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Thinking outside the Big Blue box

Scott Barnes responds to UK Competition Commission proposals

I was interviewed recently by the Daily Telegraph and among the many topics discussed was the UK Competition Commission proposals to shake up the audit industry. The Commission has shied away from mandatory rotation but FTSE350 companies could be obliged to put their audit contract out to tender at least once every five years.

This is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go.

Currently just four firms audit all but one of the FTSE100 companies. This is largely a legacy of institutional prejudice against mid-tier firms such as Grant Thornton. The suggestion being that because we do not currently audit the very largest firms in the FTSE, we are not able to audit any substantial listed business. This is a complete non-sequitur and is also quite clearly wrong.

We audit around 300 listed companies every year. We are the auditors for a large chunk of the AIM market, and a number of businesses in the FTSE350. In addition we deliver tax and advisory work for 40 of the FTSE100. We are also the leading auditor to the UK public sector, where organisations certainly match FTSE 100 entities in terms of scale and complexity.

The issue comes back to the old adage that no one ever got fired for hiring Big Blue (IBM). Some existing audit relationships go back 60 years and the pace of change is glacial. Whilst consistency is a strong argument, so too is  transparency and putting audits out for tender is simply good governance.

The response from the vested interests is obvious: ‘Well, Grant Thornton would say that wouldn’t they?” But we are not trying to gain a 25% market share. We don’t want to be the smallest of a Big 5. We simply recognise that conflicts arise in the FTSE100 audit market due to the small number of players.

There is no silver bullet. A range of additional measures – from tighter restrictions on providing non-audit services, to subsidiaries looking for alternatives to their group auditor – would augment current proposals. But the best thing would be a change of attitudes.

News that Standard Chartered and HSBC have put their audits out to tender is positive. Let’s hope a few more of their FTSE100 peers follow.

Scott Barnes is CEO of Grant Thornton UK LLP.