Finance: All because they need to choose a chair ...

Roger Trapp reports on the conspiracy, double-dealing and raw passion behind a simple change to the way council meetings are run at the Institute of Chartered Accountants
Maybe all those years of criticism from the likes of the Labour MP Austin Mitchell has finally hit home - or maybe the Council of the Institute of Chartered Accountants has just woken up to a new spirit of openness abroad in the country.

Whatever the reason, there was certainly a lot of old-fashioned conspiracy theory-type thinking around at the body's monthly meeting last week. At issue was the procedure for choosing somebody to chair council meetings now that - in line with the acceptance of the Gerrard report on the institute's reorganisation - the president of the institute is to chair a restyled executive.

Given that the new post is envisaged to have "no formal power or representative function", it is easy to understand why some backroom officials have felt that having a nomination committee is as effective a means for putting the right person into position as a contested election.

After all, since the position requires somebody to act rather like the Speaker of the House of Commons, and be an impartial referee, it can be clearly seen that such qualities as tact and diplomacy, experience of dealing with large meetings and an ability to think on the feet are more important than a capacity to represent a particular point of view.

But, clearly those responsible for framing the proposals had underestimated the ability of certain council members to spot anti-democratic forces at work. What would happen if the person chosen and put up for formal election were not thought to be suitable, they asked. Why, they could vote them down, they were told.

But this was not good enough. Seizing their moment in the spotlight, they pressed for changes. An amendment spelling out how council members could put forward and vote on candidates was duly put up by the quick- on-his-feet Ian Hay Davison - in an effort to keep the proposals on track so that the new system had a chance of starting operation in June.

But for the hard liners, led by Roger Gould, this was not enough. Apparently believing that some sort of principle was at stake, they continued to rail against the whole idea of a nominating committee. For a few moments the observer could even have been convinced that something really important - such as regulation of the profession - was under discussion. At last common sense had its way, and Michael Mallett stood up to remind his fellow council members that the post being considered did not carry with it a substantial residence or a state pension. In other words, what did they think was going to happen if it fell into the wrong hands?

In a similar vein, Anne Jenkins suggested that all the principled talk was in danger of leading the discussion away from the practicalities. Her concern was not the procedure for deciding among a variety of candidates but how to ensure that anybody at all became available, as well as to set in place a system for appointing a deputy should the person chosen be unavailable.

In the end, sanity was preserved by the president, Chris Laine, displaying the tact, diplomacy and other skills that would in fact make her a strong candidate for the job. She made a commitment that the proposals would be taken away and redrafted in such a way as to satisfy the concerns of those present.

But sensible as this was, it did not deal with the larger issue: of how a group of grown men and women - professionals, no less - can spend close on 45 minutes debating just a few words that are going to make precious little difference to anything.