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By Jason Piper, tax and business law manager, ACCA

History tells us that if communities are going to grow beyond a particular size then they will have to rely upon a level of infrastructure spending which can only be provided by the state. Philanthropy and altruism, on the part of private resource owners, get us only so far when it comes to providing sufficient quality and quantity of the pure public goods needed to support the sort of society that has developed over the last few thousand years.

There’s a lot of debate internationally at the moment on whether you can ‘tax yourself into prosperity’ with opinion clearly divided on whether it is possible. At one level, the concept seems to be nonsense. Taxation diverts privately controlled resources into state hands. Simply moving funds from one pot to another like this can’t possibly increase the overall level of funds available, can it?

It is what the various controllers of this revenue might do with those resources if placed in their hands that makes all the difference. After all, a bucket full of water can be left to stagnate by someone with no interest in gardening, or taken by a green-fingered neighbour and used to water their crops. By the same token, if a government can clearly identify resource owners who aren’t generating prosperity with their funds and take it from them to be put to some other use which might enhance prosperity, then it is possible that the tax system could be a mechanism towards that end. (nb that’s a really big “if” on identifying who can best use resources, and it’s keeping a lot of economists busy trying to work out how, or even whether, we could do it).

Taxation is an idiosyncratic and asymmetric process. At its core, it is about taxpayers more or less (mostly less) voluntarily surrendering resources which they could have used directly for their own benefit, to be used instead ‘for the benefit of society.’ That means clear parameters have to be created to help guide policymakers when they’re exercising this unique power, and perhaps even more importantly, to evaluate their success after the event.

Whether we agree with what a particular policy is trying to achieve is an individual value judgement. Regardless of this individual view, we can form an objective picture of whether the policy has been executed effectively, and measure the impact of the changes on the tax system.

When evaluation is done, changes should be assessed on the three core tenets of the tax system – simplicity, certainty and stability. While there is likely to be some compromise on at least one of those factors in any new measures, policymakers need to understand why they are proposing the changes, and what they could do differently to ameliorate any negative impacts without diluting the ultimate policy impact.

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By Jason Piper, tax and business law manager, ACCA

Shortly before disappearing under the avalanche of consultations, discussion papers and reviews that have been spawned by Summer Budget 2015, I managed to grab copies of the four offshore evasion condocs and have a read through. They make up an interesting complementary suite of proposals with some common threads but also some interesting differences.

The proposals all come from the same team, who clearly (shock horror) talk to each other about what they’re trying to achieve and how best to do so. They also talk to people outside the Treasury building, and I know from being involved in some of those discussions that they combine a healthy dose of pragmatism with a genuine passion to stamp out abuse of offshore arrangements. They recognise that actually most offshore work is legitimate, and most advisers want nothing to do with criminal activity. Let’s face it, another way of saying “offshore” is “all the rest of the world”, and there’s quite a lot of that which isn’t tax evasion.

The paper on civil sanctions for enablers of offshore evasion explicitly notes a desire to work closely with the professional bodies to help their members avoid the risk of entanglement with the new sanctions. That’s a move that we welcome too, and we look forward to helping generate and publicise the educational materials to help prevent advisers being duped by others.

Of course, there are advisers who deliberately set out to help their clients evade tax. Up until now, there’s been a gap in HMRC’s powers to deal with such advisers, and it’s that gap which many of the current batch of proposals seek to plug. But, on comparing the ‘civil sanctions for enablers’ proposals to the ‘criminal sanctions for facilitators’ proposals there was one key point which stood out the more I realised it wasn’t there.

Civil sanctions are proposed for advisers where a penalty has been levied on their clients. Fair enough; there’s a proven offence, and everyone involved should be dealt with. But the “criminal sanctions” seems to skirt around the whole issue of when it gets triggered. It might be that when it talks about evasion that’s shorthand for “evasion which we know has happened because there’s been a criminal prosecution for it”. (The rest of the “criminal” document is couched in similar legal shorthand – for example, it uses the term mens rea where the “civil” document tends to talk in terms of “state of mind”; nothing wrong with either approach, depending upon your audience.)

But then again, there are areas in the “criminal” consultation where it refers to “circumventing international tax transparency agreements” as being an evil worthy of remedy, and which potentially could spark the criminal prosecution of advisers involved in it. We’d agree that it needs dealing with – but there’s a catch here.

The proposed new criminal offence is, well, criminal. It’s a significant step to take, accusing anyone of criminal activity. And when the French authorities recently investigated a similar mechanism they found it failed on a constitutional fundamental – you can’t criminalise people for assisting in behaviour which is not, itself criminal. Or in other words, there must have been a successful criminal prosecution of the underlying offence before you can go after the facilitators. And that is what may be the stumbling block for HMRC in the UK. They desperately need more, experienced, resources if they’re going to successfully prosecute the tax evaders themselves – because without those prosecutions, the criminal offence of facilitation will be a pointless piece of legal posturing, a deterrent that will never be used.

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By David York, head of auditing practice, ACCA

An authoritative global survey of the views of smaller accountancy practices was published in March 2015 by the International Federation of Accountants. The survey concluded that the biggest challenge faced by firms was attracting new clients and half of those surveyed said they were concerned about differentiating their firm from the competition.

One UK firm that has cracked this problem is Green Accountancy. If you call yourselves Green Accountancy the differentiation from competitors is about as obvious as it can get.  But what lies behind this is an innovative service that any firm can add to its own service lines to give an edge in attracting new clients. In this case, clients that benefit from it may also get a ‘green advantage’ with their own customers.

ACCA has worked with Green Accountancy to promote this service. We issued detailed guidance in the form of Technical Factsheet 190, which is available as a free download on the ACCA website and crucially it is issued copyright free, to encourage firms, other accountancy bodies, or indeed anyone, to tailor it to their own needs: translate it, change UK to local figures, or include it in their own materials. The service is all about helping smaller businesses measure and reduce their main environmental impacts, so the more accountants that get involved in this the better. To quote ACCA Past President, Brendan Murtagh: ACCA believes that our members’ accounting and financial reporting skills have a key role to play in the transition to, and management of, the low carbon economy. By providing additional green accounting skills . . .  professional accountants will have a pivotal position measuring and managing carbon emissions.’

Recently we have released a video to introduce the service in detail and have put a transcript and the slide deck online.  There are also short articles that provide an overview: on the IFAC Global Knowledge Gateway as well as elsewhere on ACCA’s website.

The guidance was initially issued as ‘interim guidance’ because we wanted to improve it by responding to feedback from users. It is now (June 2015) due to be updated for 2015 year-end reporting and so, in addition to a feedback request in the factsheet itself (many thanks to those who have already provided their views) we have launched an online survey. The survey is not just for those who have introduced this service; anyone who has read the Factsheet can comment.  Please do so.

ACCA has one UK member – Joe Bourke – standing as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC). This is a blog from Joe about his experience ahead of next week’s General Election.  While ACCA is a-political, we wanted to share Joe’s experiences as it is not often we hear from the front line of the political process …

Politics is all about people, it’s about being able to represent a myriad of views and support your local constituents, making sure they have a voice in Westminster.

As someone who runs a small accountancy practice I am always surprised by the parallels of being an accountant and being a politician; it’s about talking to people, listening to their views and trying to help them.

Over the campaign, I’ve been asked a lot “what do I stand for? What does the party stand for?”

So I’ve talked a lot about SMEs. As a small business owner myself, small business is something I am particularly hot on in the campaign. I know from my own work that business rates are the biggest issue for small firms, and business rate relief must be available to help struggling companies. I certainly feel local authorities have a big role to play in securing the redevelopment of their high streets, as is due to happen in Brentford.

Like politicians of all hues, I’ve been out and about meeting people on the doorstep. This has been a really positive experience. Most people are happy to have a chat and of course this time it has been a completely different experience as I am able to discuss our record in the Coalition. I’ve really enjoyed these face to face meetings.

As an honorary auditor for the Brentford Chamber of Commerce, I am really proud of what Vince Cable has done as Business Secretary. We have reduced the regulatory and tax burden by cutting swathes of red tape and providing billions of pounds of Business Rate Relief for small businesses. Our One-in, Two-out rules mean that for every piece of regulation that costs business £1, Whitehall has to remove £2 of regulatory burden. This has slashed the costs of domestic regulation for businesses by more than £2 billion.

In Government we have also created the British Business Bank – helping thousands of companies secure over £3 billion of finance. And we are also extending the Funding for Lending Scheme, working with the Bank of England, to reduce the cost of lending across the system to SMEs.

As an accountant I know more than most that balancing the books is important, in the private and the public sector. When it comes to Government, and spending tax payer’s money, ultimately, it’s down to politicians and civil service to ensure accountability. Politicians need to be accountable too.

So what about being an accountant and a PPC? It’s not been too hard balancing the day job with campaigning because I know I am fighting for policies I believe in and which will benefit Brentford and Isleworth, and the whole country. I’m really proud to be part of the democratic process.

I know ACCA as an organisation needs to be a-political, and I am sure if it had members standing as PPCs from other parties they’d get to write a blog too.

I welcome your views, and I hope you get engaged with the democratic process as we approach 7 May.

Darren Baker

By Darren Thomas Baker, author

What is the next approach to diversity management?

It was a rather grey, humid early summer morning in New York City when I met a friend for brunch close to Times Square. My friend is a very successful and passionate global diversity consultant who supports organisations in the design and implementation of inclusive leadership and behaviour change programmes. We obviously spoke much about diversity and the current challenges in the UK vis-à-vis the US. It seems such a foretelling conversation now in light of the widespread race riots towards the latter part of 2014, arguably the result of the continued socio-politico-economic exclusion of racial minorities in the US. Another contemporary tension concerns same-sex marriage in the US. In the UK, same sex marriage was legalised in March 2014 whereas many states in the US seem reluctant to grant this (Human Rights Campaign), with even reports of proposed oppressive and frightening legislation in some states advocating the re-introduction of LGBT pro-discrimination laws (Pink News, 2015). These examples and others highlight the tensions and paradoxes facing the effective management of diversity and equality for organisations across multiple geographies. Despite two to three decades of equality management in some regions of the world, why is it that we still hear of persistent glass ceilings, ‘sticky floors’, sexism, homophobia and racism to name but a few?

Organisational diversity practices are closely tied to legislative demands at the national and supra-national level. In the US, diversity management is linked to affirmative action, which emerged from the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. Affirmative action is considered a relatively radical approach to equality, as in the US it demands that employers take ‘every opportunity to employ individual applicants from specific minority groups’ (Executive Order 10925). The EU has, in contrast, adopted a more ‘liberal’ approach focused on removing the obstacles to a meritocratic culture. The response by organisations operating in the EU, therefore, has been to implement HR policies that set expectations on behaviours through, for example, ‘codes of conduct’ or reflecting these in their organisational values. However, HR policies and procedures largely fail, often miserably, to grapple with the underlying causes of discrimination in organisations, such as ensuring that competencies and processes for reward, promotion and effective decision-making are disentangled from gendered stereotypes (Collinson et al, 1990, Managing to discriminate). There has also been an over-emphasis on inclusion as an outcome rather than as an approach to the under-representation of minority groups in organisations. This is a serious problem as focusing on inclusion as an outcome rather than as an enabler to diversity can dilute group identities and individualise discrimination.

However, things are changing in the EU and there is now significant pressure brewing regarding imposing 40% quotas on non-executive boards for all member states (EC Press Release). There is compelling data to suggest that more radical approaches specifically the implementation of quotas and targets are more likely to guarantee the representation of minority groups within positions of power within organisations. In the case of the impact of gender quotas on boards in Norway, the study by Wang and Kelan (2013) shows not only an increase in the representation of women on boards but also a trickle-down effect throughout the organisational hierarchy. This supports organisations in the development of a robust diversity ‘succession pipeline’.

Transforming diversity management

Neither radical nor liberal approaches seem to deliver separately. So what’s in store for diversity management over the next few years? From these criticisms, a new ‘transformational approach’ to diversity management is emerging. The approach seeks to challenge both structural and cultural inequities within organisations. First, it transforms the business practice of an organisation, such as its procurement, decision-making, recruitment, training and career planning activities. Second, the approach drives cultural and behavioural changes particularly around implicit bias, inclusive leadership, conflict resolution and leveraging critical and diverse thinking. This is based on research that highlights how changing organisational structures can catalyse the effectiveness of cultural initiatives (Kalev et al., 2006).

I leave you with three questions to contemplate:

  • How far have you really come in the representation of minority groups throughout the organisational hierarchy?
  • Are you spending too much time on PR activities that look and sound good, but engender very little long-term change within the organisation?
  • How can you redefine your diversity and inclusion strategy so to create greater change within the organisation, ensuring legal, ethical and social expectations, and increase your financial return on diversity

For further reading, please see my forthcoming chapter:

Baker, D.T. and Kelan, E.K. (April 2015) The Policy and Practice of Diversity Management in the Workplace. In: Managing Diversity and Inclusion: An International Perspective. Sage Publications.