Julia Irvine 6 Nov 2019 09:35am

Leadsom says audit reform is a top priority

In one of her last acts before parliament was dissolved last night, business secretary Andrea Leadsom issued a ministerial statement and wrote to economia committing to legislative action – as soon as practically possible – to implement audit reform

But she insists that she will not be pushed into legislation without careful consideration of the issues.

In a ministerial statement to parliament and in her editorial piece, she says that reform will be wide-sweeping. It will embrace not just the regulatory functions, but the purpose and function of the audit itself; it will consider the function and oversight of audit committees and new internal control arrangements; and it will also include proposals on the responsibilities of boards and directors and how both investors and regulators can better hold companies and their auditors to account.

“All of those factors must be assessed and weighed together, so that the whole package is coherent and effective,” she says.

“No one I have spoken to has argued that audit reform is simple; that it should be done in haste; or that significant elements should be taken forward in isolation. But it is clear that a coherent programme of change is needed – driving up quality, resilience and choice.”

Leadsom was responding in part to criticism that, despite the importance of high quality audits to the capital markets, audit reform did not merit a mention in the Queen’s Speech. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, in particular, was scathing about what it perceived as the government dragging its feet.

The failure at Thomas Cook has been also been notable for the extraordinary lack of interest shown by the Business Department and its secretary of state in the days and weeks leading up to the collapse,” said BEIS Committee chair Rachel Reeves. “It is also a matter of fact that many of the necessary measures on audit, on executive pay, and on corporate governance have been sitting in the government’s in-tray for months.”

Some of the key players in the review of the audit profession, its regulator and its product, were also surprised at the apparent lack of support.

Sir John Kingman, whose independent review resulted in major reforms, not least the replacement of the Financial Reporting Council with a stronger and more powerful regulator, the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA), expressed his concern in a letter to Reeves shortly after the Queen’s Speech.

After applauding the moves to establish ARGA, including appointing former GSK CFO Simon Dingemans as chair and former HMRC head Sir John Thompson as chief executive to oversee the transition, he expressed his concern about the pace of progress.

“The final, crucial piece of the jigsaw, however, is legislation to put the new regulator on to a proper statutory base – and to give it the powers it needs to do its job. It is therefore disappointing that this legislation was not included in this Monday’s Queen’s Speech.

“I clearly recognise that the government has many competing priorities. But given the unequivocal consensus around the need for change, I am concerned about the risks of letting the FRC drift on, half-reformed and lacking the teeth that only legislation can give it.”

Leadsom makes it clear that she wants the UK to be the best place in the world to work and to grow a business, which includes “reforming audit, the audit regulator, and the audit market”.

“I have made clear in parliament my commitment to taking forward reform; and I have no doubt there is a need for truly long-lasting, and effective change.”

However, she will not go ahead with any legislative reforms before hearing back from Sir Donald Brydon who is currently carrying out a review of the effectiveness and quality of the audit product.

He was due to report before Christmas but at the beginning of November he tweeted that he would be publishing his report in the week of 13th January. “I have received over 2,500 pages of views and held well over 100 meetings to date,” was his excuse for the delay. “Lots of interest.”