8 October 2003

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New accountancy bill amendments welcomed

With Finance and Economic Services Minister John Dalli this week emphasising his call for accountants to be responsible for company tax evasion, Julian Manduca speaks to two prominent auditor partners - John Bonello and Paul Mercieca - about upcoming amendments to the Accountancy Profession Act and auditors responsibilities

The Enron scandal and that of WorldCom have severely dented the auditing profession world-wide and called for greater control over auditing responsibilities.
In Malta the profession has enjoyed great esteem with the larger audit firms representing international ones setting the pace.
In the earlier years the professionalism of the firms was somewhat undermined by some ‘rogue’ auditors often working on their own and offering ‘easy’ services for cheaper audit fees. The scandals that hit the larger firms abroad, including some of the big five, has shown that it is not only the smaller firms that are susceptible to dubious practices.
In Malta the government felt the need to tighten control over accountancy and audit firms and new amendments are being passed in Parliament to reform the Accountancy Professions Act.
Minister John Dalli explained how the amendments aimed at giving greater power to the Accountancy Board. He insisted that auditors had to be responsible for the accounts they prepared.
Auditors' reports had to be trusted, Dalli said, "but one could not accept accounts where it was obvious that there was tax evasion, or showing expenses not related to the VAT returns of the individual."
"When found out, the accountants would be responsible for all the evasion that would have taken place. The responsibility of accountants was to act according to the standards the people expected of them, the standards of competence, discipline and trust." However, nothing in the new amendments adds to the auditors responsibility as far as tax evasion is concerned.
The Malta Financial and Business Times spoke to John Bonello and Paul Mercieca, two prominent auditor partners about the amendments and auditors responsibilities.
Paul Mercieca, managing partner at Deloitte and Touche, said the new amendments bring the original Act up to date: "Since the original Act was introduced in 1979 the accountancy profession, both in Malta and overseas, has seen a lot of change. The changes have come about both as a result of developments in the way that business is conducted and the demands for our services from our clients."
"I think that the amendments that are being proposed go a long way in addressing these developments particularly in strengthening our ability to provide the range of services that our clients expect of us.
"For example, in practical terms one of the ways that this is being achieved is by allowing non-accountants to become partners in accounting firms. As a result of this particular amendment firms will be able to retain and attract top quality persons from other professions by offering the prospect of partnership."
Bonello, senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers echoed, Mercieca and said: "The law does away with the segregation between the CPA and CPAA warrants which has served as a disincentive for youngsters looking to enter into essential professional areas such as tax and financial advisory services, as the only route to a partnership was via audit.
"It introduces instead the concept of a separate practising warrant for those partners or sole practitioners wishing to act as auditors.
"The amendments open a door, under a number of constraints and public interest safeguards, for specialised non-accountants to join accounting partnerships, ensuring that the profession can always engage the best in any particular fields. There are, today, core elements of our work, such as IT audit, where this is needed."
Bonello believes all the amendments in the law are "all positive" and added: "The new law will combine and strengthen the disciplinary proceedings of the Accountancy Board and the Malta Institute of Accountants, doing away with the duplication which exists today and the danger of inconsistent findings which would undermine and weaken both institutions.
"Finally, the amendments improve the framework under which the Accountancy Board and the Institute could work together on new initiatives, such as mandatory quality assurance."
Mercieca too welcomed the strengthening of the Accountancy Board which "is being given more independence from government and a stronger role in the regulation of the profession in the public interest. This should undoubtedly enhance the credibility of the profession."
Asked about rogue auditors, Mercieca had this to say: "As in all professions there will always unfortunately be those persons who may not apply the proper standards or who do not conduct themselves, as they should.
"I don’t think that our profession has a particular problem in this regard. I can definitely say, however, that there has been a marked improvement over the past few years with professional standards having improved considerably.
"This has been achieved not only as a result of the influence of the international firms which we are members of, or whom we represent, but also by the efforts of The Malta Institute Of Accountants and its members who have generally recognised the importance of consistently applying high professional standards."
Bonello singled out large competing firms as being more of a problem than smaller ones: "Ironically, in practice, the undercutting we come across is from firms of comparable size to ours which, I am sure, invest similar resources in ensuring the quality of their work. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that we are being undercut by small firms or sole practitioners - certainly in the case of our firm. I think that it is the larger firms that have tended to compete in a manner that does not make commercial sense. But if that is the way of the free market and so be it."
Plans are in hand to ensure that auditors achieve high standards and Mercieca said: "One of the measures being introduced to combat sloppy or inadequate work is a system of quality assurance review, which will involve systematic independent reviews of auditors’ working papers files and systems.
"This initiative is being supported by the Accountancy Board and the Institute of Accountants and is expected to be implemented in the very near future."
Mercieca does not believe rogue auditors face a rosy future: "I think that those few accountants who continue to act unprofessionally will soon find out for themselves that it is simply not worth doing so for what may be short-term gains. The risks associated with an accountant’s work have increased tremendously over the years and the best form of protection is the deliverance of services, which are of the highest professional standards without exception."
Asked what could be done to improve the quality of audit work Bonello said: "in the past various initiatives were undertaken to address the issue, but they did not get anywhere. These initiatives were based on removing secrecy and other legal impediments such that interested users of financial statements, such as the Inland Revenue, could report accountants suspected of malpractice for investigation.
"All these initiatives however depended on such interested users initiating a complaint, and these have very rarely been forthcoming.
"The profession has therefore moved on to new methods, including mandatory quality control reviews which are held regularly under the overall control of the regulator. Under such reviews all practitioners, large and small, are subject to periodic reviews where a random sample of their audit files are examined by an expert team to ensure their work is being conducted in line with the international auditing standards applicable also in Malta.
"Even where no complaints whatsoever are received. A system of mandatory quality control reviews is applicable within the EU and will have to be applied here as well. The matter is currently being worked on by the Institute and the Accountancy Board, and a new regime should be introduced sometime next year."
Most audit firms follow the code of ethics and independence rules inspired by the International Federation of Accountants, and the Malta Financial and Business Times asked Mercieca and Bonello, whether this was the case at their firm and what could be done to ensure more audit firms followed the code. Bonello said: "The rules in this code are incorporated within the PricewaterhouseCoopers approach and would be followed in all material respects as a matter of course. We have gone beyond that, though, and we have published a Global Code of Conduct to which all of us in PwC worldwide will adhere.
"Unfortunately, the local code of ethics has yet to be updated to adopt recent changes to the IFAC Code, but there is some time left as the new code will come into force in 2004.
"At present there is a task force, in which our firm actively participates, which is updating the Maltese code to
reflect the latest IFAC guidance, together with the parallel requirements drawn up the EU following the scandals which were recently encountered principally in the USA complete new draft should be discussed by the Accountancy Board quite soon, and the process will hopefully move on quickly from that point."
"The current IFAC draft differs from earlier versions in a key respect, in that it represents a mandatory standard rather than a set of recommendations of best practice. I hope that this change will be embraced locally as well, thus ensuring that the quality control measures discussed above will also cover practitioners' compliance with the new code."
Mercieca said: "Deloitte’s independence policy is based on the fundamental principle that the firm, its partners and professional staff should in fact be, and should appear to be, independent of any entity for which it performs audit or other attest services.
"We are obliged through our membership in Deloitte & Touche to apply the highest possible independence and ethical standards. These standards are in fact based upon the International Federation of Accountants’ Code of Ethics for professional accountants.
"As a result of the corporate governance and audit failures witnessed overseas in the recent past the EU has issued new rules on auditors’ independence and ethics aimed at strengthening auditor independence.
"These new rules together with the IFAC code are currently being reviewed by The Malta Institute of Accountants which is expected to shortly put forward proposals to the Accountancy Board for the adoption of a new Code of Ethics which will embrace the EU rules and IFAC code and be mandatory on all warrant holders."

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Malta Financial & Business Times, Newsworks Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
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