Self-serve tax easier said than done

THE TAX PROFESSION has made the sensible decision to spend what was another tepid summer poring over HM Revenue & Customs’ vital consultation document on their future relationship, rather than untangling tents in sodden campsites.

On 31 May the taxman launched its tax agent strategy (TAS) consultation, which primarily aims to: require advisors to register on a database; create a ‘self-serve’ system for tax specialists to access HMRC’s systems and; monitor advisors’ performance.

Many of the concerns, and welcoming noises, from the CIOT, ATT and ICAEW bear similarities.

IT security is a major concern for the institutes, and in the circumstances accessing HMRC systems on behalf of clients opens up a myriad of potential hurdles.

The ICAEW flag up a more left-field issue relating to security: Making the system secure must not be so expensive and complex that only large firms can afford the necessary kit.

The institutes also touch on the thorny topic of the ‘professionalism’ required of advisors working so closely with HMRC.

Unsurprisingly, where they have long called for better regulation of unqualified accountants, the institutes have reiterated this in relation to the consultation.

“Currently HMRC does not recognise or give proper credit for membership of a professional body and we believe that HMRC should do so,” said ICAEW head of tax faculty Frank Haskew.

“[Further concerns highlighted] include a clear level of required professional standards for tax professional both outside and within HMRC and the need for a pledge not to disadvantage those with specialist expertise who take on the toughest cases,” said a joint statement from CIoT president Anthony Thomas and ATT president Andrew Meeson, in what was a second round of comments on the consultation.

Self-serve will undoubtedly be attractive to many advisors, but only those with a certain tax standard should gain full access. The CIoT argues that this stance is “not about protectionism by professional bodies” – instead it is important in maintaining the system’s integrity.

Haskew said that a new agent database seemed a reasonable proposition, except for the advisor requiring to confirm that its firms tax affairs were up to date.

Other concerns are more general, but no less fundamental. Thomas and Meeson call on HMRC to “articulate” its intended result from this project.

The ICAEW has again flagged up member concerns about the taxman’s performance, and how this could impact on the major changes mooted in the consultation. However, it caveats this by referring to the recent announcement of HMRC performance standards set in tandem with the institutes.

With the CIoT and ATT registering more than 2,000 responses from members, and the ICAEW undertaking a wide-ranging consultation response programme, the importance of having their say on the proposed changes is not in doubt.

As Society of Professional Accountants chairman Peter Mitchell said in the body’s response: “…The recognition accorded tax agents by this consultation goes some way to bridging a widening gulf in agents’ belief in and respect for HMRC caused by HMRC’s recent service shortcomings.”

The consultation ended on 16 September. Further details are available here.

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