Knock knock – opening the door to the Agent Services Account

Knock knock – opening the door to the Agent Services Account

As part of Making Tax Digital preparations, all agents will need to set up an Agent Services Account. How do you register, and how does it work?

With only a little over six months to go until Making Tax Digital for VAT begins on 1 April 2019, most agents will be busy getting their clients and their practice ready. As part of these preparations, if they have not already, all agents will need to set up an Agent Services Account (ASA). It is through the ASA that agents will access the new HMRC online services being developed as part of the MTD programme.

From April 2019, the ASA will be the portal through which agents will file VAT returns for those businesses which are required to keep digital records under MTD for VAT. At that point, the existing VAT portal will be closed to those businesses and will only be available to businesses which are outside the scope of MTD for VAT.

A new front door

The ultimate goal is for the ASA to be the single front door through which the agent can access HMRC’s online services for their clients. This is quite different from the existing system where an agent may have a number of different Government Gateway accounts. It is not uncommon for firms to set up separate online accounts for different teams, departments, offices or different heads of tax. This splits the agent’s client relationships over a number of different sets of accounts. With a single account for each agent, it will be much easier for HMRC to get a full picture of an agent’s client relationships.

In future, it is intended to increase the security of ASAs with the introduction of 2-step verification (2SV). 2SV is already in place for Personal and Business Tax Accounts and requires the entry of a pin-code supplied to a mobile, landline or authenticator app as well as the agency’s ASA user-name and password. For the time being, 2SV is optional for the ASA – although it is required when linking the agent’s ASA to their MTD-compatible software. HMRC are working with firms to understand the practical difficulties that they may have with receiving 2SV codes.

In the meantime, agents should rest assured that creating an ASA will not disturb their existing online services accounts. Agents will be able to continue to use them until all services are migrated to the ASA. As of 3 September 2018, the timescale for the full transition to the ASA has not been announced.

Setting up the ASA

Care needs to be taken when setting up the ASA for the agency and, for larger firms, it should be set up centrally. It may be that the firm has already set up their account in order to access the Trust Registration Service.

Whoever sets up the account will need access to an existing set of Government Gateway credentials for any online service including self-assessment, VAT or corporation tax, as well as the agent’s own tax reference. For a sole practitioner this will be their own personal UTR, for a partnership the partnership’s UTR, and for an incorporated business the company’s corporation tax reference.

Managing access to the ASA within the firm

One of the challenges which firms may have with the new ASA is how to manage staff access. The ASA was originally designed on the basis that agents would access the ASA through their software. The agent’s software would hold the login details (user name and password) and any additional security passcode required for 2SV. Once logged on, the software would exchange client data with HMRC via one or more Application Programme Interfaces. The agent’s own software would also manage what client data each staff member could access. This is how the ASA should work for MTD for VAT.

However, as the ASA has developed, it has become necessary for agents to log into the account directly to carry out transactional services. Such transactions include registering a trust on the Trust Registration Service or completing certain iForms. This means that the agency needs to consider carefully how they want to give their staff access to their ASA.

The simplest option is to share the username and password with those staff who need access. But the simplest option is also the least secure, the virtual equivalent of leaving the front door on the latch. Agents, and HMRC, will want to take the security of ASAs more seriously.

A better option, although it comes with its own limitations, involves setting up delegate access using the manage users function. This function should shortly be available on the home page of the ASA. It allows the creation of an individual username and password for each member of staff who needs to access the ASA. This effectively gives each member of staff their own key to the firm’s ASA. This way, the agent will know which of their staff has gone through the door and, by allocating them access to certain clients, can manage which staff can complete transactions for which clients.

The manage users function is not, however, without its flaws. A staff member logging on with their own credentials will only be able to see those transactions which they have initiated. This may cause problems if a transaction started by one member of staff needs to be reviewed or completed by another. The process of allocating clients to individual members of staff is also difficult and time consuming. HMRC is aware of these limitations and is working with agents to understand how the manage users function can be improved.

Conclusion

If your firm hasn’t yet collected the virtual keys to its new ASA, now is the time to register, open the door and have a look around. More details on the ASA, including on the set up process, can be found in HMRC’s Agent Update Issue 66.

Helen Thornley is a technical officer at the ATT. 

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