With 28 Bills heralded, it was an unusually long Queen's speech. And with at least eight set to change the working lives of accountants - and most others impinging in some way - the relevance of this ambitious legislative programme to the profession could hardly have been more emphatic. That there were few surprises should not disguise the overall impact the next parliamentary session will have on accountants - whether in practice, businesses or the public sector. Bills pledging to tackle red tape, introduce limited liability partnerships, reform insolvency law, usher in a virtual future of e-commerce and overhaul the government's own system of accounting were only the most relevant. It is not hard to conceive how they will all change the way finance professionals do their jobs in the next millennium. But others will also have a major influence. Accountants providing investment advice will be affected a Bill formally establishing a new regulator, the Financial Services Authority, while those working in the Post Office (whose liberalisation will allow it to access new markets) or the utilities, transport and education sectors will all have their own specific changes to deal with. But just as the Green Budget was met with a combination of cautious welcome and scepticism, business raised half a thumb to a modernising agenda that ministers promised would serve 'enterprise and fairness'. The British Chambers of Commerce gave the package of Bills five out of ten. It was easy to understand its reservations. A Regulatory Reform Bill aimed at cutting down on red-tape burdens was promised with the boast that it would increase the effectiveness of powers to ease compliance burdens. But business has seen this promised before. The DTI's new culture is to 'think small first' and Lord Trotman has been tasked to review the red-tape burden on small business. Admittedly these initiatives have not yet had the chance to deliver change, but all the while small businesses have only seen their regulatory burden rise this year: think the working families tax credit, think minimum wage. Similarly the insolvency profession is far from united in its support for an insolvency Bill - in its current form at least - despite the fact that trade secretary Stephen Byers has spent much of his year eulogising about its contents. The Bill is designed to introduce a moratorium for struggling small companies in order to give directors breathing space in which to put a completed rescue plan to creditors. It is designed to turn into reality the government's promise to develop a rescue-orientated culture in Britain where more worthwhile but struggling companies are able to recover and, subsequently, thrive. The Bill would prevent creditors from taking legal action that would force a company into receivership and put in place new processes to allow the faster disqualification of unfit director. So far, so fair. But while practitioners are widely in favour of the moratorium concept, many fear the proposed legislation will not produce the results that have been hoped for because of issues around the appointment of nominees, the rights of banks and the possible use of unlicensed insolvency specialists to manage the new procedures. But other parties, like the larger firms, had reason to be cheerful. The threats of several firms, that they will move offshore unless limited liability partnerships are introduced, were heeded - finally. The Bill - universally welcomed - will give partnerships limited liability; at the same time it should allow them to retain organisational flexibility and keep their internal partnership agreements confidential. Among the Bills most overtly relevant to the profession were those confined to public sector. Effectively a rubber-stamping exercise for what is already happening, the Government Resources and Accounting Bill will give Whitehall the final go-ahead to abandon fully its historic - and outdated - cash accounting system. A central element in the modernising government agenda, it will put in place powers to enable the preparation and audit of consolidated accounts for the whole public sector - the creation of a national balance sheet. Whitehall will know for the first time what it owns and what it is worth. It will also ensure the full economic cost of government activities are measured by including other costs not reflected in cash-based accounts, such as capital consumption. In short, the government believes resource accounts will also improve transparency by making it easier to see what taxpayers are getting for their money. In a separate Bill, local government auditors will lose their power to issue prohibition orders and instead will have to obtain court backing to block any local authority action that they feel might be illegal. At the moment if an auditor is concerned about the legality of something a council is seeking to do, he or she can prevent them from doing it by issuing a prohibition order. In an attempt to clarify auditors' powers, the new Local Government Bill will give auditors the power to issue advisory notices - allowing them time to seek a court's decision about the legality of what a council is planning to do. The changes stem from recommendations made in the 1997 Nolan committee report on standards in public life. Then of course there is the already published Electronic Commerce Bill. It will, according to the Queen's speech, 'prepare Britain as a dynamic, knowledge-based economy' and 'improve its ability to compete in the digital marketplace'. It is designed to help the government meet its target of making a quarter of its services available electronically. It will allow messages to be signed electronically, allowing people to check who sent the message and ensure it has not been tampered with. A kitemark system will be introduced to improve quality. Obstacles in current laws insisting on the use of paper would be swept away - a brave new world indeed. The Queen's speech is very much a continuation of the themes espoused by Gordon Brown in his Green Budget a fortnight ago. And again the government is making the right noises - though that time much of the message was lost on cynical businessmen. If red tape is cut, entrepreneurial activity truly boosted and everyone persuaded that the Internet will change to the core the way that companies do business, then ministers will have delivered. If not, last week's agenda will have been little more than a string of hollow claims. MAIN BILLS AFFECTING ACCOUNTANTS Local government Auditors' powers to be reined back Welfare reform Introduction of stakeholder pensions E-commerce Boost for Internet-based business and tighter security Financial services The formal creation of the Financial Services Authority Limited liability Reduce the liabilities of partnerships Government resources and accounting Will secure the move from cash-based accounting Regulatory reform A crusade against red tape Insolvency Introducing a moratorium for creditor action.
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