Graham Batty on tax as a career and why you should study with the ATT

Graham Batty on tax as a career and why you should study with the ATT

Immediate Past President of the ATT, Graham Batty discusses his career journey, the opportunities that the ATT offers, and what it's really like to work in the world of tax

Graham Batty on tax as a career and why you should study with the ATT

Graham Batty is Immediate Past President of the Association of Taxation Technicians (ATT) and an Associate Director at RSM UK, focusing on charity tax.

Accountancy Age spoke to Batty about his career journey, the opportunities that the ATT offers, and what it’s really like to work in the world of tax.

How did you get to where you are now in your career?

Tax wasn’t my first career – I actually started off as a fish biologist many years ago and I was working on a research project looking at salmon fisheries. That was just contract work and it dried up so I decided to become an accountant!

I qualified as a chartered accountant with a firm in the City of London then after that I got the tax bug. I had always enjoyed doing tax so I put myself through the qualifications and became a member of the CIOT. I have now been on three branch committees and chairman of two branches, Leeds and Birmingham. There’s only a handful of people who’ve done more than one branch.

In terms of tax I have had a varied experience. I did General Practice then got pushed into smaller and smaller silos, one being corporate tax. I did some technical training and then was asked onto the ATT’s technical steering committee and from there I was then asked on to Council. I only got to be on Council for a short time before making a career move to join the ATT’s auditors, when I had to step down. Then in 2012 when the auditors were changed, I returned to council. Following roles on the finance committee and as ATT treasurer, I moved up and was invited to become vice president, deputy president, and then president.

I have now been involved in the ATT/CIOT for just over 30 years. The great thing I find about tax is that it changes all the time and it’s never boring. You never know what you’re going to be asked in the morning when you come in to work.

What does your current role involve?

It’s so varied, so I’ll give you an example of my day. Today, before this call, I was looking at the capita for an organisation, a charity. I will go on to look at some work later for a charity that is hoping to redevelop some property. Later I’ve got a meeting at HMRC’s head office about gift aid. Tomorrow, I have some returns that need to be done and a couple of reports about a US charity looking to set up a branch in the UK.

To be honest, though, days could involve anything. I have a plan for tomorrow but I could end up doing something completely different if I need to react to an email or call. You can always tell when I’m busy because I will constantly have a cup of cold coffee on my desk!

What does the ATT offer to accountants?

Education is what we are about. We are an educational charity and membership body with the goal of advancing education in the study of taxation.We offer this by providing a suite of qualifications.

ATT

You have to have the ATT qualification to become a member. We don’t organise the tuition, that is done by an outside provider, but we set the exams. You must pass two compulsory written papers – one on personal taxation and one on business tax and accounting principles. Then you do one optional paper, choosing from business compliance, corporation tax, inheritance tax and trusts, or VAT.

Then you have to do two compulsory computer-based exams, one in law and one in professional responsibility and ethics. The latter is quite a big one, we do lots of work in regulating our members and making sure they’re working to an acceptable standard.

When you have done that you need to get two years practical experience working in tax, and provide references from someone to say you are fit to become a member of the ATT.

There are several routes you can do it – most people will be working in tax while they do this and, unlike me, won’t be dipping into their own pockets, but will be sponsored by their employer. There is a whole range of employers – the major accounting practices, law firms, HMRC – who do this.

Tax Pathway

You can also do the Tax Pathway, which is a structured route to the ATT qualification. A lot of people who do this are university graduates, but you don’t have to be. In the Tax Pathway you study the basic principles of how tax works, and then you move on to doing the CTA qualification, building on the basic blocks to get a thorough understanding of the UK tax system.

A lot of practices who take on graduates will put them on the pathway because they don’t have any previous tax experience.. It is a structured route to two compulsory ATT papers with an option to do a third ATT paper or a CIOT awareness papers, then they must do a couple of pure CTA papers and a couple of computer-based exams for ATT.

Trailblazer apprenticeship

Last year we launched the new ATT trailblazer apprenticeship which is purely for tax. People can come from school to become an apprentice. They will start out doing the ATT and they may be on the tax pathway or they may not, depending on how they get on with the ATT. I think the apprenticeship is absolutely brilliant. We launched it in October so it was too late to catch most of last year’s school leavers but we’re expecting a big influx of people who have done their A-Levels this year.

One of the real highlights of being involved in the ATT is running the two admissions ceremonies we do each year for new members. An apprenticeship now is no longer a way into trades like bricklaying and plumbing but a way into the professions. It’s widening the availability of careers across industries.

I was talking to the father of a someone who was on one of our apprenticeships at an admissions ceremony last year and I don’t know who was prouder, him or his daughter. He said he wishes there had been something like this when he was starting. He said he had three daughters. The eldest two had gone to university and had good degrees but no work experience and are struggling to find a job as well as being burdened with a huge amount of debt. Then he looked proudly at his younger daughter, who has been paid to do her training, got two or three years of practical work experience, she’s got a qualification that will hopefully see her in a job for the rest of her career, and she has no debt – what’s not to like?

Foundation qualifications 

At the same time last year we launched some foundations qualifications which don’t get you ATT membership but they are about giving people in accounting, the law, surveyors, or people who just want to understand more about the tax system, a better knowledge. These are the three foundation qualifications – one in personal tax, one in business tax, and one in compliance. All study material is online through a third-party provider, but we provide the qualification. These include four study modules to work through at your own pace, with a mini test at the end of each, then you have to do a big online exam right at the end. We recently had the first person to pass one of these. He had a day a week study leave to do the qualification and passed!

The other aspect is the non-UK VAT compliance diploma, which is similar to the VAT compliance foundation qualification. Again this is all online and we’ve had huge interest in this.

Continuing Professional Development 

Then, continuing with education, we have initiatives for people after their exams, including CPD events at branches, for instance two hours of teaching on specific topics, e.g. the Finance Bill, VAT, pensions. We found our members like the interaction and social side of learning. We have networking as part of these events.

Bigger firms have their own in-house CPD programs but the small or sole practitioners find face-to-face courses like these so useful. We have annual conferences which go on a roadshow around the country to places like London, Newcastle, Birmingham, and Leeds. Twice a year we do a student training day to help students with exam technique and topical issues.

So that’s the training side of the ATT but then there’s the regulatory side, where you sign up to work to a certain standard as outlined in a document jointly accrued by all the membership bodies – CIOT, ICAEW, ACCA etc, and agreed with HMRC.

The ATT also works publicly with HMRC, responding to press releases, reacting to news, and collaborating with HMRC, the Treasury, and other ministers to fight the corner of the tax-payer to make sure we have a tax system that works and is understandable. For example my meeting later is about making the gift aid system work better. We give comment to House of Lords committees on the Finance Bill and we interact with the government, e.g. I had an event in Scotland recently which included MSPs, along with people for Revenue Scotland and tax tribunals. We act as a critical friend, pointing out practical difficulties with new regulations like Making Tax Digital.

What are ATT doing specifically to improve diversity in the accounting profession?

Our exams are for everyone, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, orientation. We have many people coming in as school-leavers and we go to schools to promote tax as a career. Lots of people are either school-leavers or graduates but we do get a surprisingly large number of older people, particularly women who took a career break for children and want to get back in to tax work. The ATT is purely based on merit – we never turn away a willing volunteer, they can be from anywhere.

Our council has slightly more female members than male members and, thinking about past presidents, the two prior ones were men and before that it was two women. If you want to get involved and do our qualifications there are no barriers.

Why should someone study with the ATT?

I know I’m biased but tax really is an interesting career and on the practical side you will never be out of a job. They say the two certainties in life are death and taxation!

The tax system is getting more and more complicated. In theory, paying your taxes should be no more difficult than paying your electricity bill. There will always be a demand for good, qualified tax professionals who understand the system. The ATT qualification equips people to understand how the UK tax system works and how to help people understand obligations to make a tax return, calculate tax which is due, and pay tax to HMRC by the deadline.

It’s simple things like helping people get their retirement right which is so rewarding – the planning behind where they want their money to go, how much they need to live comfortably, and how much they want to give their family. As a tax adviser, you become a general trusted adviser to people – they end up calling you to talk about other issues and topics too and you can build really strong relationships and feel like you are honestly helping people.

Ultimately the ATT gives you a huge number of career options – the qualification is broad-based and provides you with a great opportunity to kick off your career whatever you decide in the long term.

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