Note: for ease (and efficiency in terms word count), throughout this post I will use the term “Accountant” to encompass a financial accountant and/or tax adviser. In the interests of openness, I should also make it quite clear that I am a Chartered Tax Adviser and a Chartered Accountant.
Professional titles such as Doctor and Solicitor are protected in so far as one cannot practice as either a doctor or a solicitor without the appropriate qualifications. For almost as long as I can remember, there has been a debate – or, more correctly, a series of debates – as to whether the term Accountant should also be protected. I have participated in this debate myself on many occasions but I have now come to the conclusion that this is actually the wrong debate to be having.
Protection of professional names is usually promoted as a means of protecting an unsuspecting public from unqualified charlatans. Of course it also affords a degree of trade protection to those entitled to use the relevant name, so it is difficult to have the debate without a degree of self-interest.
Why would it be felt – primarily by professionally qualified Accountants, to be fair – that the public would be better served by protection of the term ‘Accountant’? Well, let’s deal with the one I don’t really agree with (at least, not completely) first – technical expertise.
The fact of the matter is that quite a lot of non-qualified Accountants actually have very good technical knowledge.
The other factors can be summed up in a single term – regulation.
As a professionally qualified Accountant my two professional bodies regulate me in various ways, including the following.
- I am required (by ICAEW) to hold a practicing certificate. In itself, this doesn’t really mean much apart from confirming that I have met all of the qualification and experience requirements necessary to practice as an Accountant. Of course, it also binds me in to the appropriate regulatory/disciplinary processes. Oh, and I also have to pay an additional fee every year for this certificate.
- Notwithstanding that I have passed professional exams in order to acquire my professional qualifications, I am also required to ensure that I undertake CPD each year in order that my knowledge remains current and relevant. This can mean, amongst other things, attending specialist courses and training sessions – often at a cost.
- I am required to adhere to a code of professional and ethical standards in my work. Importantly, I am subject to the disciplinary procedures of the two bodies should it be felt that my work or behaviour falls below those standards. My clients are able to complain to my professional bodies about the standard or conduct of my work if they feel I have performed poorly.
- Finally, I am required to hold appropriate PI cover (i.e. with a fairly substantial level of cover). Once again, this does not come cheap.
Now, I am not suggesting that all of this regulation means that a client is guaranteed that a professionally qualified accountant will never get it wrong, nor indeed that they will all behave appropriately. One only has to read the reports of the disciplinary hearings to see that there will always be bad eggs. The point is that the odds are stacked in favour of avoiding those bad eggs. In addition, most professional bodies will have a formal complaints process that will allow the client to seek assistance in dealing with any problems that may have arisen with their accountant.
Maybe I am a little biased but I genuinely believe that all of this regulation offered by the professional bodies is actually good news for the public as potential clients of Accountants. It offers those potential clients the reassurance that the Accountant is likely to be properly qualified to undertake the work being offered and that they are likely to undertake it in a professional manner.
So, as a professionally qualified Accountant, why do I believe that protection is not the correct approach? Is it that I don’t believe the public needs protecting?
Actually, I do believe that the public needs protecting from some unqualified Accountants. The problem, in my opinion, is that legal protection of the name is simply the wrong approach to take in 2015. Given the number of unqualified Accountants already in practice, the task is likely to be too difficult to achieve and would almost certainly just lead to more confusion.
There are a lot of unqualified Accountants practising in the UK and a lot of them – as I mentioned at the start of this post – will be technically competent and “professional” in their approach. Outlawing these accountants is unlikely to be in the wider public interest.
No, my view is that the solution is better education of the public as to the advantages of professionally qualified and regulated Accountants. Furthermore, I strongly believe that this process must be led by the professional bodies, who must work together to demonstrate to the public that professionally qualified – and regulated – Accountants offer significant advantages and protection.
The issues, I believe, are that the public, particularly SMEs and sole traders often believe that all Accountants are fundamentally the same in terms of their ability and professionalism. They need to be free to choose whichever adviser they wish but they should be able to make that choice based upon a better understanding of the differences between a qualified and an unqualified Accountant.