ICAS: 165 years of public purpose
Donald Drysdale sifts through some ICAS history, looking for material on the Institute’s public interest responsibilities and on how tax specialisations have developed.
The first 100 years
As I write this, I am browsing through the Scottish Supplement of ‘The Accountant’ of 26 June 1954, which reported on three days of celebrations commemorating the centenary of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland – now known as ICAS.
It was quite an occasion. In Edinburgh 2,000 people, including representatives of 44 sister accountancy bodies from across the world, joined in festivities which included a service of commemoration and thanksgiving in St Giles’ Cathedral, an international congress in the Usher Hall, and a centenary banquet and centenary ball in the Assembly Rooms.
Meanwhile, overseas members were celebrating at gatherings around the world. Those specifically mentioned in the Supplement included the USA, Southern Rhodesia, Fiji, India, South Africa, Ceylon, Canada and elsewhere.
On the 100th birthday of its first Royal Charter, granted on 23 October 1854, the Institute – the oldest organised body of professional accountants in the world – was clear in its determination to “be vigilant in maintaining those high standards of conduct and skill which our predecessors have set us.”
Turning now to tax, my own interest in this field was influenced strongly by the fact that I began my CA apprenticeship in August 1965 – the very month in which new legislation was enacted introducing corporation tax and capital gains tax with effect from April of that year.
Those new taxes were so far-reaching that it might be tempting to think of 1965 as the dawn of tax specialisation in the UK. However, a somewhat different picture is painted by the centenary book, ‘A history of the Chartered Accountants of Scotland’, published by ICAS in advance of its 1954 celebrations.
As the book records, there was already evidence of a “…tremendous increase in the calls for assistance and advice on taxation matters.” And “…in practically every commercial undertaking, the incidence of taxes in relation to business transactions demands the most carefully considered advice.”
The 1954 book goes on to say: “Many firms of accountants have found it essential that one or more partners should concentrate on the study of income taxation and the larger firms usually have a department specialising in this branch.”
Since the 1960s, tax specialisation has increased, but this was scarcely evident from two follow-up books – ‘Fifth Quarter Century’, published in 1980 to mark 125 years, and ‘ICAS: 150 Years and Still Counting’, published in 2004 to mark 150 years.
Perhaps tax doesn’t feature prominently in the ICAS commemorative books because it is simply one of so many skills which all CAs are expected to have in their armoury. However, for many members – especially among those in public practice – it is often the most sought-after and the most pervasive.
In recent years things have only become more so, as growing complexities in taxes in the UK and overseas have led to the development of a proliferation of individual sub-specialisations within tax – in both practising firms and in-house corporate tax departments.
Complicated tax laws have done wonders for CAs and other professionals, of course, by bringing them new flows of work and therefore welcome sources of income. However, it is arguable that much of the complexity in our tax code operates against the public interest.
ICAS is governed by its Royal Charter, Rules and Regulations, setting out its objectives and designed to ensure that these are met.
These objectives are to:
- maintain and promote the status of the profession of Accountant;
- promote and safeguard the rights and interests of members in all matters affecting the profession;
- uphold and enforce among its members a high standard of efficiency and professional conduct in the interests of the profession and the public generally; and
- give concentrated expression to their opinions upon all questions and laws affecting the business of the profession.
The centenary book narrates the ‘public interest’ objectives of ICAS as they were perceived in 1954 and, in principle, little seems to have changed since then.
In those days, the Institute watched over matters of professional etiquette and discipline; it sought to protect and advance the interests of the accountancy profession as a whole and of Scottish CAs in particular; and it submitted views to Government on subjects with which accountants were concerned.
As a CA and tax specialist today, I see much of the work of the ICAS Tax Board and its Committees being directed towards improving technical and operational aspects of UK central and devolved taxes for the general benefit of all taxpayers, and ensuring that the professional standards expected of members in their tax work are appropriate.
This is echoed by the efforts of Charlotte Barbour, the ICAS Director of Tax, and her team as they work towards improving the way the various tax regimes in the UK operate, seeking technical improvements in tax law and practice.
To protect the public interest in relation to tax, ICAS members are constantly reminded of the importance of integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality, and professional behaviour through guidance contained in Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation (PCRT).
I am in no doubt that ongoing efforts by ICAS to improve the UK tax regimes and maintain appropriate professional standards are fulfilling the intended public interest objectives narrated in the Royal Charter.
In 1954 the then President of ICAS wrote: “We must be constantly alive, not only to the essential requirements of a broadly-based system of education, training and examination, but also to the needs for subsequent specialisation in many fields.”
Today, on its 165th anniversary, ICAS has vastly increased its membership and its global reach. In the meantime, specialisation in narrow fields of expertise is no longer the exception but has become the norm – not only in tax but in other fields of professional work.
There is still an important role for CAs who are general practitioners, or have chosen to be generalists in other ways. Those who assume wider responsibilities – for example as non-executive directors – will probably agree with me that being a competent generalist has itself become a specialisation.
In the meantime, you may still come across some CAs who claim to be proficient in all branches of tax. To achieve such distinction, they need to be either very clever specialists or brilliant team players.
Article supplied by Taxing Words Ltd