Yesterday (6/12/2018) was another sad day for those who would like to stop false accounts being published by public companies. Two former executives of Tesco who had been charged with their involvement in the inflating of Tesco’s profits by including supplier credits were discharged by the court on the basis that they had no case to answer. The judge, Sir John Royce, said the case was so weak that it should not be put to a jury.
It appears that the problem was proving that the defendants, John Scouler and Christopher Bush, knew about the false accounting or were the cause of it. This is despite the fact that Tesco, the company, entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with the SFO over the case, and the company agreed with the FCA to compensate affected shareholders who relied on the false accounts.
A DPA does not include any admission of guilt, so it seems we now have the situation where nobody is to be held personally liable for these events.
Was this a trivial technical offence committed by a low-level employee? Not exactly. Tesco plc made an exceptional charge of £235m in respect of the DPA of £129m, the expected costs of an FCA compensation scheme of £85m, and related costs. The profit figure of Tesco was reduced by £250 million in one quarter alone.
Auditors PwC also escaped any censure over their audits of the accounts of Tesco after an investigation by the Financial Report Council (FRC).
In summary we now have the situation where a major fraud on investors took place by the publication of false accounts but nobody is held accountable. Not until UK law is tightened considerably will such events no longer happen. Directors should be held strictly liable for the publication of false accounts on their watch, and auditors likewise. It is simply not good enough when everyone can evade responsibility by saying “nobody told me”.
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )