How regulation works for other professions

Acupuncture is popular in the UK. According to a British Medical Association survey, half of doctors have prescribed the 2,000-year-old Chinese therapy.

Yet, would people be so keen to try it if they knew just anyone could set up shop as an acupuncturist and start sticking needles in them?

While the thought of letting untrained strangers insert metal pins into your skin might make some feel squeamish, nonetheless it’s still legal. Likewise, the idea that an untrained accountant could be managing your finances is equally horrifying, but it’s still permissible by law…

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Accountants and acupuncturists are just two of an ever-thinning list of professions in the UK that are allowed to self-regulate.

Fifty years ago, it was a different story. Doctors, bankers, the police – all were trusted to regulate themselves with no statutory backing. Gradually, these industries adopted regulation to ensure high standards and best practice, reducing the opportunities for rogue or criminal practitioners to cause havoc. 

With AAT recently calling to regulate the sector, here we take a look at those professions that have embraced regulation and how they’ve been transformed…

Regulated professions

Solicitors

Regulatory history: solicitors’ conduct has been subject to review and possible prosecution since the early 19th century, and for over a hundred years this oversight has had statutory backing. The Law Society had the power to discipline dishonest solicitors, investigate their accounts and issue practicing certificates. However, following a report into the UK’s legal services by City grandee Sir David Clementi, it was recommended that the regulatory and representative responsibilities of professional bodies be separated. It led to the creation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which has regulated the profession ever since, independently of the Law Society (which continues to represent solicitors in England and Wales).

Benefits: The SRA aims to work in the public interest. The SRA requires solicitors to be qualified, competent, behave ethically and follow its rules regarding professional conduct and client care. You can only call yourself a solicitor if you’ve been authorised by the organization, which must come as some reassurance to the public who can check the SRA’s Solicitors Register to find out whether somebody is likely to scam them or not.

The UK’s 150,000 solicitors are also required to have professional indemnity insurance (PII) which means their clients should be protected if they screw up. They must also contribute to the SRA’s Compensation Fund, which reimburses victims of fraud by dishonest solicitors. There’s also an independent Legal Ombudsman which deals with complaints from the public about solicitors.

If any solicitor breaches the SRA’s principles, the body has the power to impose disciplinary sanctions (fines) or even close their firm.

In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, the safety net provided by the SRA enabled it to crack down on a number of embezzlement cases where solicitors attempted to borrow money from their clients’ accounts.

The SRA has also been involved in some high-profile cases in recent years. In 2019, it struck off Labour MP Fiona Onasanya as a solicitor for lying to avoid a speeding conviction.

Education is also set to be boosted by this tighter regulation. In September, the SRA will introduce a new ‘super-exam’ for trainee solicitors which requires two years of work experience, and is designed to ensure solicitors all meet the same standard once they’re admitted.  

The regulation isn’t perfect though. The SRA doesn’t have a cap on fees, meaning customers can still be overcharged by solicitors. Also, there are legal activities such as will-writing services and advice for divorce and intellectual property law, which remain unregulated, showing that regulation is an ever-evolving process.

But regulation – and consumer protection – is still a long way ahead of the accountancy sector.

Pharmacists

Pre-regulation: Obviously, administering drugs and other medicines to the general public without a licence is a very dangerous idea. Luckily, the Medicines Act 1968 makes it a criminal offence for somebody to call themselves a ‘pharmacist’ or set up a ‘pharmacy’ unless they’re legally allowed to do so under British law.

How regulation has changed the sector: Today the industry is regulated by the independent General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) which protects the health of patients by registering pharmacy professionals, a guarantee that they are qualified and competent. Pharmacies are also regulated to ensure they meet GPhC’s standards. It’s a criminal offence for anybody not on the GPhC’s register to call themselves a pharmacist.

The GPhC is also an effective watchdog; during the pandemic it made the news for warning pharmacies not to hike prices for hand sanitiser and face masks.

In recent years, the GPhC’s regulatory powers have been challenged by the rise in popularity of online pharmacies. It’s been estimated around 2m people in Britain buy prescription drugs online. However, many online pharmacies are unregistered, putting people’s health at risk. To help combat this, in 2019 the GPhC announced new safety rules, which meant that patients would need a consultation before ordering prescription-only drugs. It also put processes in place so online pharmacists can carry out identity and address checks.

Healthcare professionals

Pre-regulation: In 2003, the Health Professions Council (renamed the Health and Care Professions Council in 2012; HCPC) was set up in the wake of a public inquiry into the 1990s’ Bristol baby heart scandal (where babies died at high rates after heart surgery), which called for an overarching regulatory body to oversee the sector. Even though healthcare was regulated before, it was somewhat fragmented: with medics only answerable to their individual professional bodies.

Today HCPC regulates 15 professions that provide health and care services. Doctors, dentist, nurses and opticians are supervised by their own regulatory bodies (e.g. the Nursing and Midwifery Council or General Dental Council), all overseen by the Professional Standards Authority.

How regulation has changed the sector: By becoming more patient-centric.

Today, patients are more involved in decisions about their treatment and care, there’s more transparency surrounding medics’ performances, plus a greater focus on clinical safety. The HCPC has established CPD for healthcare professionals so they keep their skills up to date. Coordination has also been enhanced by uniting healthcare professionals as disparate as chiropodists, hearing aid dispensers and paramedics under one umbrella organisation.

If somebody wants to check whether their GP has passed their exams, or keeping up to date with the latest developments in medicine, they can check the General Medical Council’s register.

“We believe that there is great value and benefit of having protected titles because fundamentally it means we can protect the public and maintain public confidence in the professions we regulate,” HCPC says. “We do this by setting standards of education, conduct and proficiency for those professionals who wish to use any of our titles. We believe that the regulation of professions and protected titles is also beneficial to the professionals who practice under them.

Unregulated professions

Surveying

Similar to accountancy, ‘surveyor’ isn’t a protected title. As such, somebody who has scant knowledge of the subject can set themselves up as a surveyor. By contrast, a chartered surveyor will have qualifications, experience and be regulated by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). A RICS Complaints Handling Procedure is on hand for any customers who wish to gripe about their chartered surveyor, while any report produced by a chartered surveyor is backed up by an RICS policy of professional indemnity insurance (PII).

Counselling and psychotherapy

Alarmingly, anybody can operate as a therapist, psychotherapist or counsellor in the UK. Indeed, one BBC investigation last year found that untrained people are offering services as psychotherapists and counsellors using qualifications completed via cheap online courses for as little as £13. It’s led to fears that vulnerable people with serious mental illnesses are being exploited by unaccredited charlatans doling out false advice via their webcams. There are several psychotherapy bodies in the UK, such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), but membership is voluntary.

How you can help

Last November, HMRC floated the idea of mandatory PI insurance for tax advisers. But to champion regulation, and really raise standards, it needs to gather more evidence, including from accountants. AAT, therefore, invites members to share their experiences.

You can help in two ways:

With your help, AAT will be able to compile a dossier, which we will share with HMRC and MPs.

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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