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‘We need to be willing to act quickly on building infrastructure’: KPMG Ireland managing partner Seamus Hand

‘We need to be willing to act quickly on building infrastructure’: KPMG Ireland managing partner Seamus Hand

‘We need to be willing to act quickly on building infrastructure’: KPMG Ireland managing partner Seamus Hand

Seamus Hand, head of KPMG in Ireland, is adamant the so-called 'Big Four' - KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and EY - take their audit role "very seriously".

High-profile failures of expensively and extensively audited companies like UK outsourcer Carillion and our own FAI have pushed the perennial issue back up the agenda.

"On the audit quality debate, I think it is absolutely right that there needs to be focus and investment on audit quality right across the Big Four and everybody else, and I think there has been," Hand says.

"There are always going to be company failures in any functioning market, auditors are going to have a role to play in that; hopefully in preventing and identifying it. But I think it is really important quality is always to the fore."

The firms - not just here but globally - are facing increasing calls for their dominance to be curtailed, including last month when UK regulators outlined plans to break the Big Four stranglehold on auditing the biggest multinationals by forcing them to share work with second-tier firms.

The UK's competition watchdog has even called for legislation to bring about split audit and advisory work.

Hand says splitting up Big Four firms including his own would damage audit quality.

"The fact that we have different specialisms and skills in our firms enables our audit to be more skilled in itself and provide better-quality audits."

The best way to achieve audit quality is to ensure firms are investing in it, he maintains.

"I think a greater focus on things like internal controls in companies is a better way of trying to increase and maximise audit quality, and that is the best way of serving the public interest - rather than something that might be seen as a bit more radical but doesn't necessarily serve the purpose it is designed to serve."

The other area the firms are well-known for is their tax expertise, nowhere more so than in Ireland.

The tax world is undergoing a once in two or even three generation overhaul - prompted by political dissatisfaction that companies with global scale and top accountants are paying their way.

Tax systems were designed for a different world, e-commerce fundamentally changed the landscape and the system needs to catch up, according to Hand.

Ireland, he says, has and should continue to play a big role in the discussions and negotiations around those tax changes.

"Whether that be in the EU or in the OECD - who drive a lot of the changes - we should play an important role in those discussions and Ireland will play an important role in global trade going forward.

"Because a lot of the skills we have and because a lot of other things, including access to the European market, mean we will always play a significant role, and we need to do so in a positive way in that evolving tax environment," he adds.

Despite concerns - even from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe - that Ireland is too reliant on corporation tax receipts that could evaporate, Hand disagrees.

"We are always going to have a significant reliance on corporate tax because we don't have the [large] consumer base. We are an open economy who looks to be a trading partner with investors and with markets," he says. "So I think corporate tax is always going to be a significant part of our tax. That said, income tax, personal taxes are a significantly greater part of the tax base, which is always going to be the case."

One of the areas that merits particular attention right now is the online value chain and how to tax that.

"The tax system needs to address that and some form of digital taxation is likely to be the way that happens," he says.

Ireland obviously isn't a big consumer market. "It does mean there will be a great share of the digital taxation that will go towards bigger consumer markets," he says.

"That doesn't mean the companies that provide that product or service themselves need to be based somewhere [else]. And they are always going to have a corporate tax. That's where Ireland is always focused and I think will continue to focus."

Changes are coming but foreign investment here will not be dramatically impacted, Hand says.

"There are lots of other changes that continually happen, US tax reform being an example of this - where again there was a concern at the time that US companies would look to do an awful lot more in the US and therefore invest less abroad," he says.

So far, KPMG has not seen that.

"We have actually seen an increase in investment in Ireland. There is no doubt US companies are doing more in the US, but they see the benefit in Ireland of access to market to the EU, access to people, skills, particularly in tech.

"I think they are the reasons people/investors are coming to Ireland, more so than tax. And I think that it's absolutely fundamental that government policy continues to support those types of skills and people being in Ireland, and investing in Ireland," he adds.

Speaking of government policy, and with the job of replacing Donohoe currently up for grabs, what would Hand do if he was minster for finance for a week - Brexit and coronavirus aside.

Infrastructure, housing and education, he says.

"Investment in infrastructure is key, and housing has to be a significant area of focus for finance," Hand says. "The other area is education. It is probably the area I think might be getting less attention but I think has slipped a little bit," the DCU graduate says.

"As Ireland has become more successful in attracting high-skilled employment, the education system needs to move with that.

"Therefore, [we should be] encouraging people not just to get a basic education but actually to get more skilled in the type of area a modern economy needs; that's in digital, data, sustainability," he adds.

More focused support for the education system here, particularly at third level, is absolutely critical, according to the Donegal native.

"And I believe we have slipped a little in that. Our universities, who I think do a very good job, have fallen down in rankings, an indication of maybe less focus and investment in education," he says.

Earlier this year, KPMG announced plans to take on 400 graduates.

Many still come from business courses but Hand says it's now a more "diverse" set of college leavers who are needed in Ireland.

KPMG itself is never going to be a tech company, he hastens to add.

However, "more and more we are going to see technology becoming a very significant part of how we do the work and the way we interact with our clients right across those four functions".

The interview takes place amid a backdrop of the fallout from the Irish general election.

Hand is in no doubt that both housing and infrastructure generally need "significant investment" if the country's economy is going to continue to grow at the rate it has.

"It is the biggest issue we have in terms of the economy. It came through in the election," he says. "We need to be willing to invest and act quickly on building that infrastructure."

In the centre of Dublin, Hand is in favour of increasing the height of buildings.

In addition, greater emphasis needs to be placed on regionalisation. "It can't all be about Dublin," he says.

"I believe we need to invest more in the other primary cities, and [have] more encouragement to go there.

"We have offices in those cities; we see more and more of our people wanting to work in those cities because of the cost of living."

Away from domestic economy issues, Hand, who was appointed managing partner of KPMG last year, says the major audit firms fulfil a role that has "a very significant public interest requirement".

"It plays a very important role in the capital and investor markets. Investors generally require assurance in relation to financial information for them to be able to make good decisions," he says.

"By investors, I mean everybody; it's big investors but it's everybody's pension so it affects everybody."

In the early days of his career, Hand, whose wife Anna also works for KPMG, spent almost three years in Sydney.

He applies the Australia 'work-to-live' attitude to his own life, even with the distractions of modern technology.

"I take time to enjoy myself, [including] socially with friends. I am very interested in most sports; I go to rugby a lot. Being from Donegal, I'm into GAA and always hopeful," he says.

In addition, he is "actively involved" in taking his children to their various sports events.

"Phones mean you are always available but if I am getting emails [at the weekend] and I don't feel the need to respond to them, I won't, because I think - particularly in my role as leader - if others see that's what I do, they might believe that's what I expect of them," Hand adds.

For a man who is fully aware of the importance of technology as a tool that can be deployed in the country's continued economic growth, and head of a big employer, he's not an advocate of the 'always on' business culture.

"I don't think we should use technology as a way of eating into people's personal time."

(Seamus Hand spoke to Ellie Donnelly ahead of the arrival of coronavirus in Ireland)

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