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<b>Practice Feature:</b> Self Assessment '06: Dispatches from the front line. By John Stokdyk

2nd Feb 2006
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In the aftermath of last week's Self Assessment deadline, AccountingWEB members have been letting off steam by sharing their war stories on the site.

Overall, the mood echoed that of Tuesday's article, Self Assessment Online copes with deadline workload - the filing by internet systems may have delivered, but there were still some compatibility problems with the human interfaces at local offices, and in spite of improvements in December and January, more work will be needed to bed in the new online client authorisation system.

For this article, AccountingWEB spoke to some members to provide an overview of how the Self Assessment system worked as a whole for the 2004/05 tax year and dipped into the online debate to provide a round-up of suggestions about where and how Revenue & Customs can make advisers' lives easier next year.

"For accountants, the new year doesn't start until 1 February," said Stephanie Jackson, a partner in the two-person firm of Phipps Wakefield Accountants in Oldbury, West Midlands. Each year, the toll of self assessment has weighed more heavily on her - but then for the past two tax seasons, she has been in the later stages of pregnancy as the deadline approached.

"Last year was the worst because I was struggling and had to have time off to go into hospital," she told AccountingWEB. "This year wasn't easy because my business partner had health problems, but we managed to reach the deadline."

Since it arrived in 1997, the Self Assessment has been a nightmare, she said. "My eldest son was born in 1996, so I've been working over Christmas since he's been old enough to enjoy it. I only take off Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's Day - this year we were lucky because they fell on the weekend, so we didn't have to take so much time off work."

The first thing HMRC can do to improve how the system works, she suggested, would be to give taxpayers the full year to 5 April to get their affairs in order, rather than insisting on getting returns back within 10 months.

Phipps Wakefield did not opt to use the filing by internet because of problems the encountered last year with PAYE online. Many of the firm's clients went online to claim the £250 incentive, but so far only three have received their payments and many of the rest are moaning at their accountants. Jackson may make the move next year to filing SA returns online, but still has concerns that systems such as PAYE and Tax Credits are in a "total mess".

This year, Phipps Wakefield also saw an increase in the number of enquiries - and local HMRC officials have assured Jackson the firm has a good reputation for the quality of its work.

"They say it's the type of business we're looking after - but it's clear they are putting a lot more people on to enquiries," she said.

One enquiry occupied her time for six weeks in the middle of the year. The firm helped to bring down the assessment, but the work was a major burden for Jackson and her client. Here, at least, the internet came to her aid. Jackson went on to AccountingWEB and found a previous Any Answers thread where someone else had tackled the same technical issue in a Revenue enquiry. "That helped a lot," she said.

Arnold Brewer, of Oxford-based Business Accountancy Consultants said this was the first year the husband-and-wife firm filed online. "We use Digita TaxabilityPro, which worked very well. What we found frustrating, especially in the run-up to 31 January, were the delays in getting 64-8s processed - and then seeing them disappear in thin air."

Preferring to deal with the local office rather than the new Central Agent Authorisation Team in Newcastle, Brewer did not try out the new instant online authorisation process introduced in November. The need to hand-deliver returns was cut down to two visits, but on one occasion, Carol Brewer was forced to stand for more than 20 minutes in a long general enquiry queue just to hand over a couple of returns.

"They seemed to be deliberately more awkward than was necessary," reported Arnold Brewer.

Next year, he comments, the firm will do all it can to use technology to ease the Self Assessment burden. "Im very keen to embrace all forms of technology as much as possible," Brewer said.

"If it wasn't for technology I wouldn't do this job - I would sweep the road or drive a taxi. The quicker it gets brought in everywhere, the better."

"When it works, it works well," said Sue Kyte of Hinckley-based Integra Accounting. "We took on a new client mid-January, and used the new agent authorisation system instead of a 64-8," she reported.

"The authorisation code came through within a week and was activated on Friday 27 January. The client was on our agent list on Monday 30 January upon return to work after the weekend, and we successfully filed his return on Monday afternoon."

Kyte says her firm had three clients disappear from the government web gateway in November-December, but these were sorted out by the HMRC telephone helpdesk within a few days. She particularly liked the ability to manage the firm's client list online and delete old clients.

"This is our third year of filing by internet and we encourage it," she said. "Self Assessment is a whole lot better, although we're annoyed by the 2006/07 coding notices that started coming out in January. As if we didn't have enough on our hands."

The firm's main problem, she added, wasn't the Revenue. "It's been clients not getting their documentation in. That's probably true for everybody."

Self Assessment 2004/05: AccountingWEB members' feedback

Top moans

  • Delays processing 64-8s and clients disappearing from online lists
  • HRMC refusing to issue or date-stamp receipts at local offices
  • Clients late with their records
  • Minor flaws/omissions in online returns
  • Issuing statements of account in December (two against, one for)
  • Don't ditch ELS.

    Suggestions for improvement

  • Stephanie Jackson: Introduce a 12-month deadline, extending it to 5 April.
  • Andrew Bassett: "On the matter of receipts, if a client brings in papers to our offices and asks for a receipt, we would surely give one as a matter of customer relationships." If HMRC is going to refuse receipts, perhaps it should reconsider its policy of referring to taxpayers as "customers".
  • David Early: Issue statements of account automatically after online returns are processed.
  • James Synge: Accept negative costs in the Self Employment P&L page; Geoff Challinger, "And also to allow for changes of accounting date".
  • Geoff Challinger wanted to see more effort put into making the messages and communications from the FBI system more human-friendly: "After a while you glean what Error Message 3000 might mean, but it should be more transparent." The system could also default to the taxpayer's name rather than the UTR for data entry and acceptance messages. It creates extra admin work matching them to client files, and as Geoff commented, "Dunno about everyone else, but I think of clients by name, not number."

    John Stokdyk

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    Replies (2)

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    By AnonymousUser
    03rd Feb 2006 16:56

    No Receipts?
    If you are not going to give receipts for Returns, then put in a pillar box in the tax office.

    In the spirit of DIY for customers that seems to prevail all over. Can I suggest a Revenue date stamp, fixed to the desk which the 'customers' can use to date stamp the Return they are delivering and their copy of page 1 (or the signature page if you prefer) of the tax return.

    This would be proof the person delivering the Return was in the tax office on the day the return was stamped.

    Not absolute proof that a tax return had been left but better than what we have now which is NO evidence at all!

    Thanks (0)
    By AnonymousUser
    06th Feb 2006 12:35

    Default to name not UTR - I agree
    I agree with Geoff that the default on FBI should be to the taxpayer's name and not UTR. It's only a couple of keystrokes extra to be able to enter the name from the drop-down menu but it is an irritation nonetheless which I had been thinking of drawing to HMRC attention.

    I also agree that FBI has worked well this year but that the error messages are entirely unhelpful and resulted in me needing to file two returns on paper because neither my software supplier nor HMRC could tell me why the return had been rejected on FBI

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