A detailed World Trade Organisation agreement on how accountants should provide services may become international law within two years, granting British accountants and firms access to its 134 member countries. This week's negotiations in Seattle aim to update the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services, which currently commits member countries to removing trade barriers hindering companies selling services such as banking, legal advice and accountancy. WTO member countries have also started to discuss common national regulations for various professions. Accountancy has been selected for this global directive system with an agreement on Disciplines on Domestic Regulation in the Accountancy Sector adopted by the WTO Council for Trade in Services. Based on guidelines produced by the council's working party on professional services, it contains rules on licencing requirements and, qualifications and technical standards. On qualifications, the deal stipulates, 'examinations shall be scheduled at reasonably frequent intervals, in principle at least once a year, and shall be open for all eligible applicants, including foreign and foreign-qualified applicants. 'Applicants shall be allowed a reasonable period for the submission of applications. Fees charged by the competent authorities shall reflect the administrative costs involved, and shall not represent an impediment in themselves to practising the relevant activity.' The agreement also contains a standstill clause, where member countries promise not to introduce regulations that would contravene the principles in the accountancy deal. According to existing WTO commitments, 'before the end of the forthcoming (post-Seattle) round of services negotiations ... all the disciplines developed by the WPPS are to be integrated into the GATS and will then become legally binding'. Roger Davis, a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner and a member of a business forum advising the EC on the world trade negotiations, said: 'Transparency is not just a requirement of the capital markets, but of our multinational clients as well. They need confidence in their overseas operations and trading partners, particularly in the emerging economies.'
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