HMRC launches upgraded Agent Forumby
The Revenue has updated the way registered tax agents can flag issues to it and each other, but does it solve some of the problems that dogged its previous incarnation? Helen Thornley investigates.
The Agent Forum is the main portal through which tax agents can raise general queries about issues they have with the HMRC systems or processes, and they can answer queries posed by other forum members.
The old version of the Agent Forum had been operating for about two years, but it had significant drawbacks in terms of ease of operation.
On 7 October 2019, HMRC launched the updated version of the Agent Forum, hosted on a different platform with extra features and an improved search facility.
How does it work?
By posting queries on the forum, tax agents can flag up concerns to HMRC, search to see whether the issues they are experiencing are also being faced by others, contribute their experiences as evidence and see what is being done about them.
The forum is divided into various topic areas and issues should obviously be raised under the relevant heading. Each new topic or ‘thread’ is given its own unique reference number and threads are organised by date order with the latest posting at the top.
Adding your own comments or experiences to a thread is straightforward: simply post a reply at the bottom. Users of the old forum should be aware that it is no longer possible to amend posts once they have been submitted, so it’s worth proofreading your replies before committing to posting.
One of the benefits of the new forum is that when a reply is made to one of your posts, you should receive an email alert.
If you want to keep track of a specific thread which you haven’t commented on but want to see what responses are made by HMRC and other users, then it is possible to ‘subscribe’ to the thread. A list of subscribed threads is available under the user’s ‘account’ settings.
Who monitors the forum?
HMRC’s forum team monitor forum postings and will seek answers from elsewhere within HMRC or ask for further information or supporting evidence. HMRC will also post details about service issues or other updates to the forum – sometimes before they appear elsewhere on GOV.UK.
The forum is monitored by technical staff in the professional bodies and volunteers who are members of the Issues Overview Group (IOG). They try to identify potentially widespread issues. These issues might need further escalation within HMRC if a satisfactory answer has not been provided on the forum. Alternatively, the technical staff may highlight an issue to members of their organisation who are not on the forum.
The search function
The biggest gripe about the old version of the Agent Forum was the unreliable search function. This made it hard to find previous posts or identify if a problem had been flagged up before and possibly solved.
At this stage, as the new updated forum has only been live for a few days it is hard to tell how much of an improvement the new search function is. My first impression is that the search does appear to be more reliable and you can filter based on when you think the issue might have been raised.
The search function also searches across a new knowledge base which provides links to HMRC guidance.
How to sign up
The forum is only visible to tax agents who have signed up and been accepted by HMRC. If you were already a contributor to the previous forum, then you should have received a link and instructions for transferring to the new forum when it went live. If you are a new user, then you can sign up by following the links here.
The initial sign-up process will only give you access to the Customer Forums, which are intended for the wider public. To get access to the Agent Forum, you need to go to your profile and tick ‘Request agent forums access’. You will then be asked for your professional body and membership number. Once these have been submitted, HMRC aims to approve your application within two working days. Membership of the forum is still limited to accountants who are a member of a professional body.
Not a cure-all
While we appreciate a forum might not be the preferred approach for everyone, at the ATT we are encouraging our members to sign up and use the forum. When problems are encountered, the more evidence that there is of any given issue, the better the chance we have of getting it resolved – to the benefit of both tax agents and HMRC.
The forum is not the place to report client-specific problems (for which the Agent Account Managers route may be more effective) and personal information about clients should not be included in any posts.
Where HMRC ask for details of a specific client’s situation to provide evidence of the issue, this should be sent separately to [email protected].
Agents who don’t wish to use the forum, or have a concern that they feel has not been adequately addressed, should contact the IOG representative for their professional body. Representative details can be found in the ‘Working Together’ section of the Agent Update.
While the forum is intended to be the first port of call for operational issues, it is not the only way to raise concerns, and the professional bodies can, where appropriate, raise points with HMRC in meetings or consultation responses.
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Helen Thornley has a focus on personal and capital taxes. Initially training as an accountant before moving to tax, she worked in practice until her appointment as a technical officer in 2017. She also has an interest in the history of tax.