Some kind of regulation is important for all skilled professions. Someone must ensure that professionals have the qualification they say they do. And even more basically, someone must create the training standards for those qualifications to ensure that professionals can actually do their job well.
Training is not the end of the story either. Someone must oversee professionals to check that they are actually doing a good job. For self-regulated professions, such as accountancy, having an authority that can investigate customer complaints is essential for public trust.
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Who regulates accountants?
At the highest level, accountancy in the UK is regulated by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). Aside from overseeing the profession broadly, the FRC also works closely with the government to create corporate governance standards.
Unconnected to the government are the ‘professional accountancy bodies’. Unlike the FRC, which deals with the broad strokes of policy and planning, these bodies work with accountants directly. The FRC recognises six of these bodies as being responsible for overseeing chartered accountants, namely:
The ACCA was formed in 1904, with the aim to allow more open access to the profession than was offered by ICAEW and ICAS at the time. In 1909, they were the first professional accountancy body to admit a female member.
The ACCA is a truly global accountancy body, with 241,000 members and 542,000 students across 178 countries. Members hold the qualification of Chartered Certified Accountant.
Established in 1888, CAI now represents 31,000 members, including roughly 1900 members overseas. The Irish Chartered Accountancy qualification is fully recognised by the dominant accountancy body in the US (AICPA), one of the few finance and accountancy qualifications to have such valuable recognition.
CIMA awards qualifications to management accountants, who partner with a company’s management to create planning and performance management systems, using their financial expertise to help create an organisation’s business strategy.
CIMA training does not include audit, and members with only a CIMA qualification therefore cannot perform an audit.
CIPFA touts itself as the only professional accountancy body in the world dedicated exclusively to public finance. The FRC revoked the recognition of CIPFA as an audit qualifying body in 2017, meaning it cannot authorise its 14,000 members to perform audits.
The ICAEW was formed in 1880, and currently has over 198,000 members in 147 countries. The institute is also a founding member of Chartered Accountants Worldwide (CAW), a global collective that works to support and promote the role of chartered accountants.
The ICAS is the world’s first professional body of chartered accountants, having received its Royal Charter in 1854. Since the mid-1990s, ICAS has also trained students living in England and Wales, which puts it in competition with ICAEW. ICAS currently has around 23,000 members and trains around 3,700 students.
What do accountancy bodies do?
The professional bodies set out the training and exams which candidates must pass in order to work as chartered accountants. They each award their own specific qualifications which differ in the details, but all must also conform to international standards of accountancy.
As previously mentioned, the professional bodies must also investigate public complaints and ensure that their members are performing work to the highest standards. In addition, these bodies do important work providing support, life-long training, and advocacy for their accountants.
How do they compare?
All six of these accountancy bodies are well-respected in the UK and aim for the highest international standard. That said, they will still differ in terms of the areas they focus their training, their membership numbers, and which global organisations they partner with.
The most important difference is that only accountants from four of these six are legally authorised to perform audits. Accountants with only a CIMA or CIPFA qualification are not authorised to perform audits.
Below, we’ll compare them using statistics made available by the FRC in its 2021 Accountancy Profession Report.
As we can see from the graph below, ACCA has the most total members by a decent margin. However, this is for members all over the world. If we look at members in the UK and ROI, shown by the sections in yellow, ICAEW takes the lead. In addition, while CIMA falls far behind ACCA in global numbers, they come a close second for UK and ROI members.
These numbers suggest that the ACCA qualification is best for working overseas. This is a bit misleading though. The ACCA’s large global membership is likely more to do with the fact that ACCA trains accountants all over the world.
Meanwhile, CIPFA public finance training will be more specific to the UK, and likely makes working outside its borders harder.
All of these qualifications train accountants in a broad range of skills. However, CIMA and CIPFA do focus on certain financial fields, which affects where their members end up working.
Unsurprisingly, CIPFA has the most members working in the public sector. Similarly, it makes sense to see that CIMA has the highest percent of members working in Industry & Commerce. It is less likely for CIMA accountants to work in their own practices as they are trained to work inside other businesses.
The other four qualifications have nearly identical membership numbers across sectors, split between Working in Practice and Industry & Commerce.
Most accountancy bodies strive towards internationally recognised standards. The more they conform to international standards, the more the public can trust that they train competent and ethical accountants.
All six of the UK bodies we have been discussing label themselves as ‘global’. But the best way to evaluate their standards is to check which umbrella organisations they are a part of.
The first relevant umbrella is the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies (CCAB). This is a UK organisation which coordinates the major accountancy bodies in the UK. All six major bodies were a part of the CCAB until 2011 when CIMA left the organisation.
Another relevant umbrella is Chartered Accountants Worldwide (CAW), which brings together accountancy bodies from 13 countries. These include ISCA from Singapore and SAICA from South Africa.
But the leading global organisation pushing for excellent, international standards is the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). IFAC represents 180 professional accountancy bodies across 135 countries. That totals more than 3 million accountants worldwide!
Membership to IFAC requires high standards of training and work, and is an indicator of a top-tier accountancy body.
How do I find out if my accountant is qualified?
Professional accountancy bodies often provide online databases listing registered members. If you’d like to verify an accountant’s qualification, you’ll need to ask them which body they are a part of.
You may be able to tell just from their title – Certified Chartered Accountants (CCA) are ACCA members, and Certified Global Management Accountants (CGMA) are CIMA members. However ICAS, ICAEW and CAI members all hold the title Chartered Accountant.
Here are links to each of the online directories, which you can search using your accountant’s name:
Where can I submit a complaint about my accountant?
- The FRC stresses that you should always reach out to the accountant or their firm first. The firm employs the accountant, and it is primarily their responsibility to handle any misconduct. Professional bodies even provide standard forms online which you can use to submit your complaint to the accountant.
But if the accountant or firm has not resolved your complaint in four weeks, their professional body will take up the case. The bodies will each have their complaint forms online, along with instructions on how to submit them. Here are links to the complaints web pages for each of the accounting oversight bodies:
Please note that accountancy bodies can only investigate complaints that have to do with an individual’s actions while providing accounting-related services. They also cannot handle complaints regarding an Insolvency Practitioner. You must submit those complaints to the Insolvency Service via its online form.
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