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House of Lords Hansard
Accounts and Reports (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018
18 December 2018
Volume 794

Statutory Auditors and Third Country Auditors (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018

Motions to Approve

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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 31 October and 6 November be approved.

Relevant document: 5th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (Sub-Committee B)

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My Lords, the regulations aim to address failures of retained EU law to operate effectively, as well as deficiencies arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in the field of accounts, reports and audits of UK corporate bodies.

I turn first to the EU accounting directive. The law in the UK on preparation and filing of accounts and reports by corporate bodies is compliant with the EU’s accounting directive. There is also a directly applicable EU regulation which relates to preparation of accounts in accordance with international accounting standards—the so-called IAS regulation. Both the accounting directive and the IAS regulation apply throughout the EEA. The department will bring separate legislation to the House that will address how we intend to deal with the deficiencies presented by the IAS regulation after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Although the fundamental elements of the current company accounts and reports legislation will remain the same after our exit from the EU, it still needs amendment to ensure that it remains effective and makes provision which is appropriate to reflect the UK’s new status outside the EU.

The accounting directive provides for reciprocal arrangements for company group structures. For example, exemptions from producing consolidated accounts are permitted to businesses if the parent is registered in the EEA and itself produces consolidated accounts which are compliant with EU law. In the absence of a negotiated agreement about the economic relationship between the UK and the EU containing reciprocal arrangements, it is inappropriate to continue with preferential treatment for EEA entities or UK entities with EEA parents.

This instrument will mean that businesses registered in EEA states will be treated in the same way as those registered in other third countries. UK businesses with EEA parents will no longer benefit from the exemption from having to produce consolidated accounts. However, UK businesses with parent entities registered in the UK will not be affected by these changes.

The regulations do not create new criminal offences. However, the amendments will extend the scope of the pre-existing criminal offences. For example, dormant companies with parent entities listed in the EEA will no longer be exempt from preparing and filing accounts with Companies House. Failure to file accounts on time would mean that they would commit an offence and be liable to incur fines if prosecuted, as well as civil penalties. That is consistent with the approach for similar companies with parents outside the EEA.

The accounting directive sets out certain requirements for businesses to report payments to Governments worldwide relating to the extraction of natural resources, by way of logging and mining. Alongside this, it provides a power for the Commission to grant equivalence to third countries for their system of reporting payments to Governments regarding these activities. This instrument transfers this power to the Secretary of State.

Turning to the second of the two SIs, the law in the UK on regulatory oversight of the audit profession is compliant with the EU audit directive and the EU audit regulation. The audit directive sets out the requirements on the statutory audit of most businesses, as well a framework of standards for auditors’ work and independence. It also sets out the responsibilities of the competent authorities for statutory audit in member states. Meanwhile, the audit regulation sets additional requirements on the statutory audit of those businesses defined as public interest entities. It forms part of retained EU law under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and will therefore continue to apply to the UK after the UK’s exit from the EU. Our aim is to ensure that the framework for the regulatory oversight of the audit profession in the UK works effectively following our withdrawal from the EU. The statutory instrument under discussion will help to facilitate this.

Under the audit directive, powers are provided to the European Commission to grant equivalence to third countries for their audit regulatory framework and adequacy to third countries’ competent authorities for their framework on audit regulatory co-operation. This instrument transfers these powers to the Secretary of State. Regulations will be made in the months immediately following the UK’s departure to set out a framework for future assessment of equivalence and adequacy by the Financial Reporting Council. In future, equivalence or adequacy decisions will also be granted by regulations. Following the UK’s exit from the EU, EEA states would be treated like other third countries.

This instrument also extends powers granted to the UK’s competent authority, the FRC. Certain powers have previously been granted to the FRC by the Secretary of State but now need to apply more broadly to reflect the UK’s exit. The instrument enables the FRC to enter into mutual recognition agreements to recognise audit qualifications with the EEA states. It also enables the FRC to register EEA auditors as third-country auditors where they audit businesses outside the UK that are listed on UK markets. This instrument transfers the European Commission’s power for the adoption of international auditing standards to the FRC. As the FRC already sets UK standards in line with the international standards, we anticipate no immediate changes.

This instrument provides certain transitional arrangements for the auditors affected and their client businesses. To ensure companies and investors remain confident in UK markets, these will apply until the end of 2020. During this period, we will continue to recognise EEA audit qualifications, firm registrations and approvals, EEA audit regulatory frameworks as equivalent and EEA competent authorities as adequate. These transitional arrangements will mean that there will be no cliff edge for EEA companies that list securities on UK markets. They will also allow the FRC the time to put in place the procedures necessary to assess the equivalence of EEA states, as well as the adequacy of their competent authorities.

The Government have carried out a de minimis impact assessment of these regulations, as the overall costs to business were expected to be small. The assessment confirmed that the impacts on business would be minimal. Only a limited sector will be affected by most of the substantial changes made in the Statutory Auditors and Third Country Auditors Regulations. This is because the amount of cross-border business affected by this instrument is small. The most significant effects are for UK businesses listed on EEA markets, whose auditors will have to register with the FRC, and for UK businesses that only trade securities in the EEA, as their auditors will be subject to less regulation than before.

The Government have worked closely with businesses and regulatory bodies to ensure the regulations achieve continuity wherever possible while addressing the deficiencies arising from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The instruments before us incorporate stakeholder views and insights.

In the unlikely event that the UK leaves the EU without an agreement, the measures contained within these regulations will be critical in ensuring that UK accounting, reporting and audit frameworks continue to provide transparency and certainty to investors. They will also ensure that companies operating in the UK have clear guidelines for preparing and filing their accounts. I commend these regulations to the House.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and his department for innovating and delivering two SIs in one package. I am not sure that this has been done before, but it is perhaps appropriate that the department that spearheads innovation should be leading on this.

I did a quick count back and I think that over the course of my career I have been responsible for 18 reports and accounts, all of which, I should say, were for UK-domiciled and listed companies, so many of the issues here do not apply. The Minister will be pleased to know that I will not be regaling your Lordships’ House with the benefit of that experience, because it is clear that there are many things that can be improved around financial reporting. There are an awful lot of deficiencies around reporting, but these are not the vehicles by which that improvement should be delivered, so the Minister can be pleased that I will not be using that for a long discourse.

I have two or three points on the annual reporting side and one very important problem that I think we have around the audit area. On the reporting side, the Minister mentioned the reporting protocols around payments to Governments for logging and mining activities. Will the Minister write to me and say what those are and underpin that there is no change planned between the two regimes as we move from one to the other? This is an area where a little more clarity would help.

Paragraph 7.12 of the Explanatory Memorandum covers where this instrument applies and when the change comes. I note that if a business is called on to restate its chart of accounts—which has happened in my knowledge, and happens from time to time—it has to go back through time and restate its accounts. I have to say that this change will make it an extraordinarily difficult activity in the event that any business needs to do that.

The Minister said that the Government have been working closely with business, but when we look at the consultation outcome we see that they have not been able to consult in order to minimise sensitivities in advance. It is not clear to me why they were not able to consult—perhaps the Minister will explain why it was felt not to be appropriate.

I turn to the audit side. This could hardly come on a more auspicious day, when we have the CMA making its comments about audit companies and we have the Kingman report with reflections on the fitness for purpose of the FRC. The Minister mentioned the FRC at least a dozen or 15 times. The role of the FRC in managing this rollover between the two regimes is crucial, yet we have, in the words of a very experienced practitioner in Sir John Kingman, the finding that the FRC is essentially unfit for purpose in how it is operating today, never mind with the extra responsibility that this SI puts on it. I would like to understand how the Minister thinks that this is going to be enacted by an FRC which is short of a leader and clearly short of the resources to manage its day-to-day job, without giving it extra responsibilities. I look forward to his response.

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My Lords I am very grateful, as was the noble Lord, Lord Fox, to the Minister for giving a very concise and important overview of these two SIs. We are trying out a slightly different method here—trying to cut down on the amount of speaking that the noble Lord has to do at the Dispatch Box. I think that it has worked, so I hope it will be a model for others to come.

The three points I wanted to make have been covered by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, so I will not repeat them, but I want to say one thing in relation to scrutiny. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has asked us to look at both these SIs with regard to a couple of points. I am happy that the Minister covered the points, so I do not need to delay the House on those matters. For the completeness of the record I also wanted to ask about extractive industries and whether there would be any impact in the way that those accounts will be treated consequent on the introduction of these SIs, if they are required. Again, a letter will be sufficient on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, is right. It is a bit intriguing to find that the principal body which would have been responsible for this is going to be abolished before it has the chance to implement the changes made in the statutory instrument. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that, as I understand it, the independent review of the FRC, which I read with interest—it is a very good read indeed, full of spicy and rather spiky comments—is suggesting that the FRC needs to be replaced by a new, independent statutory regulator with stronger powers. Is that right and, if so, will it be completed in the timescale that is envisaged for this statutory instrument?

There is a letter—which is not the same as the report—which was sent to the right honourable Greg Clark MP by Sir John in parallel with his report, which looks at whether there is a case for a fundamental change in relation to who appoints company auditors. There are a number of extremely interesting ideas, particularly for PIEs—again, accompanied by well-phrased and rather pointed comments about the current state of play. They suggest quite strongly—although it is not clear whether the Secretary of State is going to accept this—that there would be a case for moving away from companies having responsibility themselves for appointing their auditors to a situation in which an independent, strong regulator, presumably the new body replacing the FRC, will have a probably quite significant role.. I assume that this decision will be undertaken by the new review, building on the work on the FRC, and of course the CMA review, which is rather surprising because that was only an interim report. I am a bit surprised that that is being taken forward already. If it is, fair enough—but will that review being undertaken by Donald Brydon, the chairman of the London Stock Exchange and Sage, take on the letter element of the Kingman report we have received today?

I have also looked at the CMA report. There is a considerable interest in how that might work. Obviously, it will considerably affect the viability, profitability and operating activity of the large companies that have been very successful in building up accountancy and audit-related functions in this country. It may not be a fatal change—it may be a necessary change—but, again, I would be grateful to get a steer from the Minister as to what exactly is going on here and what the pace of that would be, if it was decided to move forward.

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My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments. I suspect that I will keep mine pretty brief and will write to them in further detail, which I think they will be grateful for, bearing in mind the hour. Again, I emphasise that the SIs are there for continuity through exit should there be no deal. We need to provide a degree of certainty for businesses at a time of significant change.

I will deal with some of the points that were made. On logging and mining, which both noble Lords raised, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and copy that to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson.

On the question of working closely with business, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked why we did not consult more widely. Officials did consult with stakeholder groups, including preparers, users and auditors, but they were not able to consult more widely due to negotiation sensitivities at the time.

I am afraid that both noble Lords are ahead of me in that I have not yet read the independent review of the FRC, but that will be something to look forward to on my Christmas list. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, commented on the barbed nature of some of the comments. It certainly adds to the joys of reading these things when they are written in such terms. We will carefully consider and consult on the recommendations and, if there are any, ensure that a smooth transition affects these functions. But obviously the FRC exists at the moment and therefore we have to make these changes.

Lastly, the noble Lord asked whether the SI would be impacted in future by the range of ongoing reviews in the audit market. I recognise that there is quite a range of work going on to ensure that the audit market is as effective as possible, which may lead to later changes, but as I have said on many occasions—and will continue to say—we will consult on those issues in due course.

I think I have answered the questions that both noble Lords have put to me and, there being no further interventions likely, I commend these two Motions en bloc to the House.

Motions agreed.

House adjourned at 9.46 pm.