Accountancy & Management: Tax and counter-attacks turning a little rough: Roger Trapp looks at an uncharacteristically bitter dispute between professional bodies vying for control of exams

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The Independent Online
THE rarefied world of tax is an unlikely scene for a serious row. What disagreements there are between the accountants practising the art and the Inland Revenue over the affairs of their clients are generally conducted with genteel calm.

However, the dispute going on between the practitioners themselves looks like taking on a completely different character. Since the first shots were fired a year ago, relations between the two sides have become steadily more sour. And this month something approaching open warfare has broken out.

The central issue is which organisation - the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales or the Institute of Taxation - should be recognised as the body responsible for examinations.

Since its establishment in 1930, the IoT has regarded that role as its own. But the tax faculty of the ICA, which was set up two years ago, has proposed organising its own system of exams. It recently reported to the institute's council that a consultation procedure had shown strong support for the move from among faculty members.

However, Jennifer Ainsworth, president of the IoT, points to the small majority of ICA district societies holding out against the plan as evidence of the growing disquiet over an initiative that she says will waste valuable resources, create conflicts and divisions within the tax profession, and cause confusion for employers.

Pointing out that tax work is not the exclusive preserve of accountants - nearly half the IoT membership is split between lawyers and direct entrants - she claims that there is a public interest in having one identifiable body responsible for setting both proficiency and ethical standards. Although she has refrained from saying it outright, Ms Ainsworth, a partner with the accountancy firm Moores Rowland, does not discount the possibility that the threat from the ICA arises out of empire-building on the part of the tax faculty.

Peter Wyman, the Coopers & Lybrand partner who chairs it, discounts this with a laugh, saying he wished he had that much power. The move is a reflection of the growing specialisation of the profession, and is part of a trend that is not confined to tax, he says. 'If you include general practice - which I regard as a special field - most accountants specialise in one way or another.'

A similar split in responsibility occurs with insolvency - where there is a Society of Practitioners of Insolvency - and one has been proposed in some quarters for auditing. But tax - a complex field that is proving of ever greater importance to the business world - is a particularly popular area of activity. The ICA has 16,000 members who spend much of their time dealing with tax, and half of these belong to the tax faculty.

It is Mr Wyman's view that the ICA 'should provide for the professional needs of members in all major areas without them having to go to another body, no matter how good it is'.

And he sees having examinations as a natural part of this. But he is not adamant that it should be a separate system.

Pointing out that he has the highest regard for the IoT, he said: 'I've said that if we do go ahead with an exam, one option is to share the IoT exam. I am prepared to look at that.'

There has also been discussion about introducing specialist elements to the general chartered accountant examination. But that is likely to be some way off. And in the meantime, attention has focused on the post- qualification examination. Since it would like to put finalised proposals to a special meeting of the whole membership in June 1994, the tax faculty is eager to get the problem sorted out quickly.

It stresses that what Mr Wyman admitted to council were 'strained relations' have not spread into other aspects of the two organisations' dealings with each other. The Government and such bodies as the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise are lobbied jointly, and, of course, members are drawn from the same firms.

But although there is a general feeling that the issue has been blown out of all proportion, there is also a view within the ICA that - for all the IoT's protestations that it is acting out of the public good - it is really worried about its own status. Moreover, there is a danger that the personalising of the dispute could have lasting ramifications.

At a conference earlier this month, Ms Ainsworth stepped up the dispute by drawing attention to Mr Wyman's remark about the strained relations and a report in the ICA's magazine, Accountancy, in which he suggested there was evidence of the IoT organising opposition to the tax faculty plans.

For his part, Mr Wyman says he is 'completely and utterly amazed' by the comments, and calls them an over- reaction. But he adds that Ms Ainsworth's press statement that the IoT's mainly lawyer and accountant members were regarded as 'the ultimate gurus on taxation' is likely to upset ICA members - in much the same way as comments attributed to Mr Wyman that tax is the natural preserve of the chartered accountant would displease IoT members and certified accountants.

As one chartered accountant has said, there have clearly been a lot of misunderstandings and things taken out of context. But is it too late to put it right?

Like Mr Wyman, Ms Ainsworth insists that she is prepared to discuss the matter. Although the issue has certainly dominated her term of office and given her a higher profile than she would otherwise have enjoyed, she says there is 'plenty of time to see it through to a conclusion' before her presidency ends on 26 May. But there is no sign of her going quietly.

(Photographs omitted)