We're halfway through this year's Inspire Tour, and what have we learned so far?

I write from a room full of brilliant bookkeepers in Birmingham as we’re half-way through this year’s Inspire Tour. Getting out of the office to see people face to face feels utterly essential and so much fun. According to the scientists it triggers health-benefitting activity in your brain in a way that virtual meetings and telephone calls don’t. 

The Inspire Tour is absolutely for learning and inspiration but it’s also an excuse to commune and share everything you love about your work and this profession. We’ve been talking about the importance of taking a step back from the day to day to equip yourself with the ideas, information and energy to do your best work, not just your hardest work. 

Bookkeepers and AI 

Bookkeepers are central to business success and I’m getting inspired by stories from ICB members up and down the country who are using bookkeeping to transform their clients’ lives. Our discussions on how to use AI, lead by Sage’s Chris Downing, are absolutely fascinating and reveal that bookkeepers are well-placed to responsibly leverage AI technology for themselves and their clients to drive efficiency, accuracy and even creativity.  

Bookkeepers and AML 

It wouldn’t be the Inspire Tour without an in-depth session on anti-money laundering (AML) and this year our focus is on the holistic analysis you carry out when completing your Whole Practice Risk Assessment. It’s a legal requirement if you’re running a bookkeeping business, but over and above that it’s a really useful thing to sit down and think about.   

As a bookkeeper you’re perfectly positioned to spot the signs of money laundering and help protect businesses and the economy. Through our practice monitoring we see the level of detail and oversight you command over your clients’ financial ecosystems, and our data proves that the bookkeeping sector, as a whole, has highly effective AML processes and procedures.  

This view is supported by the various new AML software companies who tell me that bookkeepers are streets ahead of their fellow accountancy professionals in both AML awareness and activity. 

High risk services 

The Accountancy AML Supervisors Group Risk Outlook identifies two money laundering risks which are effectively mitigated by good bookkeeping. The first is the risk of accountancy providers legitimising criminal activity by preparing financial statements without true oversight of the underlying books and records. The second is the preparation of accounts from incomplete records, perhaps from the bank statement alone, or without any sight of the bank. Similarly, payroll is identified as a high-risk area, but when you know your client you can spot modern slavery or ‘ghost employees’, and if you process payments your accuracy and attention to detail ensure that you don’t ‘legitimise the incorrect calculation of deductions (tax evasion).’ 

ICB’s distinctive approach 

In our role as your supervisor we reflect your high-level of oversight and detail by monitoring your AML activities through our proprietary platform AML Online. Through this platform we have access to rich real-time data good enough to rival any ICB bookkeeper! We use this data to pinpoint practices that are not up to date with their compliance activities, but also to offer enhanced support to practices with high-risk clients or services. 

To put this into context, most accountancy body supervisors get data about their supervised population from an annual form. In some cases, this form is an excel spreadsheet with over a thousand fields that practices must complete each year.  

Our distinctive approach allows us to allocate resources where they’re most needed; providing support to practices that are falling below our standards and enabling us to carry out visits when we know there are significant shortcomings. Note I said ‘visits’ because one of the first things I did as CEO was stop our AML Team using the unnecessarily terrifying term ‘inspection’. 

As a result of this data-driven accuracy, our monitoring ‘visits’ quite often conclude with us finding a practice is ‘non-compliant.’ Unfortunately, this is sometimes taken to mean that ICB is harsher than other supervisors – a reputation I hope we can leave behind. 

The Treasury’s anti-money laundering supervision report for 2022-23, published in May, compares the number of visits and compliance ratings across the 13 Professional Body Supervisors (PBSs) of which ICB is one.  It shows that we have a significantly higher percentage of non-compliance among practices selected for a visit, but a comparatively low number of visits in total with just 4% of our practices receiving a visit in 2022/23.   

In an article posted on his website, AML consultant, David Winch, stated ‘a high proportion of non-compliant gradings may be a reflection of the PBS’s success at seeking out its non-compliant member firms," and added that professional body supervisors like ICB are required by our supervisor, OPBAS, to more frequently review those firms where the risk of non-compliance is considered greatest.  

AML onboarding and ongoing support 

Another fantastic ICB innovation is the onboarding meeting we have with each and every new practice when they first get their licence. We discuss all things AML and start practices off on the right foot. Our friendly new AML Officers, Abigail and Sadia, have carried out hundreds of these onboarding meetings since I became CEO last year and we’ve measurably improved AML awareness and activity among our supervised practices. 

The message coming out of the Inspire Tour is clear, but it’s important that everyone hears it – ICB is here to help and you are not alone. We’re committed to supporting you with an education-first approach and we love to hear from you. We use AML Online as one way to identify if you need our guidance, but you are just one phone call away from getting answers to your questions, reassurance that you’re doing the right thing, or support when you need it most. If you haven’t yet spoken to Abigail and Sadia in our AML Team, please give them a call and find out how they can help.  

My message to the new government  

Whatever our new government looks like, I want it to hear loud and clear that bookkeepers have an exceptional role in the UK economy and are vital to helping the government fight money laundering, tackle the tax gap and implement Making Tax Digital. Over and above that, bookkeepers are the trusted, ethical and much-loved experts driving financial stability and helping businesses thrive.