Accountancy & Management: More open vehicle for the public: DTI inspectors' reports must change to raise awareness about accounting practice and regulation, writes Roger Trapp

PREM SIKKA has become such a scourge of the accountancy profession over the years that it is a genuine surprise to see him rushing to the defence of one of the big six firms.

But that is what he did after the emergence last week of the letter revealing the Government's blacklisting of a number of senior personnel at Touche Ross over their disputed role in the Barlow Clowes affair. It is a business that has already produced a government lawsuit against the firm and an as-yet uncompleted investigation by the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Mr Sikka's objection is not to the action itself. 'In principle, it's a good idea that the Government should impose sanctions on firms over bad practices,' he said. Rather, his problem lies with the apparent singling out of Touche when recent events suggest that others are not necessarily unblemished.

However, there is another inconsistency. Only a handful of Touche's hundreds of staff have been given a black mark, apparently leaving the rest of the firm to carry on much as before. As John Roques, a senior partner, put it: 'We have every confidence that we will continue to be selected on our merits to serve a wide variety of government departments.'

On the other hand, Arthur Andersen - while unaware of any official ban - has in effect been entirely barred since its audit of the De Lorean car company more than a decade ago gave rise to a continuing lawsuit in which the Government is seeking triple damages.

Odder still, though, is the fact that neither firm shows up in a study of Department of Trade and Industry inspectors' reports just published by Mr Sikka and Hugh Willmott. Indeed, the authors suggest that Touche and Andersen are the only ones not to have been criticised in the past two decades.

Adding to the confusion, the survey * claims that the Government has not taken criminal or civil action against any of the auditing firms criticised in the inspectors' reports. The research covers 2,600 company investigations in the period between 1971 and 1991/2. (Mr Sikka says the 187 investigations started and five reports published since then are unlikely to change the picture.)

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Touche is not the only one to have been given a bad mark for a while. So, it could be that ministers or civil servants have opted for informal measures.

If this is the case, it does little to satisfy the two academics. Suspicious of what they claim is a cosy relationship involving the Government, the accountants' professional bodies and the leading firms, Mr Sikka of East London University and Mr Willmott of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology say that a substantial number of inspectors' reports have not been published. Consequently, they call for an opening up of the processes.

Much of their paper is couched in difficult academic language. But its message is clear. Like many critics of the status quo, they believe there is a need to show that the big firms - and not just individuals - can be effectively disciplined.

This is important because the dominance of the big firms means that government bodies - whether the DTI's investigations unit or those involved in the next privatisation - are choosing their experts from a small pool.

Consequently, it is scarcely surprising that senior partners of large firms are appointed as inspectors even though their colleagues may be under investigation or even have been criticised in other reports. But at a time when the public's faith in the accounting profession has been severely dented, it would perhaps be advisable to change the procedures for the appointment of inspectors, so that they are better monitored.

''To the best of our knowledge, no audit partner criticised in any of the DTI inspectors' reports has ever been disqualified from public practice as a result of information in that report,' Mr Sikka said in a letter accompanying a copy of the report to Richard Caborn, chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry. He added that he and Mr Willmott were not aware of any case when the overall standards of the firms criticised in reports were investigated.

Nor is he particularly convinced by attempts to toughen up the approach of such bodies as the chartered accountants' joint disciplinary scheme.

Instead, he advocates a system similar to that in the US, whereby auditors criticised by government bodies are barred from work for a while. In addition, a firm criticised in a DTI inspectors' report should have to declare it for some time.

In other words, DTI inspectors' reports are not valueless. It is just that what is done with and as a result of them must be changed. As the report says: 'Despite their limitations, DTI investigators' reports could be used as a vehicle for raising public awareness about accounting practice and its regulation.'

* Illuminating the State-Profession Relationship: Accountants Acting as Department of Trade and Industry Investigators.

(Photograph omitted)