Respectability: Is accountancy today a profession or an industry?
What does a request that one of the Big Four be excluded from government work say about our industry?
It is a good bet that when almost everybody reading this article first harboured ambitions to become an accountant, they did so at least in part because it offered a good, solid future in a highly respectable field.
That respectability would become even more apparent when you proudly told others of that ambition. Granny would be over the moon, while the parents of friends who wanted to pursue their dreams to become actors or wheeler-dealer entrepreneurs could be seen looking wistfully into the distance wishing that their children would follow your example.
For goodness sake, even Monty Python proclaimed that accountancy was a reliable profession, if boring, boring, boring.
The accounting industry in days gone by
What has gone wrong? In those days, we all believed that we were entering a peerless profession, now we have become small cogs in what is known as an industry. That is making its own statement about attitudes, especially as the industry is now so cutthroat.
Similarly, those partners of long ago would almost always behave like clergymen (no women back then in either field) and enter into gentlemanly agreements, rather than massively complicated legal contracts designed to protect us against our own clients (not to mention our own failings) and, in doing so, irrevocably changing the nature of the relationship.
Readers can argue about where we have reached on this rather unseemly downhill slide but few are likely to dispute the assertion that the general public regards our “industry” is far less reliable and respectable than their peers would have done 20, 40 or 60 years ago.
Some might suggest that this is merely a difference in perception, rather than a reflection of performance but few would claim that ever-increasing levels of commerciality, ie charging more while giving less, have become increasingly prevalent.
What went wrong?
These musings have been sparked by a letter written by Spotlight on Corruption to the Crown Procurement Service unkindly proposing that EY should be excluded from entering into government contracts for the next three years.
They support their proposition by citing the terms of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, stating “It should also trigger proper consideration of whether the firm is, as a result, a ‘high-risk’ supplier as defined in the government’s Strategic Supplier Risk Management Policy, and whether it can be considered a reliable contractor.”
Many had always assumed that these regulations were set up to attack arms manufacturers who propagated or extended wars in far-flung parts of the world. Or possibly criminal gangs who used bribery to feather their nests but still wished to benefit from lucrative contracts with central government.
It, therefore, seems outrageous that one of the leading lights in our own esteemed profession should be cited as a possible candidate for such a ban.
The state of EY
However, anyone who tracks back through recent articles might begin to wonder whether Spotlight on Corruption might have a point.
This is the firm accused by a whistle-blower on Panorama of behaving unethically and potentially facilitating everything from money-laundering to drug dealing and worse. Recently it hit the headlines following the exposure of a £1.7 billion scandal involving its audit client Wirecard.
EY also found a place in the league table that compared penalties for audit misdemeanours with income from government contracts. Others though, led by Deloitte, far exceeded it on both sides of the dual league table, which might make some wonder whether an EY public procurement ban could be the thin end of the wedge for our industry.
Bearing in mind the reliance that our government now seems to put on EY and other large accountancy practices, the odds are that this request will be kicked into the long grass.
Even so, it should sound a warning to all of us that our once respectable profession has become a rather distasteful industry. To the point where the pride that I used to feel when I told friends and associates of my calling in life begins to seem like an ancient, misguided dream.