ISS Proposes Changes to Benchmark Policy Regarding Auditors

The Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has stated that recent high-profile corporate failures and accounting scandals have raised investors’ concerns about the efficacy of financial statements and the need for improved audit quality and stronger boardroom oversight.

Against this backdrop, ISS has published its 2019 benchmark policy consultation, seeking views on certain of its proposed voting policies for 2019. In relation to its UK/Ireland and European policies, the key changes under consideration are as follows:

”Where information is available, ISS research reports will note any lead audit partners (and/or partnership firms) who have been linked with significant auditing controversies and, where they are engaged in the audit for other public companies, this will be raised for investor attention – even if no audit concerns have been identified at the subject company. A negative recommendation on auditor ratification may be applied in the most severe cases, e.g. where the lead audit partner has previously been linked with a corporate failure scenario or other material destruction of shareholder value arising from fraud or other accounting issues.”

ISS is raising 2 specific questions of investors:

  • Would your organisation consider the lead audit partner’s involvement in a significant accounting controversy – even if this occurred at another company – to be a potential area of concern?

  • Would your organisation support ISS adopting in future a similar approach in other markets (outside the U.K. and Europe) where disclosure of the lead engagement partner is available?

The policy comment period closes on 1 November 2018. ISS expects to announce its final 2019 benchmark policy changes during the middle of November with the updated policies applying to shareholder meetings taking place on or after 1 February 2019.

CMA Study Into Statutory Audits

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched a detailed study into the statutory audit market.

The initiative follows growing concerns about the quality and resilience of statutory audits, in particular as a result of the collapse of construction firm Carillion and retailer British Home Stores, and the criticism of those responsible for reviewing the companies’ accounts, as well as recent poor results from reviews of audit quality. The CMA’s study will sit alongside the current independent review led by Sir John Kingman into the Financial Reporting Council as the sector regulator.

The CMA’s market study will examine 3 main areas:

  • Choice and switching. Changes put in place by the Competition Commission (the CMA’s predecessor) appear to have strengthened competition between the big four firms – Deloitte, KPMG, E&Y and PwC – but the largest UK Plcs still rely almost exclusively on one of them when selecting an auditor.
  • Resilience. The market study will examine what the role of the big four firms means for resilience – the risk being that each of the big four is “too big to fail”, potentially threatening long-term competition.
  • Incentives. Companies, rather than their investors, select their own auditor. The CMA will examine concerns that this may result in a lack of incentive to produce challenging performance reviews.

Representations to the “Invitation to Comment” should be made to the CMA by no later than 30 October 2018.

The CMA will publish its market study report and the action (if any) which it proposes to take by no later than 8 October 2019.

AIM Corporate Governance from 28 September 2018

Stock Exchange

The London Stock Exchange has published a newsletter, Inside AIM, to address some of the questions it has received from nominated advisers in relation to the corporate governance changes that take effect from 28 September 2018.

By way of background, from 28 September 2018, AIM companies will be required to disclose details of a recognised corporate governance code they have decided to apply. Companies will have to explain how they comply with their chosen corporate governance code and, where they depart from that code, provide a detailed explanation of the reasons for doing so.  This principles-based approach to corporate governance is intended to allow shareholders to evaluate how the principles have been applied, rather than simply identifying areas of non compliance.

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Amended AIM Rules for Nomads

Stock Market

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) has published amended AIM Rules for Nominated Advisers (Nomad Rules). The Nomad Rules set out the eligibility requirements, ongoing obligations and certain disciplinary matters in relation to nominated advisers (Nomads). The revised rules will come into effect on 30 July 2018.

The main rule changes being introduced are:

  • Additional eligibility criteria for Nomads to provide evidence to the LSE about their resources and that they are able to comply with the standards of conduct the LSE expects from Nomad firms when undertaking their responsibilities. Guidance on the new eligibility criteria will be set out in a revised NA1 (Nomad application form).
  • A non-exhaustive list of matters that a Nomad firm must disclose to the LSE, which may affect its operation, role or the performance of its Nomad services.
  • Setting out the supervisory actions the LSE can take in respect of a Nomad’s performance, including requiring a Nomad to undertake remedial action or imposing restrictions or limitations on the services a Nomad may provide.
  • Empowering the LSE to require remedial action and/or restrictions in relation to a qualified executive (QE) at a Nomad firm, where issues of competency or training in relation to the QE arise.
  • Extending the list of scenarios of when the LSE may place a Nomad firm under a moratorium, stopping it from acting as a Nomad to further AIM companies.
  • Confirming that the LSE has jurisdiction over Nomads that were once, but are no longer, approved in relation to breaches or suspected breaches of the Nomad Rules they committed whilst they were approved.

2018 Corporate Governance Code Published Today

The 2018 UK Corporate Governance Code has been published today by the Financial Reporting Council.

The 2018 Code puts the relationship between companies, shareholders and stakeholders “at the heart of long-term sustainable growth in the UK economy”. It is shorter and sharper than the previous Code and is structured by high-level Principles and more detailed Provisions.  The supporting Principles from the previous Code have been removed and, in some cases, been incorporated into the new Principles or Provisions, while others have been moved to the supporting Guidance on Board Effectiveness. Boards should also take into account the Financial Reporting Council’s Guidance on Audit Committees and Guidance on Risk Management, Internal Control and Related Financial and Business Reporting.

The 2018 Code has five sections:

Section 1—Board leadership and company purpose

Section 2—Division of responsibilities

Section 3—Composition, succession and evaluation

Section 4—Audit, risk and internal control

Section 5—Remuneration

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Revised UK Corporate Governance Coming

The UK will be getting a revised Corporate Governance Code, most likely effective January 2019.

The House of Commons Library has published a briefing paper on Corporate Governance Reform. The briefing paper provides an overview of the corporate governance framework in the UK, including the history of the UK corporate governance code (UKCG Code) and the interaction of the UKCG Code with directors’ duties under the Companies Act 2006 (CA 2006). The paper also provides an overview of the reforms announced by the government in August 2017 and provides an update on timescales.

The government is keen to strengthen corporate governance in 3 particular areas:

  • employees’ and other stakeholders’ voice
  • governance of large private companies
  • executive pay

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Keep Your Residential Address Confidential

There is increasing concern about the public availability of residential addresses in a digital world. A balance needs to be struck between ensuring that the information on the company register is of practical use in achieving corporate transparency but, at the same time, ensuring that the information does not become a tool for abuse, such as identity fraud.

To achieve this balance, the government has passed The Companies (Disclosure of Address) (Amendment) Regulation.  As from 26 April 2018, directors, company secretaries and people with significant control of a company have the right to suppress their residential address from public inspection at Companies House.

To remove your home address, you can apply at a cost of £55 for each document you want to suppress.

You must provide an alternative correspondence address if you’re still appointed to a live company, such as a current director. This will replace your home address on the public register.

Note that this process cannot be used to remove a home address if it has been used as a company’s registered office address.

Revised QCA Code 2018

On 25 April 2018 the Quoted Companies Alliance published a revised version of its 2013 corporate governance code.

Key changes from the 2013 version include:

  • The principles have been redrafted so there are now 10, rather than 12.
  • A new principle has been added requiring companies to promote a corporate culture that is based on sound ethical values and behaviours.
  • The principles and the necessary disclosure sections have been merged so that the necessary disclosures now appear underneath the relevant principle.
  • The section on the effective application of the QCA Code has been substantially expanded and redrafted and now appears towards the beginning of the Code.
  • A new description of how a board is typically composed, how it works and the key challenges it faces regarding directors’ independence has been added.
  • The section on the effectiveness of the board and the appendices have been removed. They are now included in a separate document, the Corporate Governance Files. It is intended that these Files will be updated on a rolling basis, and also include a draft board resolution adopting the QCA Code for the purposes of AIM Rule 26.
  • There is less emphasis on the QCA Code being for small and mid-size quoted companies.
  • The new code may be suitable for privately-owned companies that wish to adopt good governance practices.

Interestingly, QCA research indicates that currently over half of the 900+ companies on AIM refer to the QCA Code. There is also, however, a significant minority of AIM companies that currently do not apply any code. The amendments to the AIM Rules in March 2018 will of course require all AIM companies to report against a recognised corporate governance code by 28 September 2018.

Audit Committee Consultation

Company Accounts

The International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) has published a consultation report inviting input to a possible Good Practices Report on how issuer audit committees can promote and support external audit quality.

IOSCO acknowledges the crucial role independent, high quality audits play in supporting investors’ confidence in a company’s financial report. To that end, IOSCO proposes several ways in which the audit committee can promote quality audits:

  • recommend an external auditor independently of management, with selection criteria set upfront.
  • when assessing auditors, consider the auditor’s knowledge of the business and industry, the extent of involvement of senior team members in the audit, use of other auditors, use of technical and specialist expertise, capability in different geographical locations, coverage of internal systems and controls, and how the engagement partner and team are accountable within their firm for audit quality.
  • consider the extent to which audit fees are consistent with the audit plan and a quality audit.
  • consider the extent to which audit processes are planned so an effective quality audit can be conducted within reporting deadlines; seek explanations and advice on the appropriateness of accounting treatments and estimates and, where appropriate, challenge the applied estimates and treatments.
  • review and challenge management’s accounting treatments and estimates, and where appropriate, seek independent third party advice and not seek advice from the auditor. Oversee the development of policies on auditor independence, undertake procedures to satisfy itself of that independence and require non-audit services to be subject to the committee’s prior approval.
  • establish a direct line of communication with the auditor. The communication should include concerns and risks affecting the processes which support the information in the financial report, and how those concerns and risks are being addressed by directors and management and responded to in the audit.

IOSCO also makes several proposals in relation to the composition of audit committees, the role of the committee in assessing audit quality, and audit committee reporting.

Comments should be submitted on or before 24 July 2018.

New AIM Rules

London skyline

The London Stock Exchange has published AIM Notice 50 which, amongst other things, announces the implementation of updated versions of the AIM Rules for Companies and the AIM Rules for Nominated Advisers from 30 March. Marked up versions of both are also available on the LSE’s website.

In providing feedback on the changes proposed in AIM Notice 49, the LSE has said that respondents were supportive of the proposed new obligation for an AIM company to disclose on its website details of how it complies or explains against a recognised corporate governance code chosen by the board of directors. Some respondents suggested that the code be defined. However, the LSE is of the view that it remains preferable for AIM companies to have a range of choice of corporate governance codes to suit their specific stage of development, sector and size rather than have a prescribed list of recognised codes.

In response to feedback on the proposed changes, the LSE has amended the proposed Rule 26 disclosures to require an AIM company to review its corporate governance disclosures annually, rather than maintain them up to date. The LSE has said it expects that in most cases this review will be carried out at the same time as an AIM company prepares its annual report and accounts.

From 30 March 2018, all new applicants to AIM will be required to state which corporate governance code they intend to follow. However, in order to give AIM companies and nominated advisers sufficient time to prepare for the new Rule 26 corporate governance requirements, these will take effect from 28 September 2018.

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