Accountant and accountability are two words that look very similar, and which for an accountant in practice are irrevocably linked – and rightly so.
Accountants in practice, unlike any other accountants, are engaged by businesses, individuals and organisations for myriad reasons, and on equally myriad terms of engagement. There is only one strand that runs through every engagement and every client and that’s accountability, or put another way, responsibility.
We as accountants are accountable to our clients, each and every one of them. We work and we render our fees and our fees reflect the value we place on the work we have done. If the client is happy they settle and everyone is happy. This always assumes that the work we have done is correct and stands scrutiny, not by the uninitiated but by our peers. That is the very essence of accountability.
As I type this we are just beginning to see the signs of coming out of lockdown and the new post-Covid world beckons. Only then will we see what the term ‘new normal’ actually means for us, our staff, our clients, our families, our country and the world as a whole. But one thing I guarantee is that we as accountants will still be accountable.
There is no free ride for us in the world of compliance and there never has been nor will there be free rides in the supposed nirvana that is the ‘advisory practice’.
When I give my clients advice on their accounts and the tax due thereon, I’m accountable. When I give advice on tax matters or vat issues I’m accountable and I weigh up every bit of advice against a backdrop of potential financial consequences if I’m wrong.
It’s what we do, we’re accountants and we’re accountable. Yes, we would love to pontificate about all manner of issues without fear of retribution. Yes, we’d love to make a living handing out great dollops of thought-provoking insights that are not capable of verification or examination – but we leave that sort of thing to the phalanx of consultants and strategists that strut their stuff all over social media and inhabit the world of the podcast and webinar, being congratulated by even more consultants as if in a family WhatsApp group. They aren’t accountable to anyone and can and often do ply their trade without fear of censure or repercussion.
But we are accountable and when we are held to account we would like to be able to stand or fall on our own merits. But, recently, we had a situation where HMRC decided that the work our clients wanted us to do, the work that they pay for and are happy to pay for, the work we wanted to do for them, could not be done by us as their accountant.
They decided that the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) was not for accountants, those self-same accountants that weeks earlier had given themselves stubby figures typing in thousands of job furlough scheme claims for their clients, to make sure they received the help they needed to keep paying their employees.
Why did HMRC act in this way? Well, we weren’t actually given a reason that was verifiable, were we? We were waved away with thinly veiled distain, them telling us it would get the funds into our clients’ hands quicker without our involvement and the possibility that only the taxpayer could say they had been adversely effected.
Both are a nonsense and why they chose this course of action is only known to themselves. But what they did do was not cut the cord of accountability, which they think we may have wanted; to use the words of one member, “they have turned us into a Citizens Advice centre”, with the problem that the time spent to explain what was required would have been far less than actually doing what they wanted us to do.
Accountants are accountable to their clients – or only when HMRC decide so it seems.
• Tony Margaritelli Chair, ICPA