Comment – Standing up to the lynch mob

There is nothing like a bit of synthetic outrage to keep us going in the dull days straight after Christmas. We should therefore all be grateful that Tim Smith, the former minister of the Crown and former Conservative MP for Beaconsfield, has provided the entertainment to kick off 1998.

This newspaper’s reporting the disciplinary proceeding against Tim Smith claimed the English ICA had ’caused an outcry’ when the Disciplinary Tribunal of the Institute Council failed to exercise their ultimate weapon and throw him out.

It was pretty heavygoing to find much of an ‘outcry’. We could read about one regulator who conveniently asked not to be named. His view was that the ‘lenient treatment of Smith would raise further questions over the profession’s right to regulate itself.’

Apart from the interesting opinion that a reprimand from your professional body, the highest possible fine for the time in question, and imposing substantial costs equates to ‘leniency’, does this anonymous regulator really think the conduct of one member of the English ICA in the unusual world of Westminster has any bearing on a serious debate of how qualified accountants should be regulated?

The Institute’s 1997 introductory guide to professional ethics rightly says, ‘The Bye Laws render members liable to disciplinary action, inter alia, if in the course of carrying out their professional duties or otherwise, they have committed any act or default likely to bring discredit to the member, the Institute or the profession of accountancy.’

Do we think that when his constituents, or indeed the country at large, read about Tim Smith MP, they shook their head and said: ‘Oh dear, well that’s lowered my view of the Institute and the profession of accountancy’?

The Disciplinary Tribunal should be applauded for the sense and courage it has shown in ignoring the isolated hysterical shouts from the lynch mob.

Instead the Tribunal carefully weighed up the actions of Tim Smith both in their own right and in comparison with the behaviour of fellow professionals and firms who come its way.

Tim Smith has accepted his behaviour ‘fell short of expected standards and showed a lack of professional judgement’. In particular, he must regret that, as recorded in the Downey report, he tried – but fatally did not persevere – to put the Fayed consultancy on the same proper and public footing as those for other parties, such as the Price Waterhouse and Accountancy Age.

That chapter is now closed. Instead the profession should be brave enough to look at, and deal with, some of the professional and ethical dilemmas which the overwhelming number of qualified accountants are facing in the real world.

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