Spreadsheets survive MTD cull

Hanging on to a cliff
istock_vernonwiley
Richard Hattersley
Community Assistant
AccountingWEB
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Spreadsheets received a reprieve from HMRC last week. But whether the trusted record keeping tool is able to survive the rigours of the Making Tax Digital era is another story.

“They’ve taken the digital out of Making Tax Digital,” Sion Lewis, CEO of IRIS accountancy division, told AccountingWEB shortly after the publication of the MTD consultation response on 31 January.

Lewis was surprised by HMRC’s decision to include spreadsheets within the remit of the Making Tax Digital (MTD) project. Last summer HMRC struck a non-committal stance about integrating spreadsheets into MTD. Much to the chagrin of AccountingWEB members, all the signs pointed towards spreadsheets being consigned to the record-keeping scrapheap.

Under pressure from the Commons Treasury select committee, however, HMRC relented last week and softened its original stance, by confirming in the consultation response that “Businesses will be able to continue to use spreadsheets for record keeping.”

But the spreadsheet resurrection has a caveat: “[Businesses] must ensure that their spreadsheet meets the necessary requirements of Making Tax Digital for Businesses. This is likely to involve combining the spreadsheet with software.”

Software developers blindsided

Tax software developers are now wrestling with how this concession will work in practice. IRIS CEO Kevin Dady told the House of Lords economic affairs committee on Monday that the decision to relax spreadsheets creates “an extra conundrum” for software suppliers, as they need to convert spreadsheet data into a format HMRC finds acceptable.

Kevin Hart, the chairman of the software industry trade body BASDA, said the uncertainty around spreadsheets creates equal problems for Excel users.

Hart explained that MTD software will find it “increasing difficult to translate information coming out of someone’s own Excel spreadsheet” when users have “played with the odd macro” or developed their own routines.

“People who will continue to use [spreadsheets] will not welcome any changes that HMRC are saying that you will have to make to your Excel spreadsheet,” he added. “It’s critical that we can address this uncertainty around Excel quite early on.”

Adding to the dissent, Clear Books founder Tim Fouracre commented that spreadsheets will dilute HMRC’s original digital ambition. “It seems the ‘spreadsheet’ generation just got a free pass to hide in their comfort zone until the millennials take over,” Fouracre wrote in his blog.

Fouracre asked whether future generations, weaned on iPhones and MacBooks, will turn to the trusted spreadsheet when they start up their own business. He believes HMRC has “shot itself in the foot”, because spreadsheets cause many of the errors the MTD initiative was attempting to curtail.

“MTD was an opportunity for HMRC to achieve two worthy outcomes: 1) Get its savings; and 2) increase the productivity of UK plc by steering the country into the digital age,” Fouracre added. “Instead, we’ve got neither.”

Difficult reversal

HMRC’s spreadsheet reversal is, in part, to appease the Treasury select committee’s insistence that HMRC needs to ensure that tools are available to convert information from spreadsheets into information that can be submitted as part of the quarterly digital update.

Spreadsheets found another advocate in Richard Murphy, who told the Lords committee that not only is he “not a fan” of MTD, he also didn’t understand why his Excel accounting spreadsheet was no longer good enough.

Without the emergence or confirmation of free or low cost software, even Xero’s Gary Turner said in a blog that HMRC’s spreadsheet u-turn was “sensible”.

How will it work?

Details on how spreadsheets will integrate into MTD software remain a mystery to software developers. Last week’s announcement added an extra item to the pile they will have to meet by next year’s launch date.

IRIS CEO Kevin Dady hinted at the developers’ frustration with HMRC to the Lords committee. “It was only announced last week for something we are trying to deliver this year,” he said.

As software developers grapple with making MTD-compliant spreadsheets a reality, ICAEW IT faculty technical manager and AccountingWEB blogger David Lyford- Smith argued in his MTD consultation response that “properly formatted spreadsheets should be an acceptable way of interfacing with HMRC”. In view a “self-auditing template” could be the answer to the developers’ conundrum.

“Excel and the other spreadsheet packages all contain multiple tools to control and restrict user inputs,” he said. “These tools include data validation, conditional formatting, logic checks, VBA controls, and many more.”

During an during an appearance on ICAEW’s TAXtalk, Lyford-Smith specified that “home brew” spreadsheets will not be acceptable as they will have to go through a process to “format it in a way the APIs at HMRC’s end need”.

He added: “[Spreadsheets] will likely be in a particular format or using a template so that it’s simple for that middle-man program to pick up the appropriate detail from the spreadsheet and send it off to HMRC.”

Encouraging concession

AccountingWEB members, meanwhile, were encouraged by the spreadsheet concession. For example, Adjadj said it would be “relatively simple” to extract the data needed from the spreadsheet.

“The build solution is a) define the content of standard CSV file that the software will use to import the data, b) create a new worksheet collated data between dates 1 and 2 with columns in the CSV format,” said Adjadj.

While enthusiastic members are already speculating on how to hot-wire clients’ spreadsheets to comply with the regime, others are not convinced. AccountingWEB member Tornado asked: “What sort of program is going to be able to magically extract the necessary information from any spreadsheet and send that to MTD compliant software? They also probably assume that all spreadsheets are created in Excel when of course this is most definitely not the case.”

As HMRC concedes to the spreadsheet demand, the original vision for digital tax will morph into something different. Or is it more of a case of the more things change the more they stay the same?

How big a role do you see spreadsheets playing in Making Tax Digital? Will the requirements needed for spreadsheets to comply with MTD add another layer of confusion for the taxpayer? 

 

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09th Feb 2017 14:29

Tim Fouracre (software company founder with vested interest) says "It seems the ‘spreadsheet’ generation just got a free pass to hide in their comfort zone...".

The generation he refers to derogatorily consists of the parents of the entitled, pampered Millennials he lauds. Parents who worked, and continue to work, hard in self-employment, who see creating value for their customers and, therefore, providing for their family as their prime motivators: not wasting time and money on software they do not need just to make Tim happy.

How terribly patronising.

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to Adrian Pearson
09th Feb 2017 11:37

Very well said!

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to Adrian Pearson
10th Feb 2017 09:34

Spot on!

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By DJKL
to Adrian Pearson
10th Feb 2017 10:19

Well,looks like Tim Fouracre has done a Gerald Ratner re his marketing, I suspect, all other things being equal, that his company is now my last choice of software supplier.

How to win friends and influence people, what a plonker.

One question he maybe ought to ask himself, decision makers in practice, what percentage come from the "spreadsheet generation"?

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to Adrian Pearson
13th Feb 2017 11:02

Yes, I really don't understand why it is a business-owner's job to take time away from actually running his business, in order to learn how to fiddle around on some other system that HMRC are still hoping someone will invent.

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09th Feb 2017 10:43

Turning to the substance of this article, unless I am being really thick, this seems like a "Storm in a workbook".

Excel is used for bookkeeping. Currently annual column totals are transposed into [3 or 12] tax return boxes annually. Under MTD the only difference is that 4 quarterly [+1] column totals are transposed into [3 or 12] filing software boxes quarterly.

Business owners can use 5 million different spreadsheet formats. It doesn't matter, as long as they can type [3 or 12] totals into some software boxes.

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By SteveRA
09th Feb 2017 11:38

Let's just say MTD should only apply to those born after 1990. The rest of you can carry on as you were. A nice gradual changeover.

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09th Feb 2017 11:40

Tim Fouracre has obviously never ventured outside of his digital bunker into the real 'analogue' world where most people through no fault of their own cannot even drive a spreadsheet - let alone cope with acquiring and using the new, yet to be devised software.

This is going to end in tears - for all concerned...

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09th Feb 2017 11:56

Many of my clients can't even change a formula in a spreadsheet, they ask me to set it up for them. If they don't deal with these things everyday why should they know how to change spreadsheets? Its easy for us accountants, we do it everyday, but not for everyone else. I have a one client, who is a highly intelligent therapist but still doesn't "get" turnover, costs and profit. Why should she, that's what I'm there for as she is not wired like I am!

This is all like Payroll RTI, all the benefit for HMRC and little benefit to the self-employed.

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09th Feb 2017 11:59

As Adrian Pearson says - it is just a few figures each quarter. It does not matter whether you type them in or import/copy paste from a spreadsheet or from a bookkeeping system. Within our tax software we have the facility to transmit to MTD data from a spreadsheet. It will be available to trial from Monday. End sales pitch !

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to daveforbes
09th Feb 2017 12:05

Can you PM me details please as my current tax return software provider seems to have no details yet and I need to plan!

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to daveforbes
09th Feb 2017 15:08

daveforbes wrote:

As Adrian Pearson says - it is just a few figures each quarter. It does not matter whether you type them in or import/copy paste from a spreadsheet or from a bookkeeping system. Within our tax software we have the facility to transmit to MTD data from a spreadsheet. It will be available to trial from Monday. End sales pitch !

Initially the fear was that all businesses would have to transmit not only every transaction, with multi data fields, but also digital images of the documents.

So, unless I'm missing something, I too don't see what the fuss is about. The business has to record date, value and category (less than 20) and transmit to HMRC either the category totals or, for smaller businesses, just the 3 line totals of income, expenditure and profit.

One of the basics of Cloud accounting is the import of CSVs of bank data and many of my clients use the same functionality to import sales & purchases and so it just seems common sense to allow people to maintain lists of data in spreadsheet format.

Given that there are a huge number of potential customers out there for cloud accounting software, providing a free tool to import a spreadsheet and configure it to transmit the above totals would also seem common sense.

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to daveforbes
13th Feb 2017 09:41

Hi Dave, where can I access the trial please? It's Monday :)

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to Adrian Pearson
13th Feb 2017 10:00

In the demo version of our tax software, edit/tax data/mtd

Drop me an email if you need further info.

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09th Feb 2017 12:00

Tim Fouracre is only salty because now the software developers haven't got a free pass to charge small businesses for software they previously didn't need.

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to SpreadsheetUser
10th Feb 2017 09:37

And his software is getting left behind by better products.

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By davexyz
09th Feb 2017 12:01

The Workplace pension schemes allow data input via csv files on a set "format" so what is the issue

NEST has one particular set of csv requirements and other pension schemes have variations on these . Accounting packages once aware of the requirements for each of these schemes output csv files to interface correctly with the respective schemes.

In reality it is no different to the pdf template that was used to send information to Companies House and HMRC for company accounts. Just type in from the balance sheet etc. That has checks for validation of data

So surely a simple Excel worksheet with fixed protected headings and a few checks should be a trivial task to be developed for the small/basic tax payer that has to comply with MTD.

MTD is/was over the top anyway

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09th Feb 2017 12:12

Oh for the days of the quill pen (right handed preferably).

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to Casterbridge Hardy LLP
09th Feb 2017 12:18

Well said Casterbridge, but I fear that it won't be long until HMRC insist we can't offer our clients a coffee unless we promise to switch on the kettle remotely and file an on-line Report to say how many sugars they requested!

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09th Feb 2017 12:17

I am almost tempted to say I will not read the book but wait for the film.
Am I missing something but my software converts ltd company accounts information into iXBRL for HMRC and Companies House. Surely I just need an extension of this?
I am really sorry (not) that the software providers are a bit miffed but hopefully common sense will prevail. What's the betting the rollout will be delayed because the software people will get their own back with HMRC for effectively stabbing them in the back.

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By RobertD
09th Feb 2017 12:31

Fouracres comment is as arrogant as those made by HMRC. I would suggest that those businesses choosing to hide with spreadsheets may be allowed to concentrate on their businesses and the myriad of tasks that entails. The nature of MTD is that records would be kept in real time as opposed yearly. This will be the case with spreadsheets the same as it is with accounting software. It is ridiculous to suggest that someone who is confident with Excel will make fewer errors with accounting software. So Fouracre's assumption that HMRC have shot themselves in the foot is incorrect too.

Beware of him who gives you advice according to his own interests.

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to RobertD
09th Feb 2017 12:48

real time reporting is fine if you can afford an accounts dept, but if not the but will fall on accountants

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09th Feb 2017 12:33

The software producers' comments about maintaining "excel" are not surprising.They presumably realise that they are not going to be able to sell as much of their proprietary software products as they thought they would be able to.

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By GW
09th Feb 2017 12:39

Part of the problem is the lack of information. Has anyone seen a proposed definition of what records will be covered by MTD and will need to be kept electronically?

The draft legislation only says HMRC may make regulations.
Will every £1.50 petty cash voucher need to be recorded separately on the system, or will it be possible to process a batch of entries? it appears everyone is guessing, does anyone including HMRC know the answer?

Part of my problem with MTD is that I've yet to see a computerised bookkeeping system that in terms of quality of information that is as good as a well kept manual system, in part because of the limited amounts of description - in a manual system it isn't a problem if you want to take half a dozen lines to write a description, rather than a limited number of characters available on a computerised system. Computers have their place but are they always the best solution for everyone?

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to GW
09th Feb 2017 12:57

We seem to have moved from an age of technology being a handy tool IF you wanted to use it, to an age of where it's used just for the sake of it, even if no benefit.

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09th Feb 2017 12:44

this whole MTD THING is ridiculous its just one thing that has to be at the top of chancellor phillip hammonds' to do list since at least the house of lords and treasury select comittee are fighting the taxpayers' corner. how can and should micro businesses be bought into this quangonomic idea being put through by HMRC... for all business with a turnover over 10,000!

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to david5541
09th Feb 2017 14:15

Indeed, imagine a person, they work full time and at weekends make wooden rocking horses. They make 5 or 6 of these a year and they sell for £2000 - £3000 each!

The words nut and sledgehammer come to mind.

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09th Feb 2017 12:47

"because spreadsheets cause many of the errors the MTD initiative was attempting to curtail."

Hmmm....based on taking on clients who bought accounting software vs taking on clients who used simple spreadsheets, I can tell you which contained the most errors and took longer to sort out - the former!

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to SpreadsheetUser
09th Feb 2017 13:41

I was going to comment saying exactly the same - auto bank feed recalling previous analysis that the client never checks, memorised transactions just being posted with no review, bank and credit card accounts unreconciled, debtors and creditors lists in a mess..........

How often do we find ourselves completely reworking via spreadsheet because it will be far quicker and cheaper than trying to fix our clients attempts at being accountants?

Spend a day in the real world HMRC

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09th Feb 2017 13:26

Extract above
'He added: “[Spreadsheets] will likely be in a particular format or using a template so that it’s simple for that middle-man program to pick up the appropriate detail from the spreadsheet and send it off to HMRC.”'

Sounds good to me.

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By Tornado
09th Feb 2017 14:03

One of my original assumptions about the accounting aspect of MTD was that HMRC were trying to take full advantage of the digital age and the mandatory requirement to use prescribed software was that this would give them the opportunity to inspect EVERY transaction that a business or Landlord undertakes in the course of their business activities. Hence the photos of receipts and with prescribed software, probably copies of sales invoices and any other documents the software can produce. This might be fine for the very small business but even now they do not seem to have realised the implication of this for larger businesses.

This would see (they think) a significant reduction or even elimination of visits to see business records by HMRC Inspectors who are clearly finding it a struggle to understand the wide variety of ways that people keep their records these days, and in particular the many different accounting software packages available today.

I can see a logic in this and sold like that to HMRC, I am not surprised that they think this is a good idea.

I also believe that the quarterly reporting is just a way to check that you are using prescribed software otherwise there would be no need for quarterly Returns. I think the concession of allowing the use of spreadsheets, but with a digital link to MTD prescribed software is an attempt to try and hang on the the concept of gathering as much information from the spreadsheet as possible for inspection purposes. This is a half-cocked approach of course as there is no way that this is going to work.

What would work pretty well, if quarterly reporting is really required, is for people to be able to use a VAT style of reporting where prescribed information is entered into an HMRC template each quarter, and then why would you need to pay for MTD compliant software if you are only using it to make summary quarterly returns?

I think HMRC are struggling with this now as they thought they would be able to sit in their 13 Ivory Towers and just look at the business records of all traders and landlords as and when they wish but that will not now be possible, unless businesses effectively voluntarily opt to use MTD compliant software that does automatically report all transactions to HMRC and the question is, why would you use such software if you did not have to.

HMRC deserve all the criticism they get. They should have spent more time taking to the people who know about this significantly more than they do and instead of the disaster that lies ahead, we could have been looking at a clear, fair and practical way to progress into a more digital way to administer tax.

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By RobertD
to Tornado
09th Feb 2017 14:44

Tornado wrote:

One of my original assumptions about the accounting aspect of MTD was that HMRC were trying to take full advantage of the digital age and the mandatory requirement to use prescribed software was that this would give them the opportunity to inspect EVERY transaction that a business or Landlord undertakes in the course of their business activities. Hence the photos of receipts and with prescribed software, probably copies of sales invoices and any other documents the software can produce. This might be fine for the very small business but even now they do not seem to have realised the implication of this for larger businesses.

This would see (they think) a significant reduction or even elimination of visits to see business records by HMRC Inspectors who are clearly finding it a struggle to understand the wide variety of ways that people keep their records these days, and in particular the many different accounting software packages available today.

I can see a logic in this and sold like that to HMRC, I am not surprised that they think this is a good idea.

I also believe that the quarterly reporting is just a way to check that you are using prescribed software otherwise there would be no need for quarterly Returns. I think the concession of allowing the use of spreadsheets, but with a digital link to MTD prescribed software is an attempt to try and hang on the the concept of gathering as much information from the spreadsheet as possible for inspection purposes. This is a half-cocked approach of course as there is no way that this is going to work.

What would work pretty well, if quarterly reporting is really required, is for people to be able to use a VAT style of reporting where prescribed information is entered into an HMRC template each quarter, and then why would you need to pay for MTD compliant software if you are only using it to make summary quarterly returns?

I think HMRC are struggling with this now as they thought they would be able to sit in their 13 Ivory Towers and just look at the business records of all traders and landlords as and when they wish but that will not now be possible, unless businesses effectively voluntarily opt to use MTD compliant software that does automatically report all transactions to HMRC and the question is, why would you use such software if you did not have to.

HMRC deserve all the criticism they get. They should have spent more time taking to the people who know about this significantly more than they do and instead of the disaster that lies ahead, we could have been looking at a clear, fair and practical way to progress into a more digital way to administer tax.

What he said.

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to Tornado
09th Feb 2017 15:04

Although the HMRC need you to keep digital records it is only the quarterly totals that you are transmitting.

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to daveforbes
09th Feb 2017 15:30

How do they know if you are keeping digital records? I thought the purpose of now allowing spreadsheets meant we could carry on analysing paperwork on spreadsheets and then transmit these figures/totals?

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to SpreadsheetUser
09th Feb 2017 16:01

I think the idea is that you keep your spreadsheet of transactions (date, amount income/expense category) and upload it into software which then adds it up and generates a file to transmit of the (up to 17) categories or just 3 totals.

In other words similar to what my clients do if they import a CSV of sales or purchases into their Cloud accounting.

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to Paul Scholes
09th Feb 2017 16:30

It's not that complicated.

The "upload it into software which adds it up" step is not required. Transactions can be added up in the spreadsheet. The resulting totals then, simply, need to be transposed into 3-12 boxes in software that can then transmit those totals to the HMRC API.

No CSV or import needed.

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to Adrian Pearson
09th Feb 2017 17:50

Hi Adrian - that's interesting, so the equivalent of a big VAT return?

From reading HMRC's response and in particular "This is likely to involve combining the spreadsheet with software in some way" I had assumed a similar process to what people do at the mo when importing spreadsheets, ie dump all the lines as well. If it's just entering the numbers then why do we need software, wouldn't HMRC just provide the boxes on your digital account, like they have done with VAT returns?

Also, there were 17 income/expense SA categories listed on the consultation have they knocked off 5?

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to Paul Scholes
10th Feb 2017 07:17

As little as 2, but for larger businesses 2 for income and 14 expense categories (plus 14 more if you count disallowables) so up to 30. This may get refined over the next 12 months.

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to Paul Scholes
09th Feb 2017 17:45

Thanks, I misinterpreted that I still had to fanny around scanning every single receipt

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By 0098087
09th Feb 2017 15:27

One simple question. why is this needed It isn't.

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By Oppco
09th Feb 2017 15:41

I can't help thinking that Tim Fouracre is not fully the master of his subject

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By Ang
09th Feb 2017 16:26

I have 36 self assessment clients and 31 businesses (mixture of limited and sole traders) what any of those clients know about excel spread sheets you can put in one sentence and because I came late in life to computers (72 this month) even though I have a degree in Banking I am self taught in excel and then it is only basic work, but am fully conversant with an accounting program. This all reminds me of the banking push to a cashless society indeed one 'think tank' in a major high street bank in the 80's was forecasting a cashless society by the year 2000. The problem with all this new advancements and systems thought up by high flying IT bods is that everybody overlooks the ordinary person or considers that eventually they will just fall out of the system! I am aware that quarterly reporting exists and works in the USA but why not just use the reporting service that we have? why do matters have to be complicated, we also know that the Government does not have a good track record in IT!!
Digger
Tonbridge

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09th Feb 2017 16:35

It's not all bad news for Tiny Minded Tim. Should he lose his job, he is if anything over-qualified for a similar role in the Numpty Department at HMRC.

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09th Feb 2017 16:40

Simple - I provide an excel cashbook FOC to my clients. It has 12 separate months and a total page (plus a few other bits and pieces, useful and necessary for me).
I will provide an extra page with 4 qtrs and the interface will be the client!

Any problems with that?

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09th Feb 2017 16:47

We only need 2 figures a quarter (one of the figures is one minus the other)

Actually all we need is very nice online digital portal (the powers that be love to say 'digital', it makes 'em look modern) where those two numbers can be keyed and a big button (looking like a wastebin) which we press to shove the useless data into a blackhole, to be completely ignored by HMRC.

IOr it could be a macro in excel that does all the fancy stuff, like VT does for online filing of account to CH.

Then come Q5, and we do it properly.

I am sure an enterprising programmer can come up with that, once the spec is known.

how the data leaps from the clients records (kept how they damn well please) to the digital online system matters not a jot.

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to ireallyshouldknowthisbut
09th Feb 2017 17:35

ireallyshouldknowthisbut wrote:

We only need 2 figures a quarter (one of the figures is one minus the other)

Actually all we need is very nice online digital portal (the powers that be love to say 'digital', it makes 'em look modern) where those two numbers can be keyed and a big button (looking like a wastebin) which we press to shove the useless data into a blackhole, to be completely ignored by HMRC.

IOr it could be a macro in excel that does all the fancy stuff, like VT does for online filing of account to CH.

Then come Q5, and we do it properly.

I am sure an enterprising programmer can come up with that, once the spec is known.

how the data leaps from the clients records (kept how they damn well please) to the digital online system matters not a jot.

Only trouble is when HMRC go for what they really want and all transactional data is submitted monthly and then in real time!

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to North East Accountant
09th Feb 2017 19:01

Well we arent there yet, I am sure Gaulk would have got his gong by then and be well out of the picture once it is realised that receiving garbage data doesn't help anyone.

Remember iXBRL and how that was to be coded for every single P&L item? but.......................now we just ping them an absurdly minimalist balance sheet and thats cool. Even if half of your lines are not coded, no-one blinks at HMRC's end.

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By djtax
09th Feb 2017 17:52

Since when were software packages able to correct untrained client mispostings?
I picked up a new client who had already bought and started to use one of the well known packages for his new Limited company without any understanding of what it involved. He had posted some employee costs to the Balance Sheet PAYE/NI creditor account (a common error for the untrained user) and his own dividend payments were muddled with employee staff costs. Somehow there was even a P&L Reserves Balance b/f from the non - existent previous year. I have also seen unincorporated businesses post the proprietor's drawings to staff wages costs. Left to their own devices they will be submitting some very unusual P&L figures to HMRC under MTD!

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to djtax
09th Feb 2017 18:13

EXACTLY. HMRC want such nonsense sent to them so they can penalise the taxpayer for being "careless". Why do you think this word was introduced when talking about penalties?
It has always been my mantra that it is "horses for courses" when dealing with my self-employed clients. They do their job and I do mine for them. They cannot do my job that I do for them and I cannot do their job.
It is becoming increasingly clear from the this whole sorry MTD episode that if one fails the exam to become a skilled worker you qualify for a job with HMRC.
HARRA & Co, still waiting. TRIPLE dare you to come out in daylight.

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By 0098087
09th Feb 2017 18:09

One very straight forward subbie,who still writes in a book has been looking at Quickbooks and he said to me yesterday, I don't want it to go to HMRC without you checking it.

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