All change at the FRC – or is it?

All change at the FRC – or is it?

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) is embarking on a transition programme to morph into the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (“ARGA”) accountable to Parliament, after coming under heavy fire from the Kingman Review and others, including a report by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on competition in the audit sector, which prompted BEIS to launch its own review of audit quality.

Kingman was scathing, calling the FRC a “ramshackle house, cobbled together with all sorts”.  Key planks in its transition plan are diversity, culture and audit reform, with the last of these attracting much of the attention in light of recent corporate scandals. Also, the CMA has proposed that accounting firms should split their audit and advisory divisions and that FTSE 100 and 250 audits should be carried out by two firms, one of which is not in the “Big 4”.

Whilst Kingman called for the FRC to have statutory recognition and funding, it remains dependent in part on contributions from audit firms. Not surprisingly, perhaps, responses from some of those firms focus on and raise a number of questions about the FRC’s increased budget proposals for 2019/20.

The FRC’s transition plan includes the recruitment of 80 additional staff. What will they do? Some of them will be needed to resource the planned increase in the number of corporate reviews it plans to carry out. However, questions have been raised about the FRC’s ability to recruit in large numbers in a period of change and uncertainty. Scottish accountancy body, ICAS, has made the thoughtful observation that FRC has struggled to recruit at senior level and, to operate optimally, needs to address any perceived skills gaps. It should consider whether “existing resources need to be recalibrated”. In other words, does the FRC have the right people? Is it fit-for-purpose?

Kingman picked-up on the FRC’s methods of recruiting top staff, observing that it did not often employ open advertising or use headhunters and sometimes relied on the alumni networks of the largest audit firms. When the FRC transforms into ARGA, Kingman recommends that there should be limited overlap in senior management. Time will tell if this comes to pass. The FRC has committed to promote transparency, integrity and diversity in business and to reverse a loss of confidence in audit. Success in achieving those noble goals will depend, in part, on there being no perception of double standards for regulator and regulated.

Whilst audit has grabbed the headlines, the FRC (ARGA in future) also sets the UK corporate governance and stewardship codes. One of the consequences of the transition to ARGA is that the new regulator will have enhanced powers. There is a strong implication that the new regulator will be tougher than the old.

High standards of corporate governance are essential for a sustainable and successful business community and the UK leads the way. The case for change at the FRC is strong. The adoption of Kingman’s recommendations is evidence of that. Few (neutrals) are likely to disagree that everything practicable should be done to ensure that recent audit scandals are not repeated or that examples of excessive executive pay are not checked. However, care is needed to ensure that the freedom of the majority is not restricted and the burden on them is not increased unnecessarily, through the behaviour of the minority. Political intervention in executive pay, for example, has increased. The risk that this might increase further when the regulator, ARGA, is accountable to Parliament should be resisted strongly insofar as the UK continues to operate a free market society. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

For further information contact Paul Norris.

Posted in 2019, News.