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Government to scrap accountancy regulator and break up Big Four dominance

Simon Neville, PA City Editor
·3-min read

The UK’s accountancy regulator should be scrapped and replaced with a new body that has legal powers to improve the quality and standards of the auditing profession, the Government has said.

A consultation has been launched with ministers saying the new rules, backed with legislation, will help avoid future largescale company collapses with auditors able to spot problems sooner.

Proposals also include plans to break up the dominance of the “Big Four” accountancy firms – KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and EY – in the auditing sector to avoid conflicts of interest.

Coronavirus
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the changes were needed to “restore people’s confidence in business”. (Aaron Chown / PA)

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, whose department is overseeing the changes, said: “Restoring business confidence, but also people’s confidence in business, is crucial to repairing our economy and building back better from the pandemic.

“When big companies go bust, the effects are felt far and wide with job losses and the British taxpayer picking up the tab.

“It’s clear from large-scale collapses like Thomas Cook, Carillion and BHS that Britain’s audit regime needs to be modernised with a package of sensible, proportionate reforms.”

Large companies would be required to use smaller auditor firms to conduct part of their annual audit in an attempt to break the Big Four’s dominance.

And the Big Four could also face a cap on the number of companies on the FTSE 350 if improvements are not made.

Thomas Cook ceases trading
Thomas Cook went bust in 2019 with questions raised over the conduct of its auditor, EY. (Joe Giddens / PA)

The Government said last year almost a third of audits inspected on the FTSE 350 were in need of improvement.

The largest private companies in the UK would also be expected to face greater scrutiny from regulators under the new rules.

A new accountancy watchdog, the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA), would be launched to implement the changes, replacing the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), including legal powers to force auditors and companies to resubmit their accounts without the need for court action.

Directors of failed firms could also see their bonuses clawed back up to two years after a pay award is made, to clamp down on “rewards for failure”, the Government added.

Greater transparency in accounts would also be expected to avoid largescale dividend and bonus payments being made at firms that could be facing insolvency and “resilience statements” will be required.

And auditors would also be expected to take a wider range of information into account, including environmental targets.

Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary, said: “There are real questions about whether this package is sufficient to reform the broken audit market.

“There are some proposals we welcome, including tougher penalties for individual company directors where there are serious failings.

“However it is regrettable that on the crucial issue of competition in the audit sector, the package waters down some of the independent recommendations for reform, including on mandatory joint audits between the big four and challenger firms.”

The Government consultation accepts the vast majority of recommendations made by three independent reviews into auditing and corporate reporting.

A report by Sir Donald Brydon in 2019 called for wider information and transparency, alongside enforceable principles for the profession.

Another report by Sir John Kingman in 2018 said the FRC should be scrapped and stricter rules placed on company directors.

And a report by the Competition and Markets Authority last year said the Big Four should be split up to avoid market dominance.

The FRC has previously told Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC they have until 2024 to operationally separate their auditing sections but stopped short of demanding a full break-up.

It follows a series of scandals including scrutiny over EY’s audit of collapsed German payments firm Wirecard; KPMG’s auditing of Carillion and PwC and EY’s auditing of BHS.

Deloitte and its partners were fined £15 million last year by the FRC over its “serious and serial failures” in auditing software firm Autonomy.