Like everything else in accounting these days, accounts preparation is going through a period of digital transformation. For the UK profession, it all started back in 2011 When the government mandated the use of iXBRL tags for the accounts submitted to HMRC as part of the CT600 return pack.
Reducing accounts to a set of machine-readable data tags undermined years of expertise accountants had devoted to crafting the look and layout of their financial statements. That legacy lives on in the highly sophisticated report generators that accompany many AP application. From a compliance perspective, however, HMRC, Companies House and financial analysts just want the electronic version.
The continuing trend towards digital compliance poses some longer term questions for UK GAAP and accounts preparation. Micro-company cash accounting and the small companies reporting regime for those under the £10.2m audit threshold have stripped much of the substance from statutory accounts. And if, as HMRC intends, we move to a regime where businesses will report their revenue and expenses quarterly and then tidy things up for tax purposes in a final submission, will anyone bother with formal financial statements?
This set of reviews looks at the apps that are available and being used by accountants in 2018, but when making your choice, bear in mind how your reporting processes are likely to evolve in the next 3-5 years.
How do these systems acquire the data from which the final accounts are prepared? Importing trial balances is the standard approach, based on the assumption that the client organisation uses accounting software that can export a CSV TB, or has a direct data link.
Less proficient companies may rely on the accountant to work up the accounts from incomplete records, or leave it to them to work with an external bookkeeper or handle the accounts in-house.
As a relatively straightforward process, accounts production does not usually attract the same attention as tax, but as iXBRL and new UK GAAP have shown, there are enough technicalities to cause trouble when the underlying regulations change.
Within practice software suites, workflows that share standing data and pass information from final accounts into corporation tax and personal tax returns can save a lot of time. But increasingly application programming interfaces can play the same role between unrelated applications.
With MTD looming, we are beginning to see cloud accounting platforms such as Xero, FreeAgent and QuickBooks announcing plans to move into this specialist area. So rather than relying on specialist providers, generating small company accounts could become just another menu option within the accounting platform.
Cloud accounting has already started to disrupt this software, with some rapid movements towards Taxfiler and Capium and away from more established suppliers such as Wolters Kluwer, IRIS and CaseWare. For smaller practitioners, price is often a driving motivation, with different patterns emerging between this low end segment and larger (£1m+ turnover) firms that are prepared to pay a premium for integration.
But AccountingWEB member who switched from IRIS offered the following analysis of shifting attitudes: “I think they will turn away small firms like mine (who make up 75% of the accounting firms in the UK (sole director/owner with less than 10 staff). [That’s] just going to leave room for the likes of BTCSoftware, Absolute, TaxCalc and so on to hoover up the majority of the market if they get their offering and pricing right.
“The idea now of a full integrated system is dying as there are so many standalone packages that can do their niche task better than the integrated packages can do and compete on price.”
Transition to UK GAAP
There’s another reason for recent friction in the accounts production market – the transition to the new UK GAAP represented by the FRSSE replacement FRS 105 and FRS 102 and its variants.
Getting to grips with the new treatments wasn’t just a struggle for practitioners. The technical teams and developers at several specialist software houses were also up against it, even though they should have been aware of the requirements of IFRS by the time the UK opted to move its national GAAP closer to the international framework.
There are several instances where customers told us the suppliers they had relied on for years “dropped the ball” when it came to the transition – and their disappointment is reflected in the product ratings and Net Promoter Scores recorded in our annual survey.
Accountants cannot resist tinkering with final accounts, reassigning transactions to the correct account code or taking in additional tweaks for work in progress, accruals or depreciation. This process does create compications around version control and can lock users out of desktop systems until adjustments are re-imported to the originating ledger system. One of the most effective ways to overcome them is to have the AP program write back the adjustments automatically into the core ledgers, so they’re always correct.
Increasingly, however, accountants are relying more on keeping the live ledgers up-to-date (often for accurate management reporting) and then outputting the correct totals to their final accounts template. So while manual adjustment journals are featured in many of the listed packages, they may not be the must-have feature they used to be.