HMRC data showing more than £1m of anti-money laundering (AML) fines to estate and lettings agents should be a “wake-up call” for the industry, a legal expert claims.
The latest data from the taxman shows more than £1.2m of fines were handed to agency firms in the final six months of 2022 for AML breaches.
Mark Jones, partner at London law firm Payne Hicks Beach, has queried if this is providing enough of a deterrent given that these fines keep happening.
He suggested that HMRC may increase the number of prosecutions and get the message out to demonstrate a harsher stance and the courts could then look to force the point home. He also predicted that the punishments from HMRC are likely to get harsher until the message gets through.
Jones added: “These latest fines, taken together with previous fines issued in the same sector, highlight that there is an ongoing pattern of non-compliance within the estate agent and letting agent sectors. Of course, the vast majority in the sector do comply with the rules but a small number of businesses are still failing to comply.
“At the same time, HMRC is demonstrating that it will not hesitate to take action against those businesses who fail to comply.
“Whether or not this will be a wake-up call for the industry remains to be seen, given that previous fines and the surrounding publicity have resulted in little improvement, if any. Last year also saw HMRC’s first criminal prosecution of an estate agent for trading without registering with HMRC which resulted in a fine of over £53,000.”
He highlighted that the property industry has long been considered a target for criminals to launder money, adding: “Bringing the industry into the regulated sector was designed to address this. Given the current climate and sanctions regime it has never been more important for the industry to be aware of its money laundering obligations.
“The message is clear, that if businesses do not comply with the rules they face significant fines, potential prison sentences and untold reputational damage which may impact their ability to continue trading. The take-away: fail to comply at your peril.”