Solo practitioners represent a unique feature of the accountancy profession in the United Kingdom. From the earliest days of practice, one-man firms have served local clients with purpose, dedication and originality.
Their clients often have little knowledge of finance, scant appreciation of reporting requirements, and rely heavily on their accountant to be a general financial and fiscal factotum.
In the U.K., 97 percent of all enterprise is classified as small business. Much of this is local shops, construction concerns, delivery businesses, hotels and restaurants, and, at its largest, small manufacturers and service firms. They are driven by entrepreneurs whose disinclination to pay tax bills and to fill in official forms is legendary.
But that may soon change.
Solo practitioners have mostly either been members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales or the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.
But ICAEW members in solo practice have been declining in recent years. They are training recruits in ever fewer numbers. While ICAEW members in practice span the Big Four, the mid-tier and large regional firms, the ACCA is more prevalent at the local level.
This means that the ACCA has tailored its services to meet the needs of small firms. And it is widely acknowledged to be more proficient than the ICAEW at serving local practitioners. This trend has also reinforced the distance experienced by many local accountants from the ICAEW. While being proud of their qualifications as chartered accountants, they see themselves as increasingly alienated from, and disenchanted with, their professional accounting body.
The solo practitioners are reeling from the triple threat of added compliance burdens, an influx of unqualified accountants taking precious market share, and price pressures.
"It's become a nightmare," revealed Michael Hamment, who operates from the university town of Oxford. "The work used to be a pleasure, but I am getting less and less time to spend on client work. Increasingly, I spend hours filling in forms for the institute and the Inland Revenue [the U.K. equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service]. Recently, the obligations on reporting for smaller businesses have been made more complex, and there is also the impact of the money laundering rules."
Many say that the ICAEW represents the Big Four and has little appreciation of the life of solo practitioners.
The body itself generates some of the new regulation that now infests the lives of small practitioners. Many practitioners spend up to a day-and-a-half of the working week processing red tape. This is time when they are not earning fees. Much of the red tape is government-devised or issued.
Michael Fordyce practices in Hereford, a town bordering Wales. "'I am now an arm of the Inland Revenue, and that wasn't why I became an accountant."
Hamment said he plans to retire early because the red tape has become too demanding.
Wendy Ferguson, who is in Liverpool and works part-time, agreed that the bureaucracy is stifling. "I have a small practice with a limited number of clients, but I still spend half a day a week on what I regard as unnecessary paperwork. For people who have much busier workloads than me, the impact of red tape can be devastating."
In February, a new movement called Practice Assurance will be launched by the ICAEW. This strategy involves visits to individual firms by Practice Assurance teams who comment on procedures and practices such as administrative systems and note-keeping.
The institute sees the program as helpful to firms, as it improves best practice, but some solo practitioners complain that it's intrusive. They argue that Practice Assurance is a sop to regulators after Enron and WorldCom.
One practitioner said: "If we have problems with clients, we deal with them straightforwardly. This scheme has been brought in because of the failures of the big firms."
In January, continuing professional development became mandatory in the U.K. Although self-regulating, members must complete extra paperwork, including career development plans. CPD is widely regarded to be positive, but adds to the deadweight of red tape that is smothering small practice.
Employment regulation consumes time and money. Few solo practitioners employ as many as 10 people. However, the Forum of Private Business estimated that for every 10 employees, owners need an extra one-and-a-half administrators to deal with all the new regulations. This includes stakeholder pensions and social fund obligations, which are administered by the employer, not a government agency.
While hours are lengthening and bureaucracy is growing, there is a new threat to their professional livelihoods. Unqualified accountants are sprouting up all over the country. The professional name accountant is not protected legally. Anyone can set up in business offering accounting or tax services. Qualified accountants complain that the unqualified undercut them and mess up client affairs.
Richard Leighton, who is based in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, said: "This is a growing trend. There appears to be a lot of unqualified practitioners operating in the market here. Local businesses and individuals will often not know the difference between qualified and unqualified practitioners."
He said that it is only when a qualified accountant steps into to pick up the pieces after a bungled assignment that clients realize the difference.
Fordyce said that these bargain-basement operators can afford to be cheaper because they do not need to meet stringent professional and regulatory requirements, and they do not need to keep up to date with technical changes or pay for professional indemnity insurance.
In many areas, there are as many as three times as many unqualified accountants as those with credentials. And chartered accountants believe that the potential damage of this development could be immense.
The extra burdens of unremunerated compliance, mopping up after unqualified accountants and the price pressures of being consistently undercut are taking their toll. The succession - or lack of it - is also a factor driving solo practitioners out of business.
As one accountant put it succinctly, "They have taken the pleasure out of the job."
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