exemption. This was not the case and as such a SARS would be required.

Under another Any Answers post AML expert David Winch suggests three questions to consider:

  1. Did they admit that they knew they should not have done this? If 'Yes' go on to 2. If 'No' consider whether you suspect they knew this. If 'Yes' go on to 2. If 'No' then END.
  2. Were they asking for your assistance in regularising their tax affairs with HMRC? If 'No' then submit SAR (Suspicious Activity Report). If 'Yes' go on to 3.
  3. Are you a member of an accountancy body meeting the criteria of s330(14) PoCA 2002? If 'No' then submit SAR. If 'Yes' END.

Again under the same response and again quoting Winch, Wanderer states:

  • If you discover something during compliance work and the client then admits that they were aware of the past omission then you would report.
  • If they weren't aware of the past omission and they now agree to put it right then no report is needed.
  • If they weren't aware of they past omission and they refuse to put it right then report.

What about non-clients?

The answer to this question is to be found in a report issued by the National Crime Agency - Introduction to Suspicious Activity Reports.

Under the section headed 'When do I submit a SAR', it states that a SAR is required “As soon as you 'know' or 'suspect' that a person is engaged in money laundering or dealing in criminal property”.

The relevant word is 'a', so reporting is not limited to reporting suspicions only of a client. The question to consider here is the reaction of the client when you tell them that you will be submitting a SARS report on a past business partner or director, for example.

Going back to Howard's comment: should you spend the time?

The first point is that it is a legal requirement and secondly if you make a SAR to the NCA you will not receive any information or feedback either from them or HMRC if relevant unless they require further information. However, no SAR is 'wasted' as they add to the information available to the authorities. It's not always about tax lost to the government that is relevant. Note the second sentence in the NCA's 2017 report where it quotes the following case: “An elderly individual had over £50,000 stolen from their bank account. A suspect had been named who was connected to the subject of a SAR. The SAR highlighted that the subject had deposited a large amount of cash over a number of months. An individual was convicted of theft/fraud and received a prison sentence. A confiscation order was made for over £25,000”.

Other information including assistance in completing a SARS

  1. A read of section 6 of the CCAB's updated March 2018 guidance is highly recommended if you are either considering submitting a report or are unsure of what to report. See also AccountingWEB’s piece on the guidance.
  2. A few months ago, the Law Society produced an hour-long webinar to assist in SARS submission.
  3. The ICAEW has produced a three-page template for use when completing a SAR.
  4. In a blog, David Winch details the implications of section 330 if no notification is made.
  5. And AccountingWEB has produced a podcast reviewing the recent AML changes and explaining how you can strengthen your firm’s compliance regime. Listen to the podcast below:

Replies (10)

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By Justin Bryant
02nd Jan 2019 10:26

I'm not sure if it's as simple as a yes/no flow chart re uncorrected innocent taxpayer mistakes. The case law/legislation cited in the link below indicates that the subsequent discovery by a taxpayer of an innocent mistake (assuming it’s in taxpayer’s favour of course) that is then not corrected by the taxpayer (assuming it can be corrected short of voluntary restitution) is at most careless behaviour, rather than dishonest/deliberate behaviour (i.e. fraud). If such an innocent mistake is discovered and uncorrected by the taxpayer outside the extended 6 year discovery assessments period (for carelessness) then it is questionable if it needs any kind of reporting unless the taxpayer wants to make voluntary restitution. I think the same principle applies re innocent VAT errors.

As an aside, the problem in the other direction (i.e. errors/oversights in HMRC's favour) is much more common in practice in my experience as UK tax has become so complicated that tax relief claim time limits etc. often get overlooked by general tax practitioners without specialist knowledge.

Thanks (1)
By Tom 7000
02nd Jan 2019 11:58

First you HAVE to do them. If you get a tax inspection on a client and they ask if you sent one in ( they do ask) and you knew you should have and you haven' are in deep trouble

Second It doesn't take long

I have discussed this with various other accountants (confidentiality stops me from saying who) but some BIG players and they all say the same. They don't take any notice of them

Dear HMRC please can I head up the division that looks into these. I will do it for free... well... just 10% of the extra tax I collect for you.... this time next year Rodney we will be millionaires...

Happy new year mes amies.

Thanks (2)
the sea otter
By memyself-eye
02nd Jan 2019 12:25

They being the accountants and 'them' being the SARS? or 'they' being HMRC?

just asking....

Thanks (0)
blue sheep
02nd Jan 2019 12:35

I am sure pretty much everyone in practice has submitted a SAR where a resulting standard tax or VAT enquiry would easily have yielded a few thousand £ for HMRC but where no action has been taken, I certainly have.
The fact remains we have to do it by law so we carry one, not much more to be said really is there.

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By rezasamii
02nd Jan 2019 15:47

I submitted one many years ago and was expecting directors to be arrested within a week as they were defrauding HMRC at least

Thanks (1)
By David_Lewis
02nd Jan 2019 15:56

Interesting stats - a quick Google indicates that there are c20,000 accountancy firms in the UK. The article above suggests there are c4,500 SARs submitted by accountants in a year :
- does this imply that most firms don't come across any suspicious activity in the course of a year?
- or are there firms who are not tuned in or who are simply not bothering to report?

SARs are required not just when the client is the suspect, but also when the client is the victim (eg: of suspected fraud). The number of SARs made seems very low to me.

Thanks (1)
By Nefertiti
02nd Jan 2019 18:29

Bottom line, don't waste your time becoming a snitch for the HMRC. They expect perfection from us accountants but their website is a shambles, their service is ludicrous, they are ruthless in imposing fines and penalties and preparing and submitting a SARS takes up a lot of time and effort (all unpaid).
If you come across a "dodgy" client, just say you are too busy to take on new work.
As the government tries desperately to make more and more ordinary citizens, unpaid policemen and women, as professionals we should simply refuse to get drawn into matters that have nothing to do with us.

Thanks (3)
By pauljohnston
09th Jan 2019 10:19

Eddy -I fear that you are right. TOM makes some good points.

The major problem is if the remaining accountants dont make SARS the powers that be will make it more difficult for the rest of us. As I see it this is already showing by the talk of a regulator of regulators (the institutes).

For me making a SAR is easy and we are covered. If our suspicions helps thats great and if it doesn't so be it.

I am more concerned with the Money Laundering requirements and how to make sure we comply. The guidance is as clear as mud and unusual problems such as overseas UK tax payers are just left to us to sort.

Thanks (3)
By madhumorjaria
11th Jan 2019 11:59


Thanks (0)
By pauljohnston
30th Jan 2019 09:58

Just done our Institutes MLR question and was asked how many SARS submitted this year. This kind of answers all questions. If in doubt submit a SAR, if you dont you will be looked at more closely even if you should not need to.

Dont fancy being the ICAEW inspector who has to look at David Winch's MLR records. I have a feeling if it were me I would hardly give it a look.

Thanks (1)