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Entire system failed Carillion, not just directors at the top

Nils Pratley
The MPs’ report into Carillion’s collapse drips with anger. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Apart from the junior director who tried to speak against the delusion in Carillion’s boardroom, nobody emerges with credit from the two select committees’ post-mortem on the contracting firm. The other directors, led by chairman Philip Green, chief executive Richard Howson and finance director Richard Adam, were directly responsible for the failure because they were either “negligently ignorant of the rotten culture” or complicit in it. But the entire system of checks and balances failed.

The auditors, KPMG, were useless, as was the audit industry’s passive regulator. The government, in the form of the Crown Representative, was asleep. The Pensions Regulator was feeble. City advisers to Carillion were paid to be supine. Big shareholders were not inquisitive. None of those judgments will surprise those who followed the evidence sessions, but the MPs’ report will count for little unless it forces action from government. Three areas are priorities.

First, reform the auditing industry. The public lost faith in auditors when HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland collapsed without a squeak of warning from the people signing off the accounts. Now there’s Carillion, where the report accuses KMPG, which had the auditing gig for 19 years, of failing to exercise professional scepticism – the basic requirement of the job.

The MPs’ prescription is not original, but is correct. Get the Competition and Markets Authority to look at two specific proposals: a breakup of the big four auditors or a separation of the auditing arms from their consultancy operations.

Concentration in this market has now reached absurd levels – the big four are auditors to 97% of FTSE 350 companies. Carillion perfectly illustrated the closed shop in action. KMPG approved the accounts, Deloitte advised the board on risk management, and EY was consulted on turnaround plans. That left the field clear for PwC to name its price as adviser to the Official Receiver.

What was Carillion?


The Wolverhampton-based firm was second only to Balfour Beatty in size.

It was spun out of the Tarmac construction business in 1999 and steadily took over rivals, such as Mowlem and Alfred McAlpine. It expanded into Canada and built a construction arm in the Middle East.

Carillion then diversified into outsourcing, taking on contracts such as running the mailroom at the Nationwide building society to helping upgrade UK broadband for BT Openreach. It took over running public service projects, ranging from prison and hospital maintenance to cooking school meals. In 2017 a third of its revenue – £1.7bn – came from state contracts. It employs 43,000 people, with more than 19,000 in the UK.


Notable construction projects


• GCHQ government communications centre in Cheltenham (2003)

• Beetham Tower, Manchester (2006)

• HS1 (2007)

• London Olympics Media Centre - now BT Sport HQ (2011)

• Heathrow terminal 5 (2011)

• The Library of Birmingham (2013)

• Liverpool FC Anfield stadium expansion (2016)~

• Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick (due 2019)

• Aberdeen bypass (due 2018)

• Royal Liverpool University Hospital (due 2018, behind schedule)


Government contracts


• NHS – managed 200 operating theatres; 11,800 beds; made 18,500 patient meals a day

• Transport – “smart motorways” to monitor traffic and ease congestion; work on HS2; track renewal for Network Rail; Crossrail contractor

• Defence – maintained 50,000 armed forces’ houses; a £680m contract to provide 130 new buildings in Aldershot and Salisbury plain for troops returning from Germany

• Education – cleaning and meals for 875 schools

• Prisons – maintained 50% of UK prisons.


A proper shakeup of the industry would probably mean an increase in the cost of audits, but that will be money well spent if it means more competition and higher standards. “KPMG’s long and complacent tenure auditing Carillion was not an isolated failure,” says the report. “It was symptomatic of a market which works for members of the oligopoly but fails the wider economy.” Spot on.

Second, ministers need to understand the risks they take when they outsource work to companies of Carillion’s size. The failed firm had 450 government contracts and the Crown Representative, looking out for taxpayers’ interests, had no insight into how badly things were going wrong. The huge profit warning in July 2017, which marked the beginning of the end, was a complete shock in Whitehall.

The report is short on specific proposals, other than telling ministers to appreciate that “the cheapest bid is not always the best”. But there are good ideas around, and some have even come from the contractors’ side of fence.

Rupert Soames, the chief executive who led the rescue of Serco to prevent an earlier Carillion-style calamity, has suggested a few: open-book accounting so that the Cabinet Office and National Audit Office have the numbers; bank-style “living wills” so that contracts can be handed back to government without huge costs to the public purse; and a code of conduct that, on the supplier’s side, would involve conservative financing, timely payment of subcontractors, and adequately funded pension schemes.

The government is free to demand all that and more. It just requires the penny to drop that, when you’re buying £200bn of goods and services from the private sector each year, you can change the way business is conducted.

The third priority is pensions, since Carillion dumped an £800m liability on the industry lifeboat. The Pensions Regulator’s threats were hollow and its bluff was called, the report says. The directors were allowed to keep paying a dividend to shareholders that was plainly unaffordable.

It’s now too late for excuses or pleas about insufficient powers. The MPs’ hard judgment is that “a tentative and apologetic approach is ingrained” at the regulator and “the current leadership” may not be equipped for cultural change. That sounds like a call for Lesley Titcomb, the chief executive, to go. It would be personally tough on her, since she arrived in 2015, by which time the worst mistakes on Carillion had been made, but she should take the hint. A pensions regulator needs to be feared.

The overall report is impressive – it drips with anger and is strong on detail. It would be disgrace if it fell between the cracks of Brexit. It is essential that the government makes a point-by-point response – starting with the auditors, who escaped from the scene of the banking catastrophe but whose moment in the spotlight is now.