AAT setting the agenda on industry issues at Accountex

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AAT CEO Sarah Beale discussed key concerns for the future of accounting on a panel with ACCA, ICAEW and others.

Last week’s Accountex conference in London brought together accounting specialists, software vendors and regulators to meet, mingle and debate the pressing issues facing the industry in 2023. Among a myriad of discussion groups, one of the panels focused on the big picture – Survive or thrive: state of the profession.

Speaking on a panel of distinguished institute leaders, AAT CEO Sarah Beale pulled no punches on two of the most urgent issues facing professional accounting bodies in a post-Covid world: the impact of unregulated accountants and attracting the next cohort of smart accountants into the profession.

A worrying picture

Beale’s comments on the unregulated question came 18 months into the AAT’s successful Accountable campaign. It first raised the issue after HMRC’s own research confirmed the problem around the “Different ‘standards’ unaffiliated agents said they followed in their day-to-day work”.

With just 4% of unaffiliated agents following the Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation (PCRT), only 18% following HMRC’s standards of tax advice and 45% unaware what the standard actually is, it painted a worrying picture, especially when the same survey showed that four out of five unaffiliated agents do not hold a professional qualification and 29% have no qualifications at all.

Unsurprisingly, addressing the proliferation of unregulated agents remains at the top of Beale’s in-tray, as she explained. “I think the level of unqualified actors is a concern for any profession, and accountancy is not immune from that.” Beale told the audience that although it has been a problem for a while, the pandemic may have exacerbated the issue – although without data on the levels of unregulated advice it is impossible to know the true scale.

Public confidence

But the issue goes beyond whether or not agents are regulated. Beale revealed that in the latest YouGov survey of one thousand people using an accountant, 42% reported having issues with unregulated accountants.

“50% of them had to go and find another professional accountant to put right those errors, and the implications of that matter not just to the economy and the public purse, but also for the profession, since it casts us all in the same light that we don’t want,” she said.

Beale went on to explain addressing the problem was an urgent mission, not only to reassure prospective accountants who might be wary of joining a profession with a standards problem, but also to educate the general public on the importance of getting qualified advice.

As to what represents an effective remedy, Beale said she didn’t support shutting the door on the entire unqualified community. “Instead, let’s help them come in, because people need these careers, they need work and if they’re willing to show the level of competence, the same as everybody else in the profession, then should we not say, ‘We are a growing, open community – come in as long as you meet the same standards for everybody else here’?”

An attractive prospect

Recruiting the next cohort of qualified accountants is a key part of Beale’s remit, and she explained to the audience that the job was already underway: “We’ve seen a 35% growth in our members becoming licensed practitioners over the last five years. That’s raised about 10% since the pandemic,” she said.

Explaining the possible reasons behind the increase, Beale suggested that those following an AAT qualification, “now see it as an opportunity that isn’t a ridiculously long path to get a really meaningful career. And more people are conscious about mental health and a good balance of life. I think the opportunity to have hybrid working suits that.”

She also pointed out the emergence of a new mindset that places greater value on time rather than money, as well as being more likely to adopt an entrepreneurial approach.

“I think at one time, you left school, picked a lane and stayed in it and that was it: your career path was very much mapped out. Nowadays, people are much more likely to say, ‘I want to go and try and do something different. I could do that for myself, I could set up that business’”. And that trend, she concluded, wasn’t just confined to the younger population.

“I think what we’re seeing is career changes throughout the workforce, with people saying ‘That could give me a fabulous professional career and an amazing work-home life balance’. Why wouldn’t you?”

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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