UK watchdog hits out at accountants, lawyers over anti-money laundering

LONDON (Reuters) - Most professional bodies for accountants and lawyers in Britain are failing to ensure that members do all they can to help in the fight against money laundering, a senior regulator said on Tuesday.

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The Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision (OPBAS) was set up in January 2018 to bolster Britain’s efforts to keep its financial system “clean”.

But a review of OPBAS’s first year found that professional bodies were not always focussed on strongly supervising standards among members.

Alison Barker, director of specialist supervision at the Financial Conduct Authority and responsible for the review, was highly critical of the professional bodies’ anti-money laundering efforts.

“We found that some did not fully understand their role as an anti-money laundering supervisor,” she said.

“Over 90 percent hadn’t fully developed a risk based approach and had not collected all the data they needed to form a view about their riskiest members and their services.”

Barker said that accountants and other professional bodies did not believe there was money laundering in their sector, and thought that members would leave the professional bodies if they came under scrutiny.

Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, conveyancers and notaries can be channels for money laundering, she said.

OPBAS, part of the FCA, checks whether 22 professional bodies for accountants and lawyers are properly supervising how members comply with anti-money laundering law.

But Barker’s review found that not enough of the professional bodies shared intelligence on money laundering risks, and nearly a quarter undertook no form of supervision.

Only half of professional bodies issued fines last year for anti-money laundering failings.

Barker called for “leadership from the top”, more resources for supervision, robust enforcement, and a recognition that members of professional bodies can be vulnerable to aiding money laundering.

“The standards of supervision over the legal and accountancy sectors in the UK have been very variable. We need to see robust action to prevent professionals being used to launder money,” Barker said.

Reporting by Huw Jones. Editing by Jane Merriman