The new faces have been on display throughout this week's Labour party conference. Chancellor Gordon Brown and trade secretary Stephen Byers may remain, but change has swept like wildfire through the ministerial ranks at the DTI and the Treasury. And, for accountants, a tsar has been born. The reshuffle saw Kim Howells, junior minister at the DTI, add responsibility for company law and regulation to his existing portfolio of consumer affairs, competition and insolvency services. At first, the move sounded like a downgrade. Howells remains a junior minister while his predecessor Ian McCartney - who left Victoria Street for the Cabinet Office - had been a minister of state. But government sources insist the move should be seen as an enhancement of Howell's role rather than a lowering of accountancy's status. 'It has been done by a parliamentary under secretary before and it makes sense to bring the different briefs together,' said a Whitehall insider at the time of the appointment. To translate: although Howells did not make it to minister of state, it was in effect a promotion by making his job more important. The autumn will see Howells in the spotlight. In his in-tray awaits insolvency reform, the company law review and a discussion paper on raising the audit threshold for small companies. The last decade has seen the 52-year old move from the hard left to the 'Blairite' centre of the Labour party, via his time in the National Union of Mineworkers in South Wales where he helped extricate the union from its disastrous 1984/1985 strike. Plain speaking, he enraged the left by recommending Labour should no longer describe itself as socialist. Having held the insolvency brief since last July, Howells has already won friends within the profession. 'There is no lack of ego - he has pictures of himself mountaineering on the walls of his office - but that is not a bad thing,' says one specialist. 'When I met Howells he knew the important questions to ask and I came away thinking that he was an action man and it is a far cry from the part-time ministers of the past.' However, those outside of the insolvency profession are more cautious. Jim Gemmill, chairman of Horwath Clark Whitehill, heads the implementation working party that is preparing the ground for the foundation that will oversee the profession's regulatory framework. 'McCartney was very straightforward and a good negotiator,' he says. 'Change always brings uncertainty but our job is to work with whoever is in position.' Perhaps the greatest change facing accountants is the overhaul of the regulatory structure of the profession agreed by McCartney and former English ICA president Chris Swinson. Institute deputy president Graham Ward says he is hopeful the new minister will not mess with the agreed framework for the profession. 'Generally every minister has things which are his own priorities, but when something is agreed it is usual to see it followed through,' he says. 'We look forward to seeing him.' Howells is not the only new appointment. High-flyer Patricia Hewitt, aged 50, comes in as minister of state with a responsibility for IT and small business, taking over McCartney's former responsibilities that were not acquired by Howells. As a former director of research for Andersen Consulting, Hewitt should have a good grasp of IT issues such as the millennium bug, but the small business community is less than pleased with yet another change of minister. 'There have been so many changes within the DTI,' says Chris Christou, ACCA's representative on the Company Law Consultative Committee. 'It was sad to see Barbara Roche go, but most of the others have not been there long enough to make an impact.' Baker Tilly partner Teresa Graham, a small business specialist who serves on the government's Better Regulation Task Force, was equally disappointed. 'It's rather nice to have the small firms minister promoted to minister of state, but to move Michael Wills off to the DfEE when the Small Business Service is about to emerge is surprising,' she says. 'Patricia Hewitt might do a very good job, but it's regrettable to change people around at such a turbulent time for small firms policy. Her Andersen Consulting experience will mean she has access to good advice on e-commerce, but it won't help her with the small firms portfolio!' Another newcomer is former Treasury minister Helen Liddell. Replacing John Battle, who moved to the Foreign Office, she becomes Byers' deputy dealing with industry and aerospace and taking on the European responsibilities of Lord Simon who leaves the government. Former regional minister Richard Caborn, takes over as trade minister from Brian Wilson who returns to the Scottish Office. Alan Johnson - the former postal workers' leader - enters the government as a minister for competitiveness. The Treasury has also been comprehensively shaken up. Pensions minister Stephen Timms - like Hewitt and Johnson, one of the 1997 intake - has become financial secretary and takes responsibility for welfare to work. He replaces Barbara Roche who goes to the Home Office. His brief includes small companies as well environmental, company car and fuel taxes. He will also deal with parliamentary financial business including the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. Melanie Johnson, a former schools inspector, joins the Treasury as a parliamentary under-secretary and takes over Hewitt's responsibilities for the financial services industry. Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo retains responsibility for the Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise and the Treasury, including overall supervision for tax and the Finance Bill. Timms and new economic secretary Johnson will support chief secretary Alan Milburn on the Financial Services Bill and Primarolo on the Finance Bill. Johnson has taken charge of the Treasury's interest in general accountancy issues and supports Milburn on resource accounting and budgeting. She is also responsible for charity taxation, financial services tax issues and preparation for European monetary union. Autumn is an important session for the government. And with so much on the agenda affecting accountants, it is also important for the profession.
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