Futility rules as ACCA does battle with itself
(Robert Bruse, the Times, 24 February 2000)

ANYONE who treasures the British at their most eccentric and futile would have loved last week's extraordinary general meeting of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. One past president probably set the tone for the whole event when he advanced upon the podium to speak on behalf of the rebels. He clambered up, started his speech, held on to the lectern, found himself falling over backwards and then recovered himself. This meant that his first three words were:  "President, members, whoops."

 That just about summed up the whole event. It was day of great tension. In the overheated
 and packed council chamber, you were surprised to find that there were no paramedics  present. The likelihood of someone expiring of a heart attack was high. The combination of just-about-suppressed anger, frustration and emotional carnage in the air was palpable. One rebel speaker swept down the room, ignoring the microphones among the audience, and headed for the microphone on the officeholders' table up on the stage.  "Please use the microphones in the hall," said the despairing president. She didn't break her stride and her brusque "no" was hissed through gritted teeth.

Inevitably the motion, which called for an independent review of corporate governance, was defeated. At the ACCA, the proxy voting system always defeats rebels, this time overwhelmingly. But the sad thing was that nothing was done to assuage the bitterness being expressed. An array of past presidents and past council members spoke against their alma mater. During most of their speeches Anthea Rose, the ACCA chief executive, who tends to draw most of the rebels' fire, sat there looking up repeatedly with an expression of absolute astonishment, followed by a vigorous shake of her head. One member described her as "intransigent", and then went on to describe recent presidents as "pathetic and pusillanimous".

 There were questions about the sacking of last year's president on the day he was due to take office, about the ill-fated hostile merger bid for CIPFA and CIMA, the public sector and management accounting bodies, about the burgeoning number of overseas students, about furious disputes among the Malaysian branch, about the system of presidential proxy votes, and about a host of other issues simmering away in people's minds. "I am a member of many professional bodies," said one member, "and none of them is so smug as this one." Another calculated that the past three EGMs had cost about £250,000 and said that he would "rather have spent it on something other than hearing this load of rubbish".

 In short, the whole event was hardly one you would have expected at one of the six main British accounting bodies. It was more akin to a long-embattled council in the lower depths of local government in a particularly depressed part of the country. By the end, the two sides were like weary prizefighters leaning against each other to stay upright. And that is the problem. They feed off each other. Neither seems able to move forward in a dignified manner. They always have to come back and take a swift sideswipe at the old opposition.

 For example, the same old battles have erupted anew on another front. Prem Sikka, perennial thorn in the ACCA's side, is standing, again, for council. And there among the extraordinary volume of attacks and hearsay on the website that he compiles is the latest broadside. This time, he claims, he has been barred from issuing a short manifesto because the powers that be object to his making a reference to the website address in it. The squabbles show no sign of abating.

None of this is helped by the claims put forward by the ACCA leadership. George Auger, who is now on the unstable rungs of the presidential ladder, put forward the official line at the meeting. He is a good dependable chap who has had a solid career as an insolvency expert. For years he was a good wicketkeeper in club cricket. He has, as his council members would hope, a safe pair of hands. Yet the speech that he made suggested that the ACCA "has been ahead of all the other accounting bodies in terms of governance and disclosure".

 This is not something that it would be hard to be. Accounting bodies have traditionally not been very good at either disclosure or governance. But the ACCA is by no means ahead. It does operate a culture of keeping things secret. It does not, as the English ICA does, open even part of its council meetings to members and the public, for example. The ACCA, in common with other accounting bodies, needs to concentrate more on accounting matters than on being drawn into
 bitter battles with its members.