Business Secretary launches major overhaul of UK’s audit regime in wake of big-name company collapses

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Major new reforms to the UK’s audit regime will aim to safeguard British jobs, avoid company failures and reinforce the UK’s reputation for global investment, the Business Secretary has announced today.

The UK is consistently placed as one of the leading destinations for foreign investment in Europe and around the world, but in recent years, investor and public confidence in how businesses are governed has been undermined by large-scale company failures, such as Carillion, Thomas Cook and BHS, leading to severe job losses and the British taxpayer picking up the bill.

To improve the UK’s position as a destination for investors, the Government is launching a consultation on wide-ranging reforms to modernise the country’s audit and corporate governance regime, targeting the UK’s biggest businesses and ensuring markets work effectively.

Robust and rigorous scrutiny of large firms provided by auditors, as well as greater transparency and trustworthy information, is essential to ensuring that investors, employees and consumers have an accurate picture of the health of the company – underpinning a thriving, pro-enterprise business environment in the UK.

To unleash competition in the audit market, the Government’s proposals would see the creation of a new audit profession overseen by a new regulator, which will aim to drive up quality and standards in the market and increase choice for businesses, while breaking up the dominance of the so-called “Big Four” firms. Last year, almost a third of FTSE 350 audits inspected were in need of improvement.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng 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.

“By restoring trust in our corporate governance regime and encouraging greater transparency, we will provide investors with clarity and certainty, cement the UK’s position as the best place in the world to do business, and protect jobs across the country.”

As part of the Government proposals to improve the audit market:

  • Large companies would be required to use a smaller “challenger” firm to conduct a meaningful portion of their annual audit, watering down the supremacy of big-name auditors that put markets at risk whilst boosting jobs and growth of smaller audit firms across the country.
  • The Big Four could also face a cap on their market share of FTSE 350 audits if competition in the sector does not improve.
  • A new regulator, the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA), which could oversee the largest unlisted companies as well as those on the stock market, will also have the power to impose an operational split between the audit and non-audit functions of accountancy firms, to reduce the risk of any conflicts of interest that may affect the standard of audit they provide.

To reinforce investor and public confidence in audit:

  • New reporting obligations would be introduced on both auditors and directors around detecting and preventing fraud, with boards required to set out what controls they have in place and auditors expected to look out for problems.
  • Audit will also be able to extend beyond a company’s financial results to look at their wider performance, including against key climate targets, to ensure investors and other interested parties are fully informed and can hold companies to account as the UK seeks to eliminate its contribution to climate change by 2050.
  • The new regulator will be backed by legislation, funded by a mandatory levy on industry, and given much stronger powers to enforce standards. For instance, where serious problems occur, ARGA would be able to order companies to go back and redo their accounts without having to go through the courts.

Plans also aim to make directors of the country’s biggest companies more accountable if they have been negligent in their duties – reflecting the level of responsibility that comes with holding such a position:

  • Directors of large businesses could face fines or suspensions in the most serious cases of failings – such as significant errors with accounts, hiding crucial information from auditors, or leaving the door open to fraud.
  • Under the UK’s Corporate Governance Code, companies could be expected to write into directors’ contracts that their bonuses will be repaid in the event of collapses or serious director failings up to two years after the pay award is made, clamping down on ‘rewards for failure’.
  • Large businesses would need to be more transparent about the state of their finances, so they do not pay out dividends and bonuses at a time when they could be facing insolvency. Directors would also publish annual ‘resilience statements’ that set out how their organisation is mitigating short and long-term risks, encouraging their directors to focus on the long-term success of the company and consider key issues like the impact of climate change.

Industry reaction

Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, said: “We welcome the Government’s commitment to restoring trust in audit through these reforms. The consultation contains many good proposals, which reflect the CMA’s recommendations and – if they become law – will help improve the health and quality of the audit market.

“Ultimately these reforms must be judged on their results, so we are also pleased that the Government intends to take reserve powers to go further than the current proposals, if these do not deliver the deep change that is needed to fix this broken market.”

Chris Cummings, CEO of the Investment Association said: “This consultation is an important next step in implementing much-needed audit reform, helping deliver better quality audits for shareholders, who rely on their quality and robustness when making investment and stewardship decisions. Investment managers have an important role to play in holding companies to account on their audit quality, and our members are committed to playing their part to drive up standards and improve transparency from auditors and companies. We look forward to working with government and industry in our role as secretariat to the new Audit Users Review Board to improve audit quality.”