Recent controversy over heart surgery procedures at the Bristol Royal Infirmary has fuelled the debate on who should regulate the self-regulators.
Currently, many professions appoint and run their own disciplinary organisations, raising public fears over the way in which professional practice is policed.
At Bristol Royal Infirmary 29 out of 53 babies died after operations performed by two heart surgeons, an abnormally high rate compared with national averages. The General Medical Council, the professional disciplinary body (25% of whose membership are lay people), struck two eminent doctors off the medical register, who have since retired on full pensions. A third surgeon, banned from operating on children for three years, was nevertheless permitted to continue operating on adults. The causes of public disquiet were twofold. First, people wanted to know why so many children had to die before someone alerted the authorities to what was going on - as much an operational management issue as an ethical concern. Second, why had the one surgeon been allowed to continue to work? To many medical outsiders, the decision smacked of the profession protecting its own.
Doctors are not alone in attracting public suspicion. Several self-regulatory regimes, including those of the accountants and the lawyers, have come under scrutiny. Further, with growing talk of 'one-stop' professional shops being established, the questions surrounding self-regulation are becoming more urgent.
Chris Swinson, this year's president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICA), is acutely aware of these periodic outbursts of public concern. He believes that it is important for the professions to be able to demonstrate publicly that the disciplinary organisations governing them are discharging their responsibilities as impartially and effectively as possible. He is pushing for the establishment of a new independent board which will to oversee accountancy's existing regulatory regime.
Under proposals drawn up by the profession's main regulatory bodies, they would maintain their existing role, while the new board would be able to review the way in which they discharged their responsibilities.
The board would report openly and regularly to the public on the extent to which they had served the public interest and it also would have the power to call its own cases - it would not have to wait for wrongdoers to be referred to it.
Swinson hopes that, by creating this body, the accountancy profession can protect and enhance its reputation with the public. The effect would be to increase confidence in the profession. Swinson believes that the proposals could be extended to other professions which are also mistrusted by the public. He even suggests that the professions should consider a cross-pollination of ideas. The proposals could serve as a blueprint for the regulation of all Britain's self-regulators.