Finance: Opening up the books

Accountants are debating increased democracy within the profession. Roger Trapp reports

Jeff Wooller may have received a terrible drubbing at last week'sannual general meeting of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. But about one thing he is likely to be proved right: democracy, the issue that brought him to the event, is not going to go away.

Mr Wooller, one of the so-called Ginger Group that also claims Labour MP Austin Mitchell and the accountancy academic Prem Sikka as members, vowed to be back next year. Whether that visit will give him cause for complaint or satisfaction is, frankly, in the hands of the institute.

The day after the meeting the institute's new president, Brian Currie, used his inaugural speech to council to put democracy and consultation at the top of his priority list. "I think we have a well-balanced, democratic and open constitution, but we must continue the debate and see what could be changed for the better," he said.

As the previous day, he pointed out that the constitutional review being headed by Peter Gerrard, former senior partner of Lovell White Durrant, would play a central role in the discussions.

But, as has been demonstrated in such matters as regulation, the institute is a past master at setting up working parties and initiating debates, but somewhat less accomplished at achieving swift results. According to Keith Woodley, president until last week, Mr Gerrard was appointed in order to provide "objective and independent advice" in a report to be presented to council next January. But there is a danger that the organisation's hierarchy has already decided what is needed, and that is not much.

Mr Currie's conciliatory but none the less firm speech at the meeting was no doubt at least partly responsible for Mr Wooller attracting only one vote besides those of himself and his seconder, Tony Marshall, in the face of 247 opponents. But on Wednesday the new president was confident enough to say: "We don't need revolutionary changes, we need to pursue a steady evolutionary progress towards even more democracy."

That is just the sort of thing that those steady professionals would like to hear, but it is also the sort of thing that can be counted upon to make Mr Wooller and his colleagues stiffen their resolve in their demands for the whole 109,000-strong membership, and not only the 70-odd members of council, to be able to vote for the president.

As was stressed at the AGM, the English institute is not the sole target of this activity. Earlier this year, Mr Sikka, professor of accounting at Essex University, failed for the second time to gain election to the council of the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants on a pro- democracy agenda.

He and Mr Mitchell have also had a two-hour meeting with Allan McNab and Rod Hill, respectively president and senior vice-president of the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants. Mr McNab said afterwards that the discussion on openness, democracy and accountability within the professions had been "most valuable" in helping the organisation to set the agenda for consulting members and students and for October's council conference at which democracy will be one of the key issues debated. Mr Mitchell and Professor Sikka have also been invited to "stimulate discussion" at that event.

Of the leading auditing bodies, only the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland appears to be avoiding the group's attentions. Apparently, Mr Mitchell did approach the body some time ago in an effort to ascertain its policies in this area, but has not been heard from since being sent a full reply.

Maybe, suggested a spokesman, that was because the letter pointed out that the council was entirely democratically elected, with 10 signatures being required to nominate a council member and 50 to nominate one of the three main office-holders. If the nominations exceed the number of vacancies, there is a secret ballot of all 14,000 members.

All the bodies have made great strides in the area of openness in recent years. Whether they go further will depend on the sort of views that are aired over the coming months.

However, it cannot be true that there is as little interest in the matter as last week's vote at the English institute's annual meeting suggests. Perhaps the somewhat strange tactics of Mr Wooller and Mr Marshall at that event were born of years of frustration, but surely even they must realise that the way to win over their fellow professionals is to behave like reasonable people rather than ape the antics of those who hijack council meetings with endless points of order, semantic questions and concerns about whether the initial letters of the words chartered accountants should be lower or upper case.

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