Leader – Mandy’s mixed blessing

At last the waiting is over. Nearly 16 months after Labour’s election victory, the government has finally set out its policy for the future of the profession.

In contrast to his predecessor, whose 14-month tenure was marked by seemingly little progress, trade secretary Peter Mandelson has moved swiftly on plans for self-regulation, limited liability partnerships and professional liability.

To judge by the initial reaction from the leadership of the profession, you might think accountants had got everything they had wanted from the man political opponents call the Prince of Darkness. On self-regulation, Mandelson has given Chris Swinson’s review board plan the green light.

There is to be legislation to create LLPs to persuade big firms to stay UK-registered, and the future of joint and several liability will be decided as part of the review of company law.

But examine the small print, and the goodies look a lot less enticing.

On self-regulation, Mandelson is insisting on a five-year review of the operation of the Swinson plan. Self-regulation is clearly on probation. On LLPs, the price the firms must pay is full company-style disclosure of their affairs. This is not just something they would rather not do, it is a blow to the traditional partnership principle: firms’ finances will no longer be the private business of the partners.

The profession now knows what the government thinks. But the Prince of Darkness may only have emphasised how uncertain the future really is.

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