Protecting the title ‘accountant’ would be counter-productive

Oct 14, 2010 | Business Strategy

Although qualified accountants are aware that anyone can call themselves an ‘accountant’ I find that very few ‘real’ people appreciate this fact. They tend to assume accountants are like dentists, doctors and solicitors. If only that were the case!

It is precisely because of this confusion that various groups of accountants campaign to secure protection of the description ‘accountant’.  The arguments in favour of this are made strongly, vociferously and repeatedly.  And, I suggest, short-sightedly. The proponents seem unaware of the wider consequences that a successful campaign would bring.

My alternative view is borne of many discussions with members of the public in connection with the Tax Advice Network. I quickly realised that that most non-accountants assume that all accountants are tax advisers as the words are thought to be synonymous.

Leaving aside company directors, why does anyone typically appoint an accountant? Is their main concern to have a decent set of accounts? Or are most people more interested in obtaining help and advice as regards their tax returns and tax planning? Private investors, the retired and many other clients do not even have accounts in the conventional sense. Yet still the majority of such taxpayers turn to accountants for help. With apologies to the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), the concept of a ‘Chartered Tax Adviser’(CTA) as distinct from an ‘Accountant’ has yet to enter the public consciousness.

I cannot imagine that members of the CIOT would want or ever agree to describe themselves as ‘accountants’.  Equally there would be an uproar if CTAs were precluded from completing tax returns and advising on tax matters.  There’s also the Association of Tax Technicians (ATT) which has just celebrated its 21st birthday. They would be equally disenfranchised. No one is arguing that they should call themselves accountants. But equally no one is arguing to restrict use of the term ‘tax adviser’.

So what would happen if only qualified members of approved accountancy bodies could call themselves ‘accountants’?

Quite simply, unqualified accountants would promote their services (more accurately) as ‘Tax Advisers’. The public would then quickly become much more familiar with the distinction between an Accountant and a Tax Adviser. And given the choice between going to a specialist in preparing accounts or one specialised in advising on tax, which will they choose to appoint?

I am convinced therefore that if the campaign to ‘protect’ use of the title ‘Accountant’ were ever to be successful, it would be largely counter-productive. Unless, at the same time, the term ‘Tax Adviser’ was restricted such that it could only be adopted by those who are members of an approved accountancy, tax or legal body. And that’s even less likely to happen than restricting who can claim to be an Accountant.

Simply stopping unqualified accountants preparing accounts etc would not prevent them working on tax returns and giving tax advice.  Limiting use of the term of ‘Accountant’ would lead to an inevitable increase in understanding as to the differences between accountants and tax advisers  And if that happens I fear that qualified accountants would lose more than they gain.

What do you think?

This is an updated version of a piece I posted on this blog in July 2008.

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