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While support for diversity and inclusion is welcome, it is now time for business leaders to instigate meaningful change, writes Rachel Hussey. In the past ten years, diversity of all kinds – but gender diversity in particular – has become an area of focus for almost all business leaders. In what can be interpreted in many ways as progress, the 30% Club, which I currently chair, has been asked more frequently if 30% is a sufficiently ambitious goal. 30% Club Ireland is a group of Chairs and CEOs of 260 Irish organisations who agree with our goal to ensure that 30% of board members and senior management in Irish businesses are women. The Club was founded in the UK in 2010 by Helena Morrissey, and the Irish chapter was established in 2015. The 30% title was adopted because 30% is the critical mass that a minority must reach in a group to have an effective voice. And 30% is very much a floor and not a ceiling in terms of our goals and ambitions. I am a lawyer, but law firms and advisory and accounting firms face the same challenges around inclusion and diversity. In this rapidly changing world, with new careers emerging all the time, professional services firms have to find ways to stay attractive to graduates (both men and women) and to retain them once they have been trained. In other words, diversity may be a moral imperative, but it is also a necessity for business. Today’s graduates expect to find diversity where they work. That wasn’t the case in the 1990s when I started in practice. There was no discussion about diversity in business back then. There was a concept of ‘equality’, which was confined mainly to pay and conditions. The feminist movement was a social one, focused on issues like contraception. The Women’s Political Association was advocating for more women in politics, but the business world was separate to all of that. And I think many of the women who were in that business world either didn’t focus on the lack of diversity or were too isolated to speak up in any meaningful way. I was, of course, aware of the social movements while I was in college, but I assumed that the world was mostly a fair place and that if you were good enough, you could do whatever you wanted to do. Women were very well represented in the top of my class in Trinity. I didn’t even notice when I was doing a master’s degree at Harvard Law School that only a quarter of my class were women. After I qualified, however, a few incidents surprised me. When I attended an event with my then-boss, and we met his sister, she asked me how long I had been my boss’ secretary. When I was pregnant with my first child and was the primary breadwinner, I realised that I was going to have to rely on social welfare payments to survive. And then I had to make – and saw other women having to make – career decisions that weren’t decisions, as there was no choice. Spurred on by all of this, my women partners and I came together in 2008 and came up with plans to empower the women in our firm. And when I saw Helena Morrissey speak in Dublin in 2013, I knew the 30% Club was a real game-changer because it had clear goals, was business-led and – most importantly of all – included men, without whom no real change will ever be possible. There has been some progress, but perhaps we in professional services firms need to take some bolder steps now – for our men and women. We need to recognise the needs of a more modern workforce and find ways to integrate family life and absences into a career path rather than separate to, or an exit from, a career path. That includes better career planning built around family absence and greater recognition and accommodation of the needs of men in their desire to play an equal part in family life.  We need to recognise the potential for 24-hour demands in a digital age and become more agile in how we work and how we rest – as individuals, as parents, as carers and as human beings – and we need to demonstrate and practise this, starting from the top. We all state our commitment to diversity and equality of opportunity. It’s now time to prove our commitment. Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.  

Feb 10, 2020
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The ability to judge the mood music of society could be our greatest asset in shaping how the profession is perceived, writes Dr Brian Keegan. If you happen to be an auditor and are of a sensitive disposition, look away now. Apparently, you are not a member of a profession. This is just one of the suggestions of the Brydon review into the quality and effectiveness of audit, which was published at the end of last year. Brydon’s work was prompted by public disquiet over high-profile business collapses in the UK, where it was believed that the auditors should have done better. The standard response of politicians everywhere to topics that make them uncomfortable is to commission a review. In that way, action is seen to have been taken and the discomfort is spread around. There are many reasons, of course, why Brydon is wrong about auditing not being a profession. An audit is, after all, about the exercise of intellectual skill and knowledge. It is an unfortunately flippant conclusion in a study that otherwise has a lot going for it. Worse, in the court of public opinion, many people won’t necessarily make a distinction between what an auditor is and does, and what an accountant is and does. It is therefore inevitable that the profession often finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain itself. It doesn’t matter that our most immediate stakeholders – board members and investors – know perfectly well the contribution of the audit and the role of the auditor. Government policy in any area is not exclusively formed by listening to, and then following, the views of knowledgeable stakeholders. The perception of the accountancy profession can be contradictory. Surveys conducted by Edelman (admittedly commissioned by this Institute) report that the level of confidence in accountants among financial decision-makers is high relative to the level of confidence in other professions. Yet public opinion is all too willing to jump on the bandwagon when they think we get it wrong. For instance, the response to the exclusion of the former Chair of Anglo Irish Bank, Mr Sean Fitzpatrick, from Chartered Accountants Ireland was heavily skewed. Much of it focused on the length of time our proceedings appeared to take. No one seemed interested that the Director of Public Prosecutions wanted the State’s actions in the matter to conclude first, hence a seven-year delay. Understanding this lack of interest is important because the effective communication of what the profession is and does relies heavily on the receptiveness of the public audience. There are lessons here from politics. Prime Minister “Get Brexit Done” Johnson and President “Make America Great Again” Trump are widely lauded for their communication skills, but that misses the point. The genius of the messaging of Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump is not in their capacity for articulation – it is in their capacity to read the mood of the public. During the recent hustings in the Republic of Ireland, the major political parties would have fared better using slogans like “give people homes” or “hospital beds, not trolleys” instead of plaintive murmurings about futures we can look forward to, or an island for all. Like the more successful politicians, the accountancy profession has to get better at reading public opinion and responding to that mood. If we fail to get across the ethical value and the competency involved in the work that accountants do, and the wider contribution made to society by virtue of that, future government policy towards accountants and auditors will be shaped by the negativity that is already out there. Much is made of the challenge to the profession from things like artificial intelligence and robotic process automation. You can add to that list the suspicion with which the profession is viewed. We now know that some don’t even consider that auditing is a profession at all. Dr Brian Keegan is Director, Advocacy & Voice, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 10, 2020
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Against a backdrop of underinvestment, housing will remain a key economic concern for the new Government, writes Annette Hughes. With 2020 well under way, some of us have already broken our New Year’s resolutions and had our focus shifted to the plethora of election resolutions and promises which emerged over the past four weeks. With the election now behind us, political leaders will need to focus on delivering on those election promises.  Governments generally have a five-year term to fulfil their promises, but experience tells us that some of the policy commitments promised in party manifestos may never be implemented. The new Government faces both challenges and opportunities in steering a sustainable economic path as it embarks on a new term. One of its key functions is to administer public policy and deliver high-quality public services and infrastructure across a range of areas including housing, health, education and transport. Notably, housing was the topic that received the most attention during the election campaign and it remains the Government’s number one priority. There continues to be underinvestment in both private and social housing, and the demand for housing significantly exceeds the current supply. Much has been made of the doubling of housing stock from 2016 to 2019 with 21,000 new homes, however the national annual housing supply requirement is closer to 35,000. We were informed during the election campaign that 6,000 new social housing units were built in 2019. Yet, data from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government shows that there were 2,003 new social housing units built in the first nine months of 2019, or 2,229 units when local authority vacant units brought back into the stock are included. Adding acquisitions (1,533), units leased from the private sector (630), households supported under the Housing Assistance Payment (12,853) and the Rental Accommodation Scheme (717), implies that a total of 17,962 social housing households were accommodated in the first nine months of 2019. This may be in the region of 24,000 for the full year. This total is in a year in which the latest assessment of housing need reported that there were 68,693 households across the State (43.2% in Dublin) on the social housing waiting list.  In the meantime, the shortage of affordable accommodation to rent and buy continues to create challenges for Irish policy makers, notably, the escalating homelessness problem, and rising rents and property prices, although the rate of growth has moderated in recent months.  Some of the solutions proposed included building more social and affordable homes, preferably on State-owned lands, which has implications for the level of capital investment on housing (€2.03 billion in 2020), the second largest allocation after transport (€2.5 billion). Other measures included rent regulations, which have proved to have a range of unintended consequences for tenants, including a negative impact on new and existing supply, as well as the potential for lower quality stock. The issue of the decade will undoubtedly be climate change and this too will impact on housing stock. With an estimated two million residential properties across the country, the potential cost of retrofitting to improve energy efficiency could be in the region of €10,000 to €30,000 per home, depending on its age and quality.   The one consensus during the election campaign by all parties was that there needs to be a substantial and fundamental change in housing policy, given the failure by all to address a number of issues over the past decade. The new Government clearly has its work cut out. Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.

Feb 10, 2020
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Cormac Lucey argues that accountants need to discuss one of the most unjust outcomes of Government profligacy – the over-taxing of the State’s high earners. The UK electorate recently faced a general election where, under the leadership of an Islington Marxist, the British Labour Party was offering its most left-wing proposals for a generation. It proposed raising the rate of income tax on earnings above £125,000 (equivalent to €146,000) to 50%. With the 4% UK rate of PRSI, that would have required Britain’s top earners to pay a marginal rate of deduction of 54%. In the Republic, those of us of a right-of-centre political disposition are lucky not to have to face the prospect of barely diluted Marxism as a real policy prospect. Here, government control switches pretty seamlessly between right-of-centre Fine Gael and right-of-centre Fianna Fáil-led administrations. That’s the theory. The reality is something very different. Down south, top earners must already face a 52% (income tax 40%, universal social charge 8% plus 4% PRSI) rate of deduction on income above €70,000. Indeed, if a person is self-employed, they face a marginal rate of 55% on income above €100,000. In terms of top tax rates, high earners in Ireland already face marginal rates of deduction in excess of 50% at incomes of around twice the national average that the UK Loony Left was only contemplating applying on incomes of about four times that average. Largely unnoticed, the contours of the Irish tax system have changed very substantially since 2007. Income tax receipts are up €9.3 billion, or 68%, from 2007 levels. They have risen from 29% of total tax receipts to an expected 40% this year. Thirteen years ago, income tax proceeds were slightly lower than VAT receipts. Last year, they exceeded VAT receipts by 52%. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has concluded that Ireland has the second most progressive income tax system among its 36 member countries and the most progressive among its EU members. In other words, high earners pay disproportionately more in income tax here than in nearly every other developed country in the world. Revenue’s Budget 2020 Ready Reckoner document reveals that the top 1% of income earners (those earning more than around €250,000) contribute more than a fifth of all income tax receipts, while the top 5% of income earners (those earning more than about €125,000) contribute more than 40% of total receipts. By contrast, the bottom 75% of income earners (those earning around €55,000 or less) contribute a mere 18% of total income tax proceeds. The top 1% lose an average of 42% of their income in State deductions while the bottom 75% lose an average of 9%. One might accept this dramatic soaking of high earners if it was required to save the State from imminent insolvency, but the Troika left town in 2013. Large rises in tax revenues since then have been used to fund dramatic increases in State spending rather than to reduce the national debt. When the Government first officially forecast total 2018 Government spending, it expected a total spend of €60.3 billion (according to the 2014 Stability Programme Update). In reality, the Government ended up spending €76.8 billion in 2018, 27% more than its original forecast. High earners are being soaked, not to save the State from bankruptcy or to secure minimum levels of State spending but, rather, to indulge a fiscally incontinent and gruesomely inefficient Government apparatus. It strikes me that we (as a profession) and Chartered Accountants Ireland (as a representative body) should speak more loudly about the clear errors and short-sightedness of this approach.  Cormac Lucey FCA is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 10, 2020
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The resourceful con artist has now moved to online scams, but old advice still holds, writes Des Peelo. Confidence and a presence are often perceived as necessary for business or personal success. This resonates with me in the context of recognising con artists, better described as fraudsters, whom I have encountered. The most outstanding was an approach from a gentleman, intending to be my client, who lived in a suite in one of the great London hotels. Of indeterminate nationality, his occupation – or the source of his apparent wealth – was not evident. Happily, I withdrew from involvement early in the saga but became aware of subsequent events. A mine of false information This gentleman was promoting an opportunity for investment, which was highly confidential, in newly discovered vast ore resources adjacent to a previously worked-out mine in Ireland. The geological studies and supporting paperwork (all forged) was there. The scam worked for nearly £3 million. British aristocracy and London financiers, amongst others, came on board. Subsequently, this gentleman was arrested in the UK. He was refused bail as the police said they found nine passports in his suite. After one year on remand in a London prison, the charges were inexplicably dropped, though an accomplice and a UK solicitor were subsequently jailed. No monies were recovered. During that year in prison, my almost-client managed to have meals delivered from the hotel, paid monthly in advance. He also started a charismatic movement and a choir. On learning of his imminent release, he called the hotel manager, who reportedly said something like “wonderful news; we will send a car” and he moved back into his suite. That was not the end of the story. Some years later, on watching an investigative programme on UK television, there was my almost-client being named for a stunt involving investors and coffee futures in Central America. This time, still based in London, he allegedly had a prestigious commodities brokerage office in Miami. A load of beeswax Older readers may recall the origin of the description ‘widget’. It was first used in an amusing film, loosely based on a real event in the 1950s, about a Texas con artist launching a widget company on Wall Street. None of the financiers knew what a widget was or wouldn’t admit they didn’t know, but the word was that the oil industry was very excited about it. Hence the contemporary use of the word ‘widget’ when nobody understands the product. The modern equivalent of a widget, on occasion, might be a ‘tech disrupter’. My possible ‘widget’ moment involved another gentleman from London. He arrived in Ireland sporting impressive achievements, connections and qualifications (all bogus), including being a medical doctor. His business card showed an address on the famous medical Harley Street in London (which turned out to be a temporary post-box). Accompanied by a self-described titled lady, he rented a country mansion near Dublin and quickly entertained his way into the bloodstock and racing fraternity. He claimed to be developing a product akin to Viagra, long before it was invented. The connection with Ireland was that the magic ingredient could only be sourced from the blood and urine of top-bred horses. State agencies expressed interest, impressive international names were mentioned as possible directors, suitable sites were inspected, and so on. All that was missing, of course, was the millions necessary to bring it all together. Fortunately, shortly before substantial monies changed hands, a sceptical stud farm owner and the IIRS (then a State scientific agency) analysed a prototype unbeknownst to the bogus doctor. It was largely beeswax. The gentleman concerned managed to depart Ireland in time, leaving large unpaid bills. He was last heard of as being in Lebanon, again something to do with horses. Don’t be fooled The world has now changed for the con artist. The old scams are easily identified with instant access to history, profiles and technical information. However, the resourceful con artist has now moved to online scams. If an investment is too good to be true, it is. This adage has never changed. Des Peelo FCA is the author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.

Feb 10, 2020
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Differences divide us, and that’s why we need to find the values that unite us, writes Sinead Donovan. It strikes me that, in today’s world, we are constantly putting labels on things or people. We are either male/female, Gen Z/Gen Y, baby boomers, LGBT+/straight. We have the labels of our culture or our creed, and while I am so in favour of diversity, and have pushed the diversity and inclusion concept incredibly hard within my firm and throughout the work I have done in Chartered Accountants Ireland, I sometimes wonder – have we made too many labels? Are we defining ourselves by labels rather than looking for the commonality and the thread that keeps us all together?   It’s not a new concept but, as perhaps I progress in my career and through management, I sometimes think it’s better to look for what binds us together than at what differentiates us. Maybe by finding those common threads it will enable us to be a more holistic family together, despite our gender, culture, religion, or sexual orientation.  So, I suppose the big question is: are there common threads and, if so, what are they? To me, it comes down to people’s beliefs. Fundamentally, underpinning us all, as it does in our professional careers, are the value sets that define us. For us, in our business unit in Grant Thornton, we have identified those values as: Adaptable; Innovative; Passion for what we do; Collaborative; Going the extra mile; Ethical and professional; and Technically knowledgeable. People may have different values they use to identify themselves, but whatever it is, there should be that common link in us all. With Chartered Accountants, it has to be the value set of ethics. These underpin our profession, despite how wide it has become or the labels we have put on each other as accountants: are we forensic accountants, cybersecurity accountants, auditors, tax advisors? Whatever you are, the one item that underpins us all is our code of ethics.  Ethics is taught in the early days of a student’s profession, sits beside us as a professional, and maybe gets looked at once or twice in our career. However, I would urge that the concept of ethics is used more widely to link us together as one family of accountants – be that Chartered Accountants Ireland, ATI, or membership to any other accountancy body. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders, the people we report to, the people who use our knowledge, and the daily work that must be done in an ethical manner.  As a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee in Chartered Accountants Ireland, I am not saying any of the above to absolve ourselves of the need to identify the differences we all face in life. But what I am saying is, maybe sometimes, let’s just celebrate our similarities and, with that, see ourselves as a family of accountants in the first instance and then ensure any differences that we may have are 100% noted, understood, managed and included because, just as in any family, there are different characters, beliefs, and personalities. And, while there are going to be difficulties, there has to be that underlining acceptance of who we are and what we are. To me, it starts on the journey as a student and, I think, that our profession is more open than it may have been when I started. However, I do know that from our work in CA Support, difficulties, prejudice, and unbelievable stress which may not be acknowledged or identified, remain. So, look out for your student members, your newly qualified members, and even look out for the more experienced members who may be going through difficulties in their professional or personal lives. If I can leave you with one thought, let it be this: let us identify the differences, ensure those differences are respected and brought together in one bucket of inclusion. Importantly, we need to unite in our underlining similarities that we have as Chartered Accountants and use that as a thread to tie us together.   Sinead Donovan FCA is a Partner in Financial Accounting and Advisory Services at Grant Thornton.

Dec 03, 2019