Are all accountants created equal?

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A summary and update on the issue members are calling the 'great unqualified debate.' In the UK, an HMRC consultation document published in April, entitled Working with Tax Agents provoked a lively debate among members on both what HMRC should do about agents who act incompetently or fraudulently, and the issues surrounding unqualified accountants. With this article we will try to capture some of this debate, as well as bringing in views from professional bodies.

Origins of the debate

The HMRC consultation document sought to gather the views of the body of tax agents about how agents who act incompetently or deliberately perpetrate tax fraud should be dealt with. The original post on this topic connected this to the debate about whether accountants who are 'unqualified' should be allowed to offer advice to clients on tax and accountancy issues and how these agents should be regulated. The poster said: "You cannot provide legal advice without being suitably qualified, so why not tax and accountancy advice? Let us bring standards up by this measure. It also provides the public with an assurance there is someone they can complain to that can really do something about their advisor." Editor Rebecca Benneyworth pointed out: "HMRC makes clear that the issues are competence and integrity, not a qualification or the term accountant." The document itself states that: "HMRC does not require any agent acting on behalf of a client to demonstrate their level of competence or be a member of a recognised professional body before they are authorised to do business with the Department."

Professional bodies' statements

Whether or not the issue of qualified accountants versus unqualified entered into the consultation document, it was clearly something members were interested in, so we put some of the key questions to the accounting bodies.Among the questions we asked them were whether they felt 'unqualified' accountants were being regulated appropriately and whether they would suggest any changes to the system to supervise them better.Wyn Mears, director of the ACCA gave the following comments: "I think it's a contradiction in terms to have an unqualified accountant. Although people call themselves accountants sometimes without having a professional qualification, I think that’s misleading. It's not in the public interest and certainly as far as business is concerned I don't believe they fulfil a specialist demand that qualified accountants can offer."There is no regulation of unqualified accountants; they don't have to abide by any rules or regulations apart from common law. There is no body that supervises them or holds them to task for their mistakes or for anything they do that is not in the best interests of clients. As a result, we'd say there is no place for them in the market.We have requested that the government should only recognise the term 'accountant' in the context of those people who have qualified and passed examinations and who are part of professional bodies. This is the only secure way of guaranteeing service for members of the public and for business at large." Anthony Margaritelli, chairman of the ICPA said: "The HMRC document has nothing to do with qualified versus unqualified, it's about dealing with continued examples of bad work. It doesn't matter how many letters you have after your name, there are bad and good agents and it's about how to deal with poor work. This is a very important consultation document and people should think about it carefully and respond." A spokesperson for the ICAEW told us: "In the current economic climate, it's a false economy to not use the services of a qualified accountant. We urge all small businesses to use a qualified accountant."


There were a wide range of responses to the original post, but the discussion generally followed two principle strands; one exploring the content of the document itself and the other expressing views on qualifieds versus unqualifieds. One of the recurring themes was the question of the difference between accountancy and other sectors such as solicitors, both in terms of the qualified/unqualified debate and in terms of the consequences for individuals acting fraudulently or incompetently. Many agreed that accountancy was unique from other sectors in the way it deals with both of these issues and that consultation was needed to ensure that businesses and the public are receiving the best possible service from their accountants and tax advisors.


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