When then fashion buyer Santosh Kumari was called into the canteen at the offices of BHS more than four years ago to be told she and her colleagues would lose their jobs, the announcement followed plenty of warning signs.
For months before, Santosh says that stock had to be marked down as suppliers hounded the company for payments, later turning down orders because their banks feared that the retailer wouldn’t pay up.
“It was really bizarre because we were all looking for jobs,” she says. “My assistants and I were talking about jobs, where normally you don’t talk to your line manager about going for another job elsewhere.”
When the end came, the business was so bereft of resources that she and other staff were told they would not receive redundancy pay beyond the statutory minimum.
“One day I was flying around the world and in charge of millions of pounds in my department, and the next minute, I have nothing and I’m worried about paying my mortgage.”
BHS’s collapse and the subsequent demise of firms such as Carillion and Thomas Cook have had a common thread in that the outside accountants hired to check their finances have been criticised.
BHS’s auditors, PwC, were fined a record £6.5m after signing off accounts the industry watchdog, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), called “incomplete, inaccurate and misleading” in its report into the aftermath of the collapse.
According to the FRC’s most recent analysis, a third of UK audits are substandard.
Parliament has been scrutinising the audit industry for some time.
In 2011, a report from the House of Lords said: “The audit of large firms, in the UK and internationally, is dominated by an oligopoly with all the dangers that go with that.”
It recommended companies should tender for audit work every five years, and it said that “complacency of bank auditors was a significant contributory factor” to the 2007-08 financial crisis.
Since 2018, three government-commissioned reports have been published about audit reform.
The Kingman review has suggested replacing the current regulator with a stronger one, the Brydon review said auditors should try harder to detect fraud, while one conducted by the competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, said auditing and consultancy needed to be separate businesses.
Despite all these failings and recommendations, no laws have passed to tighten the rules.
The government insists it knows that reform is needed and has said it “will respond with comprehensive proposals for reform and will then bring forward legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
But over the summer the government was criticised by parliament for dragging its feet.
A different approach is suggested by Prem Sikka, a recent entrant into the House of Lords as a Labour peer and a professor in accounting.
“I don’t think it can really be fixed,” he says. “As long as accountancy firms are paid by the companies they audit, and they also then throw in a bit of a consultancy, there is a conflict of interest. Nobody’s going to bite the hand that feeds them.”
He says that the best solution would be to have a state body audit the largest companies, just as HMRC oversees the auditing of tax collection.
“I think it matters, because we rely upon auditors to make corporations publicly accountable. And that matters, not only to investors in the stock market, but also to employees, about the safety of their pension schemes and to creditors.”
He says the public should have access to basic facts about audits such as the size of the audit team, its contract, hourly rates and how long is spent on the work.
While no rules have been changed, not everyone has failed to act.
In the wake of its $1.9bn settlement with US authorities in 2012 over anti money-laundering concerns, global banking giant HSBC hired more internal auditors and compliance workers and set up more rigorous systems.
Part of its plan included hiring consultants with the goal of encouraging a more inquisitive culture at the bank. Employees at the bank were encouraged to ask questions about where money was being made and how.
One of those hired to do the training was Ian Hynes, a former police officer and investigator and now chief executive of training firm Intersol Global, which has trained internal auditors in the art of conducting an effective investigation.
He says while HSBC’s decision to train bankers to do this seems perfectly natural and should be replicated by other businesses, it is hardly the norm among big companies.
“Where we delivered training, a very common theme in the feedback was that they were disappointed that they did not receive the training at the outset of their careers, whatever that career was, whether it was audit or compliance,” he says.
It’s even less the norm among the largest auditors, he says, who have shunned his investigative training.
“It’s been hard work,” he says. “We’ve had little reaction, if any.”
A questioning mindset could have stopped many a scandal, he says.
Auditing “should be seen as an asset that’s valuable, that adds value to the business that helps secure, protect reputations, lives, careers, save the entities’ money”.
His business as a trainer in these skills “has been termed the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and it frustrates the life out of me that we ended up getting commissioned when the damage is being done.”
Ms Kumari and some former BHS colleagues sued the defunct company’s estate and won after a court found it had broken the law in not providing sufficient consultation over job losses.
“The speed of BHS’s collapse into administration and the announcement of redundancies shortly thereafter left many employees suddenly and unexpectedly out of work,” said her lawyer Carl Moran of SDM Legal.
Ms Kumari, like many others looking for work in the wake of corporate failure, says the blame of the collapse of BHS should lie with its bosses. But she wonders what auditors knew – or could have asked – about the company’s books before the end.