Big Four mishaps in UK underscore need to challenge auditors

Big Four mishaps in UK underscore need to challenge auditors

Repeated U.K. regulator criticisms of declining audit quality might prompt some companies to ask more questions of their auditors.

Published on 24th September 2021

Weng Yee Ng, director at fraud investigator Forensic Risk Alliance, says while there should be a presumption of trust between companies and their auditors, companies can—and should—challenge their auditors throughout the audit process.

“The audit committee and the board would know the business best and should challenge the auditors’ opinions and findings, or lack thereof, where appropriate,” says Ng. “The better the auditors understand the company, the better the quality of the audit.”

To ensure responsibilities are properly discharged, Ng says audit committees and boards should engage with their auditors more fully and ask whether they understand the changes to the business.

Boards should also ask auditors to check if the company’s risk exposure has shifted because of changes in the business and—if so—push them to adjust the required audit procedures.

Ng adds boards should ensure auditors’ views on where any “complex” audit areas exist are aligned with their own while also making sure any audit procedures to examine those areas meet the board’s understanding and expectations.

Crucially, says Ng, boards and audit committees should quiz auditors about “whether they have applied appropriate professional scepticism throughout the audit, particularly in challenging the information provided by management.”

Companies should also ask what level of fraud-related procedures auditors have undertaken, she says.

The auditing profession has been rocked in the United Kingdom after a spate of high-profile frauds and corporate collapses exposed not only dire boardroom governance, but shockingly bad audit work, too.

In August, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) fined Ernst & Young £2.2 million (U.S. $3 million) for failings related to its 2017 audits of international transport company Stagecoach Group.

Early this month, the regulator issued KPMG a formal complaint for allegedly providing false information in its audits of failed infrastructure company Carillion and software company Regenersis.

Last year, Deloitte was fined £15 million (then-U.S. $19.4 million) for its failed audit of software firm Autonomy—a record at the time.

Other regulatory investigations into shoddy audit work are ongoing. Grant Thornton is currently in discussions to reach a settlement with the FRC regarding its audit of café chain Patisserie Valerie, while PwC’s work at Wyelands Bank is under scrutiny for close links to recently collapsed Greensill Capital.

Julie Matheson, head of accounting regulation at law firm Kingsley Napley, says while recent scandals have flagged up failings in terms of poor audit quality and a lack of scepticism, “The responsibility of management for the failure of the companies should not be overlooked.”

“There is a case to argue for auditors, in certain audits, exercising more scepticism, but the board is ultimately responsible for running the company and for producing the company’s financial statements,” she says. “Financial mismanagement in a company is often the root cause of a corporate collapse. Although a properly performed audit should be able to identify if the accounts are true and fair, corporate collapses do not fall solely to be the responsibility of the company’s auditors.”

While more rigorous audit standards—as well as tougher sanctions—might help prevent corporate governance scandals, Matheson believes there also needs to be a focus on better corporate reporting, better enforcement of disclosure rules, and more accountability for directors.

Thomas Cattee, head of white-collar crime at law firm Gherson Solicitors, believes a combination of increased onus on directors; better auditor training; and better use of technology should improve audit quality, as well as clarify the duties of the auditor and the board. He says such changes—which might possibly arise from the U.K.’s current planned audit reforms—“will hopefully ensure the audit profession can be seen in a much more positive light.”


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