The accountancy institutes and Big Four firms were out in force during the
recent party conference season, schmoozing politicians, organising debates on
tax and swapping late-night gossip in bars.
The conference season has always been a key period in the calendar of the
accountancy profession, which has quietly expanded its lobbying presence over
the past decade.
As the countdown to the next general election begins, accountants are gearing
up to shape the tax and business policies of the government and opposition
Before the Conservative party conference, a spokesman for the party said it
had seen an increase in the number of accountants planning to attend, adding
that firms were advising the party on tax and policy implementation.
Jonathan Labrey, head of public affairs,
says party conferences are important to the institute because they set the
political agenda for the new parliamentary session in the autumn.
But he adds that the ICAEW, which has a six-strong lobbying team, is careful
not to appear to back one political party as political fortunes can change
‘Before the Labour Party conference [in 2007] everyone was predicting that
Gordon Brown would call an election. Ming Campbell was leader of the Lib Dems,
which was facing political oblivion. A year later politics has been turned on
Observers of the profession and its political lobbying talk about pre- and
The collapse of energy giant Enron and its auditor Arthur Andersen rocked the
profession to the core. It also underlined the need for the profession to
improve its image among politicians as a whole.
Institutes and the Big Four have rebuilt the profession’s reputation, fending
off threats of heavy-handed regulation from governments keen to prevent future
‘I think the ICAEW has stepped up its game quite a lot,’ says Mark Hoban,
shadow financial secretary to the Treasury and a chartered accountant himself.
‘Post-Enron Peter Wyman proved a very effective president in ensuring that the
government took a sensible approach to regulation [of the accountancy
Hoban, who previously worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers, also chairs the first
all-party parliamentary group to focus on accounting issues, the Associate
Parliamentary Group on Business, Finance and Accountancy.
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He says accountants often argue that politicians need to consult them earlier
on big tax or business changes to help ensure the policy is well thought out and
doesn’t need changing at a later date.
‘One of the messages the accountancy profession has been running here is that
failure to consult [the profession] has created political damage to the
government,’ he says.
Of course, the lobby industry itself has an image problem, conjuring up
images of secret deals and plying MPs with lavish trips and other jollies. But
Labrey says day-to-day lobbying is about supplying useful information to
politicians. Often this means explaining to MPs how proposed reforms such as
the recent shake-up of Capital Gains Tax and changes to non-dom tax rules – will
affect businesses in their constituencies.
‘We got MPs like Vince Cable and members of the Treasury select committee
into a room in Portculis House in Parliament and talked through the implications
of the capital gains tax changes. It was a basic slide show explaining the
practical implications of the tax changes and it put forward three to four
Peter Wyman, head of professional affairs at PwC, says firms are careful to
be politically neutral. ‘The government is likely to be in [power] for two years
and a week’s a long time in politics,’ he says, adding that firms do not decide
which party to provides services to based on opinion polls. ‘We worked a lot
with Labour in the darkest days of the 1980s when they needed help with policy.’
He says accountants have had to adapt their lobbying tactics in response to
the rise of special advisers under the current government.
‘The accountancy profession has changed hugely but the government has changed
much more,’ he says. ‘Before 1997 government ministers were much more accessible
and visible than they are now.’
Lobbyists have to woo special advisers first before gaining access to the top
politicians. Gone, increasingly, are the informal chats over dinner at a swanky
restaurant, in favour of Powerpoint presentations and secondments.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation is one of the more low key lobbyists in
the profession. Simon Goldie, head of communications at the institute, says the
fact that it is a charity and politically independent, can work in its favour
when it is lobbying government.
‘A couple of years ago the
CIoT campaigned for tax
simplification through the media and to the government and opposition parties
picked up on this,” he says.
‘I think [politicians] were very minded to take on our arguments because they
came from a public charity.’
As politicians begin to draft policies in the run up to the next election,
accountants are in a strong position to influence future laws and taxes.
Politicians are keen to avoid future tax gaffes and are increasingly turning to
accountants for expert and impartial advice.
‘We are becoming embedded in policy making process,’ says Labrey. ‘We are
getting ministers and shadow ministers saying “can you brief us”.’
What the institutes got up to during the conference season
ACCA attended the
conferences of the three main political parties, focusing on the financial
crisis. Richard Aitken-Davies, ACCA president and Dr Steve Priddy, director of
technical policy and research, chaired panel events at the Labour and Tory
conferences on the theme of the credit crunch.
At the Labour conference ACCA held a discussion on global economic crisis
with speakers including Kitty Ussher MP, economic secretary to the Treasury.
At the Conservative conference, Philip Hammond, shadow chief secretary to the
Treasury and Irwin Steltzer, Sunday Times economics writer were among the
panellists discussing the credit crunch.
This month ACCA will publish a policy paper called ‘Climbing Out of the
Credit Crunch’, based on the panel discussions during the conference.
At Labour’s conference the ICAEW took part in an organised debate called
‘Growth and global poverty: Can business and civil society work together?’
Chaired by Glenys Kinnock MEP, speakers included Gareth Thomas MP, minister of
state for overseas development and Michael Izza, chief executive, ICAEW.
The Conservative conference saw ICAEW take part in a business fringe meeting
with Alan Duncan MP, shadow secretary of state for business. It also held a
private dinner with the Tax Payers Alliance and Policy Exchange.
The ICAEW organised a debate entitled ‘How to make tax fair’ at the Liberal
Democrats’ conference. Speakers included Vince Cable MP, Lib Dem shadow
chancellor and Francesca Lagerberg, chair, ICAEW tax technical committee
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