Insider – My government intends …

There is always something in the Queen’s speech to appeal to accountants. Political viewpoints aside, the speech always includes legislative proposals that are important to the economic future of the country and of relevance to clients, colleagues and employers.

This year is certainly no exception. With growing concern about terrorism and the perception of an increase in violent crime, crime was high on the agenda. It was also one of the last opportunities for the government to announce vote-attracting measures prior to the impending general election.

Admittedly, none of the bills announced in last week’s speech have come as a total surprise, although some of the content may still cause concern. Most of the proposals with particular relevance to accountants have already been consulted upon.

Some have also been the subject of informal off-the-record discussions, meaning that we already have hopes, expectations (and disappointments) in relation to some of the issues. But we must be careful not to let these into the public domain – leaks are the prerogative of government, and for the ICAEW to disclose information before an announcement would soon lose us this valuable opportunity to influence policy at an early stage.

Crime and punishment
The Home Office has, once again, scored the highest number of legislative proposals, with the second highest tally after the identity cards bill reserved for the serious organised crime and police bill.

Something certainly needs to be done about organised crime (and the government’s approach to tackling money laundering shows it takes this seriously) – but these are not the only criminals who cause serious economic distortions. The new agency is not likely to include within its remit even the most serious crimes which are carried out on a less organised basis, and which may consequently attract even less attention.

Our concern is reinforced by the disappointing omission from the speech of even a draft bill redefining the offence of fraud. The Home Office has already announced that a fraud bill is being planned – but it will have to wait longer for parliamentary time.

A corporate manslaughter bill also gets a mention in the speech, though at this stage only as a draft bill. Manslaughter looks like being another example of the increasingly frequent criminalisation of corporate behaviour that previously would have only been the subject of regulatory sanctions. The ICAEW believes that a more consistent enforcement of existing health and safety requirements would better help prevent potential tragedies.

Companies and credit
The DTI’s thorough and comprehensive review of company law has now got to the stage of the announcement of draft legislation. The institute’s company law committee has responded to a series of consultation documents universally described as ‘green bricks’ because of their thickness and weight, and the colour of their covers.

A large part of the DTI’s efforts to reduce the burdens on business are tied up in this reform effort. It will undoubtedly help to have a modern structure built on the principle of ‘think small first’, though most of the burdens arise from other matters than company law.

The reform of consumer credit legislation is also overdue, and will be of particular interest to those accountants working in retail and lending institutions.

Accountants in practice will mainly be concerned to avoid adverse changes to the group consumer credit licence, which enables all practicing members of professional bodies with a licence to advise on credit matters without further regulatory burdens.

Customs, equality and efficiency
Both the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise bill and the equality bill seek to increase efficiency by uniting governmental bodies with similar functions.

If they work well, these reforms should serve to help the average accountant by cutting back on the number of bodies that they have to deal with.

It should also succeed in reducing unnecessary divergences of approach. With the tax authorities, in particular, it is crucial that the good working relations and efficient working practices that have developed across both Customs & Excise and the Inland Revenue are built on in the new, unified body.

The unification of the various bodies responsible for protection against discrimination looks, on the face of it at least, as if it might assist in bringing together the sources of government advice on compliance with these increasingly complex areas of the law. The fact that this legislation is being promoted by the DTI will hopefully help ensure that the implications for the regulatory burdens on business will also be taken into account in the structure and duties of the proposed Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Charities
The Home Office is also responsible for the charities bill. It is one of the biggest anachronisms in our legislation that charities are still defined in terms of law laid down in the 16th Century. To say that this legislation is long overdue can only be an understatement. The institute made comprehensive comments on the draft bill, with our charities technical committee supported by the members of charities and voluntary sector groups.

Felicity Banks is head of business law at the ICAEW.

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