The FRC has blundered into Britain’s boardrooms

...and set out a series of potentially very difficult tests for the directors.

In the aftermath of the banking crisis it was inevitable, and appropriate, that part of the clean up would involve looking at the quality and effectiveness of the auditing and financial reporting of the banks and other associated financial institutions. The fall-out from this process is now starting to hit home with several major reports and consultations reaching a critical stage.

One of these is the investigation carried out by Lord Sharman into the concept of going concern. He was charged by the FRC to investigate whether, in the light of the financial crisis, it was time to reconsider the nature and use of going concern and liquidity risks and any lessons for company directors, investors and auditors and whether they were equally well served by current arrangements.

His inquiry reported back at the end of last year and was broadly welcomed as a sensible piece of work that asked important questions and raised interesting issues for debate. He suggested a number of subtle shifts in the use of going concern, pointing out a need for greater consideration to be given to solvency risk as well as liquidity risk, asking whether more information should be available on the way boards had reached a view on going concern (and especially any assumptions made in the process). But he was equally clear that there was no need to create a special regime for banks and other financial institutions.

In January the FRC revealed how it intended to implement Lord Sharman’s proposals when it released revised guidance on going concern for consultation. The reaction of almost everyone I have spoken to about that guidance has been one of alarm, apart from those who were either shocked or appalled at the prospect. The FRC appears to have adopted the sort of over-implementation more commonly seen when the UK government reacts to a European directive.

Considering the reasoning for his initial investigation, it is alarming to consider that while it’s unlikely much will change in the boardrooms of the UK’s largest financial institutions as a result of the new guidance, the boardrooms of almost every other business are in for something of a shock. Thanks to actions elsewhere in the regulatory universe, banks and financial institutions are already required to pay much closer attention to long-term solvency and liquidity risks and to look further ahead to try and spot and avoid potential future shocks. And for these financial few there is always the backstop of government or central bank support, with bailouts now apparently so normal a part of life that it’s OK for a bank requiring one to be considered a going concern.

Leaving aside the overly optimistic (some might say impetuous) timetable the FRC set for implementation of its guidance, under which the new system is effectively already in play (having kicked in for financial years starting last October, even if they aren’t due to actually report until later this year), there are also doubts being raised about the way the questions for consultation were framed. In January, Scottish Electoral Commissioner John McCormick forced the Scottish National Party to rephrase the wording of the question for the referendum on independence. Apparently voters felt that a question starting “Do you agree…” wasn’t neutral enough. A read of the FRC consultation shows that all but the last of 15 questions is potentially similarly positively loaded.

Doubtless with the best of intentions, the FRC has blundered into Britain’s boardrooms and set out a series of potentially very difficult tests for the directors. Whether directors should be asking themselves these tough questions is one thing, but whether they should be mandated to do so through the corporate governance code (even one built around a comply or explain model) is another. Likewise whether auditors should be thinking again about these issues in greater depth is up for debate, particularly given the wider questions on the future and value of audit. But again whether this is the right time, place or method to introduce such concepts is again questionable.

Above all, these proposals raise a question of who should pay the price for the failures to more accurately predict and deal with the financial crisis. The current FRC guidance seems to suggest that the most effective way to prevent a repeat is to place further complex burdens on those running small and medium-sized businesses and to make it harder than ever for them to access the vital funding and finance from investors. If there is one lesson from the financial crisis and the long, slow and fragile recovery from it is that we should be doing all we can to build confidence across all sectors of the UK economy. The greatest long-term risk to all investors and businesses is not their inherent liquidity or solvency but rather whether there will be a decent and growing market for their goods and services. These proposals will do little to assist that and potentially will be ultimately self-defeating as a result.

The only good news is that however loaded the consultation, the proposed guidance is still just a proposal. There is a public meeting at the FRC next Thursday morning to discuss the pros and cons of the proposals and consultation. Let’s hope that through the force of feedback and constructive discussion we might yet arrive at more sensible implementation of Lord Sharman’s suggestions.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.