Magic circle firms among array of advisers accused of 'squeezing income' from Carillion

The parliamentary inquiry into the collapse of Carillion has accused law firms including Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance (CC) and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer of “squeezing fee income” from the company as it collapsed amid “recklessness, hubris and greed”.

The final report into the construction company’s high-profile demise – produced by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Work and Pensions select committees – describes Carillion’s business model as an “unsustainable dash to cash”, adding that the “mystery is not that it collapsed, but how it kept going for so long”.

The report, released today (16 May) details how Carillion’s directors were supported by an “array of illustrious advisory firms” which, as it unravelled, were “squeezing fee income out of what remained of the company”.

It goes on to allege that the advisers were used as a “badge of credibility” that only served to prove the willingness of the company’s board to “throw money at a problem” and of the firms to “accept generous fees”.

Slaughters, CC and Freshfields are listed in the report alongside Mills & Reeve, Sacker & Partners, Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld as having received fees from Carillion in the days before it was declared insolvent. Almost £2m was paid to those law firms on 12 January, with Slaughters receiving the lion’s share with £1.2m, followed by Akin Gump (£305,500) and Willkie Farr (£164,000).

The report argues that such advisory firms are “not incentivised to act as a check on recklessly-run businesses”, and that “a long and lucrative relationship is not secured by rocking the boat”.

Former Carillion chairman Philip Green – who told the inquiry that the board believed they took “high-quality advice” – is described as “delusional” in his upbeat assessment of the company’s situation as it was in decline, while CFO Richard Adam is dubbed the “architect of Carillion’s aggressive accounting policies”. Company secretary and director of legal services Richard Tapp is not referenced in the report.

The report is also critical of the role played by big four accountancy firms KPMG, EY and PwC. KPMG is described as “complicit” in the company’s accounting, due to its 19 year-role as auditor to the company, for which it was paid £29m. EY was paid £10.8m for “six months of failed turnaround advice”, while Deloitte is said to have earned £10m for its position as internal auditor, charging an average of £775,000 a year since 2010.

The report warns of a “crisis of confidence” within the auditing profession, adding that the failures around Carillion are symptomatic of a market that “works for the Big Four firms but fails the wider economy”.

“Waiting for a more competitive market that promotes quality and trust in audits has failed,” the report states. “It is time for a radically different approach. The Government refers the statutory audit market to the Competition and Markets Authority. The terms of reference of that review should explicitly include consideration of both breaking up the Big Four into more audit firms, and detaching audit arms from those providing other professional services.”

A host of law firms took up roles relating to Carillion’s collapse, with Freshfields and Dentons advising the official receiver and Slaughters advising the company itself. CC and Linklaters advised a number of Carillion’s lenders, while Mayer Brown acted for the Pension Protection Fund and Akin Gump and Willkie Farr took roles for private placement holders and convertible bond holders respectively.

Freshfields declined to comment. Slaughters and CC were contacted for comment.