Professional firms – in the fee firing line again
In the last week we have seen MPs criticise accountancy firms, KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PWC in their first report on the collapse of Carillion, describing the big four as “a cosy club” and calling for the firms to be forcibly broken up. Whilst not suggesting that the firms were to blame for the collapse, it is the level of fees reportedly paid to the firms which caught the MPs attention– £72 million in 10 years.
Perhaps the numbers seem worse in light of findings that suppliers to Carillion often had to wait 120 days for payment or were squeezed on fees by having to accept a discount on their invoices in return for an accelerated payment. EY was singled out in particular for providing advice on deferred payment schemes when payment of their own fees were not deferred.
The directors of the business will have to answer for the business decisions in the run up to the liquidation in due course and may face claims for any failures, but how will the “Big Four” fayre?
It was reported this week that Deloitte (the administrators of Arthur Holgate & Son Limited– a collapsed caravan park) are facing a claim, which would be the first of its kind, stemming from their role in a bank mis-selling claim. The liquidators of the company have already received approximately £10 million from Barclays in an out of court settlement following a claim that the bank negligently mis-sold the business interest rate hedging products which led to its failure. Prior to administration the company had complained to the bank about the “huge level of fees” paid out to the layers of advisors which Barclays had insisted on, including Deloitte.
The finer detail of the claim is unknown. It could focus on the payments made out prior to the company entering into administration and the effect of these on the solvency and eventual demise of the company or the conduct of the administrators whilst in office – this was alluded to in the Barclays claim. But if it is the former, then there is likely to be heightened concern about the possible consequences of the Court finding against Deloitte following the comments of MPs about their involvement and cost to Carillion.
Criticism of the profession is nothing new and measures have previously been put in place to address the perceived issue of excessive fees with the changes brought in by the Insolvency (Amendment) Rules 2015 requiring IPs to provide creditors with an upfront estimate of costs. The introduction of the pre-pack pool and a revised SIP 16 was implemented to address concerns regarding pre-pack administrations and the changes have brought greater transparency to the profession. However this report does nothing to help the professions’ reputation, particularly so when the press focus on the numbers but give limited insight into the work or role of insolvency practitioners.
Of course there will be a cost to any professional service and that cost has to be justified and proportionate and perhaps more so in the context of insolvency. But consumers reading that one of the Big Four received £20.4m in fees for the first eight weeks work on Carillion, without any fleshing out of the work done, will inevitably not help the reputation and perception of the profession in the court of public opinion.