Called to account for shilly-shallying

Chartered accountants are failing to lead on regulation, reports Roger Trapp
Ask just about any chartered accountant and they will tell you that regulation is a key issue for 1995. So there is bound to be disappointment at the sort of start made by their institute.

Earlier this month the organisation's council received an eagerly awaited report on the matter from a working party chaired by Chris Swinson - and decided to ask him to gather together another group to report this time next year.

To the more far-sighted members, this was a great let-down. They realise that the so-called dual-role debate, caused by organisations such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants regulating their members as well as representing their interests, threatens the whole ethos under which the professions operate.

Not only was the working party chaired by Mr Swinson, a respected council member who prior to joining Stoy Hayward had run Binder Hamlyn, it also included Douglas Llambias, another council member who is well known for his persistent criticism of the way the institute is run.

Such men as these were not going to come up with a whitewash, it was felt. And, indeed, they did not. They proposed the not entirely radical but nevertheless understandable solution of creating a separate regulatory body outside the ambit of the professional accountancy bodies. This would be responsible for public interest cases in "reserved areas" of financial services, insolvency and audit, and for the joint disciplinary scheme, which investigates serious allegations of misconduct. In para llel, therewould be a practice-review scheme, under which firms not involved in public interest cases would be scrutinised.

However, although council welcomed the report, "which clearly served its purpose of stimulating constructive debate", it decided that "any decision at this stage would be premature". Consequently, Mr Swinson was asked to bring together another group to develop the six proposals explored by the original panel and variants thereof.

According to Mr Swinson, "the council took exactly as much action as I'd always hoped it might". But Mr Llambias is not nearly so philosophical. Muttering about "skullduggery", he believes that the holding up of the proposal amounts to a mugging. Although a majority of council members backed the main recommendations, some office holders close to the big six firms acted to stop it going through, he suggests. It is not yet clear whether he will be a part of Mr Swinson's new, larger, group.

Whether or not he joins, the new working party will be closely watched for signs of how it is tackling the issue. "Industrial and commercial members feel let down," said one.

Such suspicions are given added bite because later this month senior officials of the institute are due to meet their counterparts in the other accountancy bodies for what is expected to be the wake of the Bishop plan for rationalising the profession. Having already decided - despite ostensible support for the plan among chartered accountants - that the scheme was dead, the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants last year came up with a General Medical Council-style proposal for regulating the p rofession. Although it is given fairly short shrift in the Swinson working party report, the idea is at least on the table - while the chartered accountants, in the view of some of the membership, have shot themselves in the foot by delaying publication of their own proposal because of the desire for more information.

Mr Swinson's explanation of the call for extra time was to say: "Whatever others might think, I genuinely believe that it would be foolish for the council to put a stake in the ground and say that's what we're going to die on."

He added that although a year might seem "absurdly generous" to carry out the extra work, it was not that long given that the working party would not only have to consult members but also outside bodies affected by the change, such as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Securities and Investments Board.

There have been some suggestions that Mr Swinson is taking this apparent setback on the chin because he hankers after high office in the institute. But as one who commends to the reader the section of the working party's report on "what's going to happento us if we don't sort this out", he, more than any one else, must be hoping that this time next year his colleagues decide to act - and act promptly.