President wins but rebels fight on

 By Lucinda Kemeny, Accountancy Age, 24 Feb 2000, p. 16-17.

Anthony Thomas and fellow ex-council member Tony Cruse were overwhelmingly defeated at last week's ACCA extraordinary general meeting which they had called to challenge the corporate governance structures in the association.  But while the vote was clear cut, the issues the meeting raised were anything but.

Thomas and Cruse, who led a group of 114 ACCA rebels in calls for a full review of ACCAs corporate governance procedures, were defeated by a margin of more than ten to one.  In total, just 772 members backed their motion, while 7,648 voted against and 35 abstained.

The results of the postal poll were waiting on the seats of members as they walked into the council chamber.  But the certainty of the result did not prevent heated exchanges between the two sides.  The margin of defeat among those present - who were polled after the debate - was narrower, with just 31 against and 23 voting for the proposal.

Several members present had awkward questions for the executive, including chief executive Anthea Rose and president John Brockwell.  Most under fire was the delegated proxy vote system that delivered the comprehensive victory to the executive.

Under ACCA rules, members can elect to delegate their vote to another member, and many speakers attacked the system as outdated in a modern professional body.

'If one person receives a significant number [of proxy votes] that person can influence, if not determine, the composition of council; said former council member Patricia Carruthers.  She added: 'What matters is that the block vote is an outdated and discredited phenomenon'.

ACCAs vice president, George Auger, acknowledged these concerns and said that ACCA - through a taskforce that lie is chairing - was already looking at the issue of votes. However, he
 added: 'It would not be right to change the options of voting at least for now.'

 But others at the meeting believed that the problems with ACCA run deeper than the simple issue of proxy votes. Professor Prem Sikka of Essex University, a long-standing critic of the ACCA leadership, attacked the association's claims to be a modern organisation. 'We are told that we are a global organisation but when was there an officeholder from outside of the UK?, he asked. 'None of this suggests that the ACCA is modern'.

Roger Godin, a member who said he willingly identified himself as a signatory to the rebel proposal, accused the association of smugness and self-satisfaction in its statements about global ambitions.  'ACCA', he said, does not influence the world.'

In a carefully-worded speech, Godin also said that the heart of the association's difficulties lie with the sheer apathy of the membership. 'ACCA is run by apathy.  Less than 20% [of the membership] took the trouble to fill in the form,' he said. He added that he believed many members failed to vote because of suppressed anger about the direction of the association.

Brockwell disagreed with this analysis.  Speaking soon after the vote was announced, he said: 'Members do not want to put the clock back; they want ACCA to continue to move forward, to be businesslike and customer-focused: he said.  'They want a modem body which delivers quality service and support when they need it, and representation and recognition to add value to their qualification.

'Council will now get back to the issues which are of real concern to all but a tiny minority of members so that ACCA continues to move forward in a positive direction.

Brockwell received loud and wholehearted support from nay of those present. In an angry speech Harold Beardsley attacked those who had called the egm, which he said was a waste of  time and money and 'sour grapes' on the part of the  proposers of the vote.

'I would rather have spent the £250,000 on something better than coming here to talk about a lot of rubbish', said Beardsley.

It has been estimated that the egm costs ACCA around £80,000 - and three have been held three recent years.

Other simply stood up to praise the association for its achievements and growth around the world. One speaker went so far as to lay down the gauntlet to the rebels by announcing that he had put forward a motion, to be considered at the next annual general meeting, to increase the numbers of votes required to order an egm.

Every speaker was politely clapped, whether they argued for or against the motion, demonstrating just divided opinions were.

Acknowledging defeat after the vote had been announced, Thomas questioned the future of ACCA, in light of its unsuccessful 1998 bid to persuade members of CIMA and CIPFA to merge with it, and prospective growth in the areas of the world such as the US. 'I feel members will need more support from their professional association in future and the time has come for full independent regulation', he said.

Thomas left the stand with a promise that, despite the rebels' defeat, the debate would continue. 'ACCA has much to think about. I have acted in the best interests of members and have given a wake-up call', he said. 'If you think that the conclusion of this meeting will bring the end of the debate on openness and transparency you are wrong and you on council are at the beginning of the road and not at the end'.