Comment – Grasp the accountancy nettle

Oh dear, yet another new face at the Department of Trade andre whistle-stop tour, Peter Williams asks if he has the courage to tackle the regulation of the profession. Industry.

The last Tory government was famed for the way it changed the political boss; now it seems the present government is determined to keep the DTI door revolving.

So now over to Peter Mandelson. Who knows how long he will last in Victoria Street.

But even if it is only for the usual whistle-stop tour, perhaps he is the man to do the decent thing and give the go-ahead for the plans for the regulation of the profession.

The proposals for the Regulation Review Body went into the DTI back in March after a long period of careful preparation and consultation.

The week after the reshuffle, Tony Blair gave his presidential-style progress report. Unsurprisingly, no mention by the prime minister of progress on accountancy supervision.

Still, here’s a plan of action for Mandelson’s first month in office. Ian McCartney – still there as the corporate affairs minister – should chat over the Swinson proposals with his new boss. They should decide that, despite pressure from Austin Mitchell and co, they are basically sound.

They should demand a couple of tweaks from the accountancy bodies on the composition of the board just to show them who is in charge, and they should then give the green light for strengthened self-regulation. As a real sweetener to the Labour backbenchers, there should be one other proviso: if the coming economic slowdown throws up a Polly Peck or BCCI, the whole lot gets chucked over to Howard Davies at the Financial Services Authority whether he wants it or not.

The profession should agree to the tweaks, which would give the board a stronger air of distance from the Big Five and their chums, but would still enable it to present the whole package to members – and the world at large – as a victory for self-regulation. Then they should knuckle down and make it work to fend off the FSA threat.

Will Mandelson and McCartney deliver? They should. And if they are tempted to let accountancy regulation slip down the agenda, they should take a look at last week’s Accountancy Age. The exclusive Top 50 table showed a healthy sector with combined fees of nearly #5bn and employing upwards of 50,000 souls.

The accountancy profession may not be as Cool Britannia as the millennium dome. But it does the business for UK plc in terms of work done, wealth created, jobs generated and tax paid.

It deserves at least the decency of a decision now from its political masters at Whitehall.

Peter Williams, chartered accountant, is editor of the newsletter Electronic Finance

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