Just what is "a profession"?

The role of social purpose.

What is a profession? Is it just a collective noun for a group of folk who have degrees, earn a lot of money and run a private members club; or does it capture a meaning that is more than the sum of these parts? Does it describe a group of people that does more than is legally required, that aspires to something higher – the public interest perhaps? And what does that really mean in the 21st century?

Well, I think a glimmer of an answer appears in a blog by my own CEO at ICAEW. Referring to The Times’ campaign against tax avoidance that highlighted how some of the wealthiest in our society are able to reduce their tax bill to near zero, Michael Izza wrote "I believe that there is no place for our profession in the creation or maintenance of these sorts of tax schemes". In other words whilst perfectly legal this is not an activity that characterises a profession; it is "beyond the bounds of what is reasonable and responsible tax planning".

I also asked a colleague, open and democratic fellow that I am, "what is a profession?" and she pointed me to a rather good paper in the British Actuarial Journal by C.S. Bellis. Bellis notes three defining characteristics of a profession: knowledge and training; normative elements such as ethics and a commitment to the public good; and belonging to a membership organisation guarantees the first two. 

In my last blog I talked about the parlous state of public trust in business and I would argue that the accountancy profession, rooted as it is in the audit profession, has a purpose that is about building trust in information. More specifically the audit profession has a unique position in the economic space of maintaining the public’s trust in companies’ activities. The financial crisis raised the question in the public mind of where was the audit profession in all of this and what was it doing? After all didn’t we trust them to tell us if these institutions were not performing as we were led to believe?

This has meant a lot of negative press has come the auditors’ way. Of course it is important to have open enquiry into what went wrong and why and to hold those guilty of shameful conduct to account as well as prosecuting criminal activity. This is something that we have been singularly reluctant and slow to do, blaming the system rather than the individuals. (Strangely when our cities broke out in riots a couple of summers ago the courts cranked in to full steam with impressive efficiency to prosecute the individuals – apparently the system played no part here).

All of that being said, it doesn’t get us very far away from being rather like the chorus in Greek tragedy, characterising all the awful things that have happened (usually off-stage) but with no suggestions about what to do about it. For this reason we at ICAEW began an enquiry – to which all are welcome - called Audit Futures (AF). At AF we are asking how the audit profession can be part of the answer to restoring the public’s trust rather than being part of the problem. Implicit in this is a question about what does it mean to be a profession – what is that highest aspiration above and beyond the law that can be aspired to?  Also it invites the question of what does it mean to be a professional? The answer to this must, if it is to meaningful, incorporate a notion of acting in the interests of the public and not the self; it must be about a social purpose.

We expect our doctors, our nurses and our teachers to be driven by more than financial return, why should we not expect the same of our auditors? If we can find an answer around this then yes I do believe we need the professions because then the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability ICAEW

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.