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President Mark Rhys' speech at ICAEW Annual Dinner

The enduring role of the accountant

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 22 May 2024

In his speech at the recent ICAEW Annual Dinner at Chartered Accountants' Hall, ICAEW President Mark Rhys outlined the continuing relevancy of accountancy to some of the biggest global challenges, and the need for the profession to continue to evolve.
Good evening, my name is Mark Rhys, and I’m the President of ICAEW. I won’t keep you long, but I’d like to set the scene for this evening.
Mark Rhys

Some of you may be here tonight just for the networking opportunity and to enjoy our excellent hospitality, but I also believe many of you are here because you, like me - when I stood for this post, care – about what ICAEW is and stands for, and what the Chartered Accountancy profession does:

  • our relevance
  • our voice
  • and our impact.

This evening, I want to draw attention to the ‘A’ in ‘ICAEW’ and the ‘Accountancy’ in ‘Chartered Accountancy'.

Our profession has come a long way since ICAEW was founded in 1880 with a bold vision of our role in the “modern” economy, and we continue to think – and boldly – about our role. Most of you will know that we’re so much more than number-crunchers, and anyone who’s remotely familiar with the themes contained in ICAEW’s strategy will realise that our international reach and purpose today extend much further than 20 years ago – and we recognise Michael Izza’s contribution to that change over those two decades.

But let's appreciate the special ‘crunch’ that accountancy brings to number crunching. For every pound of cash received we ask what the other side is. Debit cash but credit what? Is it a new debt you now owe, an asset you no longer own or, best of all, a gain you have earned? Every payment made and credit to cash raises similar questions. Is the other side a loss or, better than that, a new asset, or a debt you no longer owe?

Over their careers, our members make, consider or challenge millions of decisions like this. No wonder that in our recent consultation on future-proofing our ACA qualification, we heard loudly and clearly that double entry bookkeeping must remain at the heart of what our students learn.

It underpins everything our members do. It ensures that people in positions of power and responsibility can be held to account for what they have done with money entrusted to them. The joint declaration with CIPFA that I signed last year evidences our shared commitment to financial accountability across the public and private sectors.

Let me remind you of our five strategic themes:

  • Strengthening trust – the core of our professional covenant.
  • Then three current challenges: enabling sustainability, transforming trade and economies, and mastering technology.
  • And finally – a societal necessity: attracting a diverse pool of business and finance talent for the future.

Those three current challenges have an impact on all businesses at the very core of their operations, and strategic leadership and long-term thinking are needed to see them as opportunities. These themes constitute much of what our members do for the organisations they work in and with – and that’s why they form the backbone of our strategy for this decade.

This is the core of what accounting is – providing and reporting on information in ways which are realistic, measured, evidence-based and ethical. And as public and stakeholder needs and expectations continue to evolve, so do the ways in which Chartered Accountants apply their core skills and qualities.

Let’s take sustainability. ICAEW has in fact been talking about sustainability disclosures and the importance of getting this information prepared, understood, and acted upon, for a very long time. I’m proud to say we remain ahead of the curve.

Today, leaders across business and finance understand that informed and sceptical but reliable and useful measurement, reporting and assurance are all necessary to transition the global economy.

Users of accounts want to see good quality ESG information, and they need to be able to trust it. We are the guardians of those data, we analyse, prepare, and assure it, and support boards in creating effective strategies and transition plans.

But there are two challenges we need to accept.

First, our double entry accounting needs to acknowledge and address its blind spots. Losses imposed on others and gains bestowed on others, so-called externalities, are central to sustainability.

Second, the application of financial reporting standards is underpinned by double entry accounting systems developed over centuries. These have as yet no equivalent in the world of sustainability reporting standards.

It’s imperative we continue to build the knowledge and skills to enable Chartered Accountants to address blind spots and develop systems – all of which will lead to better decision-making in organisations across the economy – and ICAEW continues to build sustainability reporting into our qualifications and our continuing professional development.

But it’s not just the nature and purpose of the information we’re providing that are changing – it’s also how the information is gathered and processed. 

Technology – and in particular AI – is providing opportunities to analyse large volumes of data quickly without sacrificing accuracy: providing real-time insights and reducing errors. AI has become the mantra of business in a short space of time – and firms are partnering with technology businesses and implementing AI tools into their audit processes.

As tasks further down the value chain become automated, the role of accountants is becoming more centred around strategy and insight. But we should make sure that the underlying bookkeeping retains its integrity and is properly challenged. Mr Bates v The Post Office illustrates what can happen when an IT system turns the other side of phantom sales transactions into life-changing debts owed by sub-postmasters.

For us, the future lies in learning to work alongside new technologies – until new skills such as data analysis have become as important as those skills more traditionally associated with our profession. And one of the keys to working effectively with new technology is ensuring it is being applied ethically.

The accountancy profession is well-placed to apply ethical thinking to the practical concerns of these emerging technologies. Our members in business can ask – and are asking – challenging questions about the ethics of new business models, and we apply our skills to help organisations build ethical frameworks around the use of technology – and help build trust in the use of some of these new complex systems. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the ethical nature of accounting precedes the development of any professional code of ethics and runs far deeper.

Every accounting entry involves choice; and short-term self-interest will always favour recording debits as assets rather than losses and credits as gains rather than liabilities.

Every accounting scandal is ultimately about bad choices coming to light. Luca Pacioli, a leading Renaissance mathematician and humanist, recognised the ethical nature of accounting in codifying double entry bookkeeping in his seminal work. It is fitting not only that ICAEW owns two copies of this work, but also that Pacioli is represented in stone, alongside his friend Leonardo da Vinci, in the frieze that runs around this magnificent building.

I strongly believe – and I expect you all share this belief – that we, as Chartered Accountants, have an obligation to the society we serve to be trustworthy professionals providing trusted information.

When I became President last summer, I emphasised that I understand the challenges we face and the expectations of us from the public. In that same speech, I committed that the Institute would work to deliver a better stronger profession in the public interest as foreseen by our Victorian founders. Only by continuing to adapt our skills and re-affirm our purpose, will we continue to lead.

The public expects us as professionals to exercise our expertise - in our case accounting - without them having to worry too much of the time about the technical detail. That involves our profession behaving ethically to make wise choices and speak truth to power.

Our guest speaker, Gillian Tett, is famous for doing this in her specialist fields of journalism and social anthropology.

When we fail to speak truth to power, the public expects action to be taken. But when we continue to speak truth in the most trying of circumstances, the public and fellow professionals acknowledge truly outstanding achievement.

It’s our job to exercise professional scepticism to ensure the right choices are made, and to uncover where they may not have been – a theme personified in the Outstanding Achievement Award winner, who we’ll be honouring this evening. 

ICAEW's strategic themes

Man in black top talking to colleague Trust
Strengthen trust in the profession

We will contribute to fundamental reform of audit and corporate governance in the UK, and establish ICAEW Chartered Accountants as key partners in combatting economic crime.

View our activity View regulations
Young smiling girl in yellow top Climate and sustainability
Help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

We will make a leading contribution to achieving the UN SDGs. We will use our expertise and influence to enable successful transformative action by governments.

View our activity
Four business people sitting in a circle having a meeting Trade and economy
Support the transformation of trade and the economy

We will support a global economic recovery from COVID-19, work with tax authorities to reform taxation systems, and help achieve sustainable public finances.

View our activity
Business woman and man in a meeting Technology and data
Master technology and data

We will redefine the data skills expected of our members, equip them to be leaders in the exploitation of new technology and data, and ensure they are trained and equipped to deter and detect fraud and other cybercrime.

View our activity
Young professional man smiling at camera Talent and diversity
Strengthen the profession by attracting talent and building diversity

We will ensure that the profile of our members and students fairly reflects the societies it serves, and support the professional development of all members.

View our activity
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