Should UK banks be preparing themselves for US-style fines?

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Interviewer: Irene the office for financial sanctions implementation part of the treasury comes into effect this year, what should legal and compliance functions expect from this body?Irene Cummins: Well firstly that body has been tasked with providing guidance to the private sector on the meaning and the interpretation of sanctions legislation, so sanctions legislation can be incredibly difficult to work out in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict in 2014 the EU imposed sectoral sanctions on Russia, we heard from our clients that they had a lot of difficulty in understanding how those sanctions applied and in particular how wide ranging those restrictions actually were. I hope that this new office will be able to engage with the private sector on those complex questions of interpretation. Secondly of course this new office will be tasked with enforcing breaches of sanctions legislation in the UK.Interviewer: So you expect a change of attitude towards enforcement?Irene Cummins: I definitely think that that will be the case, so alongside this new office the government has also said that it will legislate in the middle part of this year to impose higher penalties for breaches of sanctions legislation. As you might know, to date the enforcement of sanctions breaches in the UK has been lack-lustre. This is in contrast to enforcement in the US, so in the US of course you have the office of foreign assets control which is responsible for enforcing US sanctions legislation and they of course impose eye wateringly large fines for breaches of US sanctions legislation, sometimes on UK banks. They have the power to impose civil penalties and to enter into settlement agreements. I would expect that this new UK body will be looking to OFAC and will be looking to the success of OFAC in enforcing US sanctions breaches.Interviewer: And so Irene you expect us to go down an American style route now?Irene Cummins: I think that that is likely to be the case, now as I said the US regulator OFAC has a power to impose civil penalties. To date I think one of the main reasons in the UK why sanctions breaches have not been so readily enforced is because the UK body that is responsible only has the power to bring criminal proceedings and obviously the bar for bringing criminal proceedings is significantly higher than for bringing civil proceedings. I think that it’s possible that the UK government could be looking at the weapons at the disposal of the US regulators and could be considering giving similar civil style powers to this new UK office.Interviewer: Honing down on the financial sector, what will that mean do you think for that particular sector?Irene Cummins: I think we can really expect that this new office will want to announce its arrival on the scene. I think it will want to do that to ensure that both the government and the private sector take it seriously as a significant player in this arena. I think that banks in particular and financial institutions more generally will need to make sure that their sanctions compliance, policies and procedures are adequate. They will also need to ensure that those policies and procedures are effective by regularly testing those. The most important thing as always is to know who you are doing business with. Quite apart from the risk of enforcement proceedings there remains of course the reputational damage that can be done by doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities. As well as that, obviously the Financial Conduct Authority can take enforcement actions as it is able to do under the financial crime powers so I think financial institutions need to be seen to be putting the resources that are required into sanctions compliance.Interviewer: Irene thank you.

The Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation comes into effect this year and will have a big impact on legal and compliance functions in firms. Irene Cummins discusses the purpose of the new body and its approach to the enforcement of sanctions breeches – are we moving towards a US-style approach?

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