Robert Maas rejects assured tax agent status
Rebecca Cave reports on the 2015 ICAEW Hardman lecture presented by leading UK tax expert Robert Maas.
Robert Maas has over 50 years’ experience in tax, probably more than anyone inside HMRC. He has strong views on the role of the tax profession and its relationship with HMRC.
Maas doesn’t see himself as being in a relationship between HMRC and the taxpayer. He sees two separate relationships:
- With his client - a contractual relationship where Maas provides the tax services the client wants to buy
- A separate relationship with HMRC – one based on trust between professionals.
However, some tax agents and certainly some HMRC officers don’t regard the other as their equal. Both sides need to recognise the other not as enemies, but as professionals doing a professional job.
Maas is not impressed by HMRC’s vision to monitor the performance of paid tax agents and to be involved with the setting of professional standards for those agents, as stated in an interview with Jim Harra, HMRC Director General for Business Tax in the March 2015 issue of Tax Journal.
Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation is part of the ethical code for Chartered Accountants and Chartered Tax Advisers produced solely by the professional bodies, it is updated regularly. There no need for it to be replaced. Maas would be concerned if ICAEW allowed HMRC to dictate its ethical code.
Maas said what we really need to be concerned about is HMRC’s desire to set the standards they expect tax agents to meet.
Maas related his experience of a HMRC webinar on Tax Agent Strategy, which made it clear that HMRC want to differentiate between tax agents by reference to the value the agent adds to tax compliance. By “adding value” HMRC mean the agent will do due-diligence on his clients’ records, educate the client about their tax obligations, and help to ensure tax compliance.
HMRC want to split tax agents into four categories:
- Assured Agents
- Good and Acceptable agents
- Poor agents
- Unacceptable agents
The Assured Agent status will not be easy to achieve so HMRC is planning to give tax agents incentives to strive for assured status by providing them special benefits such as:
- Priority access to HMRC helplines and experts
- Prompt tax repayments for their clients
- Shorter enquiry windows for clients
Maas observes that this action ignores a key part of the HMRC charter which says: “You can expect us to treat you even-handedly”.
When questioned about this during the webinar the HMRC spokeswoman said she didn’t think that giving special benefits to clients of assured agents created inequality with clients of other agents or with unrepresented taxpayers. After all, clients of agents whom HMRC rate as “good” are free to move to assured agents and, indeed, HMRC hope that is what would happen.
Maas doesn’t want to be an “assured agent”. He hopes that no other member of a professional tax/accountancy body would want to be one either, as tax professionals should be seen to be acting for their clients and not for HMRC. Maas feels such a “gold star” from HMRC would undermine his professional integrity, his duty to his clients, and his obligation to act in the public interest to uphold the rule of law in relation to tax.
It is clear that HMRC do not see all taxpayers or tax agents as equal. Maas appealed to his audience not to help HMRC’s vision of the categorisation of agents turn into a reality. That he says would be a “National Disgrace”.