Buy-to-let  

Countrywide fined £215K

Countrywide fined £215K

Countrywide Estate Agents has been fined by HM Revenue & Customs as part of a week-long crackdown on money laundering in the property industry. 

HMRC officers visited 50 estate agents across England after they were suspected of trading without being registered as required under money laundering regulations.

Today (March 4) HMRC published the latest businesses hit with fines for failing to comply with the regulations.

This included estate agent Countrywide Estate Agents receiving a £215,000 fine "for failing to ensure policies, controls and procedures at group level; and for failures in conducting due diligence; timing of verification and proper record keeping."

A spokesman for HMRC said the taxman will now take action against other businesses that were found to have failed to comply with money laundering rules noting this can include fines, publication and criminal proceedings.

John Glen, economic secretary to HM Treasury, said: "The vast majority of estate agents play by the rules and help us to crack down on dirty money. But I have zero tolerance for firms prepared to turn a blind eye to the law.

"Money laundering regulation exists to help protect honest business, so anyone who flaunts the law should know that swift action will be taken."

Ben Wallace, minister for National Security and Economic Crime, said: "Criminals who seek to use this country as a place to launder money should be in no doubt that they have nowhere to hide. Estate agents are a crucial line of defence against them and that's why they're under a legal – and moral – obligation to file a report when they spot something amiss.

"It's wrong to think of money laundering as a victimless crime. Those with dirty cash to clean don't just sit on it – they reinvest it in serious organised crime, from drug importation to child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and even terrorism."

This was the first such action involving intelligence-led, co-ordinated activity aimed at estate agents trading without registering with HMRC as legally required.

The visits involved HMRC inspectors questioning the businesses to establish whether they were trading in breach of the regulations. Inspectors then assessed whether any further action was required.

Last month Countrywide posted a 49 per cent drop in pre-tax earnings as the housing market continued to face challenges.

In a trading update for 2018, the estate agent posted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation, exceptional items of £33m against last year's £65m.

Group income stood at £627m, down from £672m in 2017, while income from its financial services division was £84m, down 3 per cent on last year's £87m.

The group stated double digit income growth across the buy-to-let business, mortgage bureau and mortgage intelligence channels had been offset by a lower number of estate agency sales.

emma.hughes@ft.com