General practitioners are arguably the unsung heroes of the accountancy profession. Not only do they hold the hands of businesses and individuals up and down the country, they wade their way through a sea of forms, wrestle with bureaucrats, tussle with the tax man, and try to make sense of the relentless flow of litigation and regulation that threatens, at times, to overwhelm both them and their clients. And they do all this without the support and back-up that big practices enjoy.
But despite the fact there are tens of thousands of these brave souls working in homes, high streets and industrial estates up and down the country, their voices often go unheard as larger firms hog the limelight, the headlines and - some might say - the institute's ear.
Accountancy decided it was time to redress the balance, so we invited a panel of general practitioners to share their views with us on everything from working hours to audits to their endless struggle with red tape.Making ends meet Accountancy: Which services earn you the most money?
Tim Wingham: The small limited companies that get bolted together using Sage software. The difficult ones are the people who come in late, the 31 January people.
Susan Gompels: It's what my clients call their financial psychotherapy.
I do financial reviews looking at where they're going and how they plan their own lives in relation to finance.
John Roberts: Limited companies have been a wonderful invention as far as the government and Revenue & Customs are concerned, and also for us in terms of helping us to make money. Long may it continue.
Alan Lindsey: Giving advice to corporate clients. I find that the most satisfying as well as the most remunerative. I also do a lot of international tax, particularly high-profile clients.
Alan Foxwell: I set up to give an overall personal service to clients, one I couldn't give as a partner in a firm of chartered accountants. Giving advice to clients on selling or expanding their business is more profitable than doing the basic work.
Howard Gross: Specialist tax work and advice on acquisitions and disposals, dealing with Revenue enquiries, outsourced accounts and general business advice. Some small companies still need an audit, but they're very costly to undertake and the risk is much greater due to Practice Assurance, audit regulations and the training of staff.Box ticking Accountancy: Do small clients still want an audit?
Alan Foxwell: Some require audits to satisfy lenders, and others, particularly clubs and societies, to satisfy their articles.
Howard Gross: You can use the audit for added value. For example, if you notice that your client's days for payment have got much longer, you can have a quick word and suddenly the client steps up debt collection, their cashflow improves enormously and you've added value to the work you've done because you've given positive advice on the way forward.
John Roberts: Sometimes companies need a 'name' on the audit report because they want to expand or list on AIM or the stock market. The fact that the people doing the work don't know what they're doing is completely by the by.
Alan Foxwell: It's a fallacy that a big firm of accountants can do an audit better than a small firm. If you know the business, you know the risks. Someone can tick a box to say they've looked at the risk, but that doesn't mean they understand the risk.
Susan Gompels: In the smaller firms, we are by and large prepared to stick our toes in and say: 'This is right.' In the larger firms, it's hard to know who takes that final responsibility.Accountancy: That's one of the advantages of being a small practitioner?
Alan Foxwell: You can make your own judgments, whereas in a big firm you tend to be told what your judgment is going to be.
John Roberts: When I trained, the senior did the file, with help from juniors, then it went to the assistant manager and often straight to the partner. In the small firms, we take responsibility for our work, whereas a partner in a big firm has minions and he doesn't know what they've done.
Alan Foxwell: Partners in a big firm may not have met all the key employees or visited smaller businesses' premises. It is only large clients that bring them prestige.New business Accountancy: How do you generate more business?
Susan Gompels: My only form of expansion has been through recommendation from other clients. It's the only one that works and it's the only one that allows you to choose the clients you want to act for. You don't need brochures and websites.Work-life balance Accountancy: How many hours do you work a week?
Alan Foxwell: If the deadlines are there, you've got to meet them and I will always meet a deadline regardless of how many hours it takes to do that.
Tim Wingham: You could work 24/7. It's never-ending really.
John Roberts: I've got to the stage where if I don't want to do a job, I don't do it anymore. But when you're starting up, you need to build up your practice, so you take whatever you can get and do whatever you have to do.
Susan Gompels: But is taking whatever you can get really a workable system? You end up with a lot of uneconomic clients.
John Roberts: They're the ones who will appreciate you! They're the ones who say: 'Thank you very much. That's very kind of you.'
Howard Gross: I'm not sure that's true.
Susan Gompels: I wonder if we're getting more issues around our 31 January deadline because we are helping clients beat it? We frantically work until midnight and then we fuel the problem.
Howard Gross: That's going to change, because paper returns are going to have to be filed by 31 October.Online filing Accountancy: Does online filing work for you?
Howard Gross: Ironically we found this year that because of the strike that took place we did not go to a tax office for the first time ever.
Everything was filed electronically, everything worked and the poor people at the Revenue who went on strike that day are now certainly out of a job, because there's no need for them.
Alan Lindsey: I haven't delivered a whole bundle of tax returns to the Revenue for seven or eight years now. But every year there have been problems with online filing because there's some glitch in their software somewhere.
This year, for the first time, all the tax returns went through ok. But I've had a demand from the Revenue - nine months after the filing took place - for a PAYE year-end electronic filing. The Revenue claims it had not been filed and I gather I'm not alone in that one. They succeed in one area and then fall down in another.
John Roberts: Online filing is supposed to save paper, but we have to keep a signed copy of the returns that we file.
Howard Gross: We're getting to a stage where technology's moving on and our profession should be considering whether it's necessary to have a signature if you've got an email from a client saying 'Go ahead and file my return'.
Susan Gompels: I'm not sure I would be prepared to take that risk without having had my client actually look at the tax return, because it is their data. We're still depending an awful lot on what they sent us. It's not an audit.
Howard Gross: You've got your own checks and balances by your emails and speaking to the client on the telephone.Unqualifieds Accountancy: Is there a threat to your practice from unqualifieds?
Tim Wingham: I haven't had any clients disappearing off to an unqualified.
I've picked up a lot of clients from unqualifieds. I think the fear is they are generally cheaper and put pressure on us.
John Roberts: The problem we have is when we pick them up, they've had a terrible experience with an accountant and they don't know what the difference is between us and somebody who isn't qualified. Also, we are not one body, are we? We haven't got all the accountants together, saying the same thing. Maybe the government would listen to us then.
Alan Foxwell: If a client leaves you for an unqualified, they are probably not the type of client you are looking to act for.
Howard Gross: There is unfair competition from unqualifieds. Most of them don't have the professional indemnity insurance, they don't have the training, they don't have CPD and they don't have the costs of running a practice we have, so they're starting at a much lower base. And they seem to want to charge lower prices.
Susan Gompels: Like minicabs.
Howard Gross: There are good minicabs.
Susan Gompels: There are good unqualifieds too, to be honest.
Howard Gross: But there's nobody to complain to if an unqualified really makes a mess of it. If it's a qualified accountant, people can go to the professional body and they can complain and they do. We pay the price if we make a mistake or get it wrong. But it's unfair competition because there's nobody to go to for the unqualified. And if they do get it wrong, they don't compensate because they don't have PI.
Susan Gompels: This is an old chestnut that's been around for 30 years, the question of whether we should protect the term 'accountant'. I'm nervous as to whether we can do anything about it.
Howard Gross: The Irish have done something about it. And here solicitors are protected, doctors are protected, dentists are protected and pharmacists are protected. Why shouldn't we - who have had all this training - not be protected? The clients do not understand the difference between the different accounting bodies.Accountancy: Do you agree that you would like to see the term protected?
Alan Lindsey: I think it would make a lot of sense. We have tried before.
Maybe now the government is ready to listen.Networking Accountancy: Being a sole or a small practitioner can be lonely. How do you network?
Alan Lindsey: When I started out, I would have been at an advantage if I could have accessed a whole range of departments from a library to a secretary. Suddenly I was the debt collector, the tea boy … and everything else. I realised that if I was in this position there must be others like me so I formed a small practitioners discussion group. It provides a whole network of people who you can phone with a problem and say 'What do you think about this?'
Susan Gompels: The whole network of general practice is one of the most generous sources of exchange, and I think few people will understand that level of generosity. You need to know when you do not know; and you need to know to whom to turn reliably for help when you do not know.
Howard Gross: Networking has been done through the district societies, quite successfully, for years. But we have an ageing community. The days of the good old-fashioned general practitioner are long gone. There are a few of us left, but there are not the young people coming through anymore.
All the figures show it.
Alan Lindsey: The professional body didn't see in 1975 that young people were going down the certified route. Now the young people are all certified accountants and most of the smaller firms are certified.
Howard Gross: Succession planning is a real problem with an ageing population of chartered accountants who are in practice. Where are the young ones to take over from us? They're not there.
Susan Gompels: The real problem, I believe, is that our institute has missed a trick. The Royal College of General Practitioners was not created in a responsive way. The General Practitioner Board is dead, the General Practitioner Panel is gone and I am struggling to know where I belong apart from getting a Practice Alert.
Howard Gross: Small practitioners are supposed to be helped by the Practice Advisory Board, which has been a bit slow off the mark.
Alan Foxwell: I pay my institute fees in order to keep practising and that's it. And they go up every year.
Howard Gross: There's some good news on the horizon. The new ACA comes out later this year, which will solve a lot of the training problems we've had for years and allow smaller firms to train.Succession Accountancy: Have you thought about who would succeed you in your portfolio of work?
Susan Gompels: It's a question of keeping an eye out for that sort of person or persons or an organisation into which you feel your clients might fit.
Howard Gross: I find it astonishing how many young members are going into banking and insurance. If they're going in that direction and they can see there's much bigger money to be earned in the City, why are they going to want to come and work in a small practice and earn the small amounts some small practitioners earn?Institute Accountancy: Do you get value for money out of the ICAEW?
Howard Gross: As an institute we're not very good at telling our members what we can do for them. We run many services within our institute, which our members take advantage of, but could take more advantage of. There are the faculties, particularly the Tax Faculty, which is excellent. You've also got the specialist interest groups, the enquiry support service, and the library, which is fantastic. The other good news is we now have a journal called Accountancy, which goes to all the membership.
Alan Foxwell: As a sole practitioner, I would like a short and sweet letter as to what services we can get from the money we pay to the institute.
I've got my own work and what the institute does passes me by.
Susan Gompels: What about people having to pay for everything they get?
If you join a special interest group, each time it is an extra pay ticket.
Howard Gross: I raised that on council the last time we discussed subscriptions.
I asked for comparisons between all the professional bodies, including all the costs that members pay on average to belong to the faculties.
I will continue to press to get it so we can make a fair comparison between all the bodies.
Alan Lindsey: I think we came out well on the comparison so far as it went. It's difficult to get the information from all the bodies.
Susan Gompels: If you add it up and you're a member of the Tax Faculty and the Audit Faculty, a member of a special interest group and then you have to pay your Practice Assurance, you're talking four figures before you've put pen to paper.Regulation Accountancy: Is red tape a big problem?
Alan Foxwell: It's not just a problem for us. Clients spend extensive management time on red tape. They now have to employ expensive specialists in areas such as HR, as legislation has become so complex.
Howard Gross: More and more of us are having to employ consultancy groups to help us with HR and health and safety. Now that risk assessments have come in, I don't think a lot of members appreciate how much risk they face.
Alan Lindsey: The whole area of hiring and firing is very tricky. I have to talk to my clients to make sure they're following the right processes.
Susan Gompels: We've now got a lot of our own regulation internally as set by the institute. But that has also become burdensome without apparent quid pro quo.
Howard Gross: Practice Assurance is a friendly approach and those that have had it would say they're getting helpful advice, as opposed to the old regime when it was very, very prescriptive and 75% of firms were criticised, effectively leading to audit regulation. Our institute criticised its own membership, which was a big mistake.
John Roberts: Everything they've picked on has been wrong. They used a hammer to crack a nut.
Alan Foxwell: What additional qualifications do these Practice Assurance people have to tell us about how to run our business?
Howard Gross: They're trained to do their job, but it is early days.
If they see things you can do to improve your practice, they can tell you that to help you. You may not agree with them, but you don't have to do what they say.
Alan Foxwell: I'm much more willing to listen to someone who has had their own business than someone who has come into a job, been trained for a couple of weeks and then thinks they know how to run a business.The Revenue Accountancy: Is the Revenue sympathetic to small practitioners?
Alan Foxwell: No. Nor to small clients.
Howard Gross: It's not sympathetic to taxpayers.
John Roberts: The call centre is only good for certain things. It's no good for answering technical queries.
Alan Foxwell: In the past you could actually talk to the right people to get an issue cleared up. Now you have to write a letter and wait months to get it processed. There are so many things that should be cleared up easily through one tax professional talking to another.
Susan Gompels: There is a huge willingness within certain parts of the Revenue to listen. What is so hard for the Revenue at the moment is it is undergoing an extraordinary sea change in every department, with a haemorrhage of huge numbers in certain areas. And the people who are trying to do the work - with experience, with know-how, with sensitivity, with judgment - are being slowly taken out of the system, and we as agents have no points of direct contact.
Alan Foxwell: I'd like to give business's view from the ground. It does all the work under self-assessment of calculating tax liabilities. Meanwhile the Revenue looks for things that are wrong. It has extensive powers of investigation and is purely looking for extra money. It picks up every minor error and doesn't understand commercial necessities. It also starts company investigations nearly two years after the financial year end, looks at directors' personal bank accounts and expects the client to remember why he received £200 many years before.
Alan Lindsey: They think that everybody is writing every single detail down and that it's a bad thing if you don't remember. I said to one: 'Do you remember where you were on 13 March 2002?'
Susan Gompels: There's a huge pressure on the Revenue.
Howard Gross: But that doesn't help the small practitioner and it's not the small business's fault. The irony is, if you go back to the good old-fashioned VAT inspections, they would go round to the client and the client would know they were coming and they'd know they had to get it right and there wasn't a problem. Now the Revenue is fed up with knowing there are people outside the system who don't pay any tax and get away with it. That is a real, real problem.
John Roberts: The black economy is getting bigger and bigger and bigger with eastern European labour coming in. You're going back to the situation where people are picked up in the morning, taken off in a van and they say 'Hire me and my brother will work for nothing.'
Alan Foxwell: But the Revenue doesn't appear to be succeeding in tackling this problem. It's easier to investigate businesses that keep good records.Accountancy: Any other points?
Alan Lindsey: There has always been a tension between our institute and the small practitioner. I think it is important there is a proper structure where practising members can get access to the institute both for enquiries and also representation in terms of ideas and concerns.
I'm a bit worried whether the new structure is actually going to achieve that.
The roundtable was chaired by Accountancy managing editor Lesley Bolton. It was written up and edited by news editor Sally Percy
Alan Foxwell is a sole practitioner and principal of Foxwell & Co, based in Bromley, Kent. He qualified with medium-sized practice Temple Gothard and made partner at the firm, which later merged with Touche Ross.
In 1996 he started up Foxwell & Co, which specialises in corporate and personal tax, accounting, auditing and business start-ups and disposals.
Susan Gompels OBE qualified with Singleton Fabian (now part of BDO Binder Hamlyn) and is principal of her own chartered accountancy practice specialising in financial and taxation services for a client base largely made up of medical practitioners. She was an ICAEW council member for 20 years and is now a member of the institute's disciplinary committee.
Howard Gross is chief executive of Gross Klein, a three-partner firm with offices in London and Peterborough. He trained in medium and small-sized firms and is a general practitioner with experience in audit, tax and financial services. Howard is an ICAEW council member, and he sits on the institute's SME liaison panel and its general practitioner panel.
Alan Lindsey has been a sole practitioner for the past 28 years, having previously worked in merchant banking, management consultancy and industry.
He specialises in taxation, including international tax, and business and financial advice. He has sat on the ICAEW council since 1988 and was a founder member and former chairman of the North London branch of the London District Society.
John Roberts is a partner of Roberts & Co, a two-partner practice based in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. He trained as an accountant with Hughes Allen, which later became part of MacIntyre Hudson, and Stoy Hayward. After a spell in industry, John went into partnership with his brother and they now act for around 750 small clients.
Tim Wingham is a sole practitioner and the principal of Kempton Emsden & Co, based in Bromley, Kent. He qualified at a small London firm and then moved to Deloitte Haskins & Sells. Tim worked in industry in the 70s and 80s and then bought his practice in 1991. He has around 80 limited company and 200 personal tax clients. Tim sits on the ICAEW's sole practitioners' consultation panel.
Accountancy will be holding future roundtables on finance directors and mid-tier firms. If you are interested in attending either of these, please emailor call us on 020 8247 1379
The roundtable took place at the Sofitel St James hotel. www.sofitelstjames.com.