Thu, Feb 01, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Calls for more scrutiny of top firms

The Guardian

The UK’s four biggest accountancy companies are facing fresh scrutiny, with the head of the industry watchdog calling for the competition regulator to investigate their auditing activities following the collapse of Carillion PLC.

The UK Financial Reporting Council chief executive Stephen Haddrill on Tuesday told members of parliament (MP) at a joint select committee hearing that “there should be more competition in the major accounting and audit area.”

Haddrill said he would ask the UK Competition and Markets Authority to look at the sector again. In 2013, its predecessor, the Competition Commission, criticized the big four for their close relationships with chief executives

He was responding to Work and Pensions Select Committee chair Frank Field, who asked whether KPMG, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu LTD, EY and PricewaterhouseCoopers should be broken up.

It is conducting a joint enquiry with the Business Committee into Carillion’s collapse.

Field said that two of the construction company’s recent finance directors had previously worked for KPMG and it had audited Carillion’s accounts for the past 19 years.

“They are all mates, aren’t they?” he said.

The council has opened an investigation into KPMG’s auditing of Carillion’s accounts in recent years.

The watchdog started closely monitoring the infrastructure company after it issued a surprise profit warning in July last year, Haddrill said, but was unable to disclose this publicly because of confidentiality requirements.

“There must be enormous cause for concern about the way the company was governed. We all look at what’s happened with a degree of incredulity, so we need to look on what basis the directors were making those decisions,” he said.

Haddrill rejected lawmakers’ suggestions that the accounting watchdog was “toothless,” but agreed that it needed more enforcement powers.

It also emerged that Carillion is unlikely to have “enough assets to meet even the cost of winding up the company,” Insolvency Service chief executive Sarah Albon said.

The group collapsed with £29 million (US$41 million at the current exchange rate) in the bank, a £1.3 billion debt pile and a pension deficit of about £1 billion.

Albon told lawmakers that Carillion was made up of 326 companies, 199 of them in the UK, with 169 directors.

She said the Insolvency Service’s investigations normally took 21 months and it was putting “considerable resources” into the inquiry.

“One significant constraint is the incredibly poor standard of the company’s own record-keeping. It took some hours to identify how many directors we could potentially be targeting,” Albon said.

Lawmakers heard Carillion borrowed to continue to pay dividends, but cited cashflow problems when pension scheme trustees pushed it for higher contributions.

According to a parliamentary briefing released last week, it paid out 17 million more in dividends than it generated in cash between 2012 and 2016.

Robin Ellison, the chair of trustees of the Carillion defined benefit pension scheme, insisted they had been “as tough as we could be. We weren’t just sitting there playing patsy with the company.”

The Pensions Regulator, which had had regular meetings with Carillion since 2008, could ask the company to make additional pension payments, Ellison said.

“It would have been nice if they’d compelled the company to pay an additional £10 million to £15 million contributions per year,” he said.

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