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Thursday, 1 August, 2002, 07:43 GMT 08:43 UK
Disobedient nun gets the tax habit
Anne Redston, head of Financial Services Tax at accountants Ernst & Young

As part of a weekly series on women in business, BBC News Online talks to Anne Redston about her journey from a convent to a top accountancy firm.
According to the stereotype, dissatisfied nuns usually throw off their habits to become cabaret singers or fashion models.

But in a curious take on rebellion, Anne Redston left the convent to take on the challenge of accountancy.

Ms Redston, head of Financial Services Tax at accountants Ernst & Young, confounds the theory that all accountants are dull.

As well as living in a convent during her early twenties, she speaks Mandarin Chinese and believes there are "interesting parallels between tax and theology".

Two years ago, readers of trade magazine Accountancy Age accorded her the oxymoronic status of "personality of the year".

The sound of music?

Ms Redston's professional life began aged 24 after she decided she was not cut out for life as a novice.

Apparently, there was a touch of the How do you solve a problem like Maria about the young nun.

Anne Redston's certificate of qualification
Ms Redston wanted a qualification to prove her credentials
"There were the three vows - poverty, chastity and obedience," she says.

"Contrary to popular belief, I found obedience the most difficult.

"My instincts rebelled against not being able to follow my own judgement.

"That doesn't go down well in a convent."

The theological concepts also caused her some disquiet.

After two years, she decided to take time out and soon discovered she could never go back.

Time for a qualification

Her next quest was to find a job before abject poverty ensued.

Chancellor Gordon Brown on Budget day
Ms Redston believes Mr Brown's tax credits are 'artificial'
"I was completely penniless - I only had the clothes I stood up in," she recalls.

She chose accountancy as her profession because it paid her 60 a week, while she studied for her qualification.

"It was good having a qualification after leaving the convent to prove to people that I could do it," she adds.

"As a woman and a nun, you are four squares off the board."

Tax and theology?

But why specialise in tax?

"Tax is really a game," she says, as if she is letting us into a great secret.

Workplace woes
When I started accountancy, it was only the second year that [some accountancy firms] had allowed women to do it.

"You know the rules and the grey areas - and the best game takes part around the edges."

Jousting with the Inland Revenue and advising clients on neat manoeuvres to avoid tax are more satisfying than studying theology.

And this is where having experience as a nun comes in handy.

"The gap between theology and ordinary life is quite big. It's the same with tax," she says.

"Nuns and tax specialists bridge the gap and make it understandable."

How do you solve a problem like tax?

She confesses to being "passionate" about tax and her need to help people operate within the tax system.

For example, she is vehemently opposed to Chancellor Gordon Brown's new tax credits.

Anne Redston's CV
Partner and head of tax in the E&Y Financial Services practice
Completed a two-year noviceship
Taught in Essex comprehensive for a year
Cycled the length of the Pyrenees (twice)
Author of books on taxation
"It is an artificial and over-engineered process that fails to achieve most of its ends," she says calmly.

She argues that money flows needlessly around the tax system because many on a minimum wage end up claiming back what they pay.

"There is a need for something simple and effective," she says, suggesting as an alternative that the current tax-free allowance of about 4,500 should be raised to 8,000.

The government would likely retort that its credits, such as the child tax credit, aim to target more precisely people in need of relief.

However, she maintains that this would only work effectively if the Inland Revenue had "perfect knowledge" of each tax-payer's personal circumstances.

Ethical dilemmas

In recent months accountants have - fairly or unfairly - become the scourge of the business world.

Anderson's role in auditing - or checking - the accounts of the collapsed energy trader Enron have discredited an entire industry.

Ms Redston prefers not to comment on her audit colleagues, but admits to mixed feelings about possible moves to separate tax consultancy from audit work at accountancy firms.

She agrees it is "inappropriate" to dispense tax advice to a client and then subsequently audit the same client's accounts.

But she adds: "If you audit a client, you are familiar with the issues and to be unable to advise, when you know the answer, doesn't seem right either."

At times, Ms Redston's conscientious manner might seem a little homespun for the cut and thrust of international business, but perhaps she has a point.

"You can't operate well in business unless you have integrity for your employee and client dealings."

It leaves you wondering whether public companies and accountancy firms should do a little more of their recruiting from the religious orders.

Ernst & Young's Anne Redston
"When I left the convent, I really just had what I stood up in"

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See also:

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