Is a clear conscience enough?

Is a clear conscience enough?

At last week's Insider Business Club discussion on the thorny issue of tax avoidance, I challenged the ever entertaining Mike Warburton on how he might determine whether a tax scheme was overly aggressive

‘The standard I have always applied, I learnt at a very early age,’ he said.
‘Assume you have helped a client implement something. Consider what would happen
a few years later if you were standing in the High Court explaining your
actions.

‘How would you feel? Would you feel embarrassed about it? Would you feel
uncomfortable explaining what you have done? If you would feel uncomfortable
explaining the actions you took to a judge , then my view is that you shouldn’t
have done it in the first place.’

The conscience test strikes at the core of professionalism. But is it enough
in today’s more cynical, more questioning times? There is a line, wrongly
attributed to the Newsnight frontman himself, that Jeremy Paxman
approaches every interview by asking himself the question: ‘Why is this lying
bastard lying to me?’

While most of us don’t go that far,society places as much emphasis on
perception as reality these days. We tend to assume a vested interest, when
previously we might have only wondered whether one existed.

This applies to business people and accountants, as much as politicians. When
another journalist tipped me off that Ken Lay’s death was about to be announced,
the first question that ran through my mind was: ‘Did he commit suicide?’

With odd symmetry (maybe there was a conspiracy at work here too?) the
following day an ICAS report landed on my desk. Ethics and the individual
professional accountant, by the University of Glasgow’s Ken McPhail, challenges
accepted notions of professionalism and ethics and urges a more sophisticated,
socially aware and accountable profession.

To achieve this, McPhail demands accountants commit themselves to the public
interest, independence and codes of conduct and concludes that professionalism
has been construed too ‘narrowly in terms of the character and competence of
individuals entering the profession’. Warburton’s self-test is a good one, but
it may no longer be enough.

These are bones that require flesh for an accepted, centuries-old definition
of professionalism to be thrown out and replaced. But, I would argue, a failure
to discuss the issues raised would be somewhat unprofessional.

Damian Wild is editor in chief of Accountancy Age

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