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Last call for views on Agent Strategy

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15th Sep 2011
Partner Rebecca Benneyworth Training Consultants
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The consultation period for HMRC’s Agent Strategy proposals ends on Friday 16 September. After months of sometimes heated debate on AccountingWEB, tax editor Rebecca Benneyworth has summarised the community’s responses.

One of the dominant views in the initial period after the consultation document was published was that there should be no engagement with HMRC on the topics raised until the tax authority put its own house in order.

A community poll, however, showed that a clear majority felt it was important to respond to the consultation. This is what we have done, while the formal submission does acknowledge the concerns of those expressing the strongest objections – although sometimes few in number.

Another concern raised was that the proposed enrolment process to access online facilities for agents represented  the “thin end of the wedge” of HMRC regulation by HMRC. Subsequent comments from the department made it clear that it has neither the intention, nor the resources to take on a regulatory role.

On the whole members on the whole were not concerned about the details asked for on enrolment, although several questioned the need to supply this data again, as they believed that HMRC already had access to all of the information requested.

Concerns about the proposed Agent View echoed some of the comments about regulation. Most advisers who commented on AccountingWEB felt it unfair to be judged by client compliance such as whether they paid tax or submitted returns on time. Both of these are regarded as outside the agent’s control. There was absolute agreement with the proposal that HMRC refusing to deal with an agent should be supervised by an independent body. The overview of the response is printed below.

URGENT: This is the final opportunity for AccountingWEB members to make their views known to HMRC. If you have any comments to add to those you may already have made please do so below, in the Agent Strategy discussion group or by private message to RebeccaBenneyworth and these will be included in an appendix to the report.

AccountingWEB.co.uk response to consultation on Agent strategy

Introduction
During the early part of the consultation period, AccountingWEB ran a number of detailed articles on the consultation, intended to invite comment and prompt debate about the issues raised. In addition to editorial content on the main site, we launched a discussion group where members could discuss the issues in more detail.

Early on in the period, a strong feeling was expressed that there should be no engagement with HMRC on the subjects in the consultation document, on the basis that the tax authority should put its own house in order before seeking to come to agents with proposals. The views supporting this were expressed in increasingly strong terms in the discussion group.

Following this we undertook a vote on the main site to establish whether the wider membership believed that we should continue work to respond to the consultation. The answer was a significant Yes, but the views expressed by a number of members remained very critical. It is therefore difficult to make a response that takes all of members’ views into account. This response seeks to represent the broad view while acknowledging the concerns of those expressing the strongest objections – although sometimes few in number.

Enrolment
Members on the whole were not concerned about the details asked for on enrolment, although several questioned the need to supply this data again, as they believed that HMRC already had access to all of the information requested. The most vehement comments were from those members for whom enrolment seemed to represent the “thin end of the wedge” – that is the start of regulation by HMRC.

Taking the broadest range of views, I could summarise by saying that many of our members have no objections to the enrolment process, and the data requested. Some did agree that more data could be provided such as details of PI cover, to show that they were meeting best practice. One member also suggested that agents state how many clients they act for in each HMRC business sector (SA/CT/PAYE).

Most who expressed a view considered that enrolment should be done online, with agents invited to enrol over a period of time (one suggested a year). As to re-enrolment, the views expressed indicated that an email reminding agents to update their details was considered the most appropriate option. None expressed the view that annual re-enrolment was acceptable or appropriate.

We did not have much said on multi office firms – probably due to the demograph of our membership. Brief comments indicated that a single registration by firm would be sensible, with separate office identifiers, but it is not clear that the comment was made by a member of a larger firm.

The most generally expressed view by a range of contributors was that if enrolment smooths the current agent authority process then this would be a good thing.

Self serve
Quite a number of contributors felt somewhat nervous about self serve, with several expressing the view that they would be very concerned about making mistakes. IT remains to be seen whether this inhibits take up of the self serve option. Some commented that enrolment (see above) should be a requirement for those wishing to self serve, but otherwise not required.

In summary, views were evenly split between those who supported self serve and welcomed the opportunities it presented, and those who say it as something they would be unlikely to access, apart from self authority. Concerns were expressed that errors might lead to agents self authorising for the wrong client, and that “dis-engagement” notices should be sent when a new agent is appointed so that former agents are aware of this.

The Agent view
The most concerns were expressed about the agent view. Members on the whole considered that HMRC was in no fit state to comment on their competence and there was a strong view expressed that the department should “get its own house in order” before seeking to regulate agents – which the agent view is seen as by our members.

Grave concern was expressed about using client compliance measures to assess agent performance – most felt it unfair to be judged by whether their client pays tax on time – or even submits returns on time. Both of these are regarded as outside the control of the agent, although the agent will do his utmost to file the return on time if his client provides adequate information to do so.

There were concerns that the Agent View might be open to abuse, and members felt that there was insufficient information about the safeguards for agents to prevent this. Generally what agents were concerned about was being “black marked” for vigorously defending a client’s position.

A number of members of AccountingWEB belong to the unaffiliated group. There were a number of views expressed concerning those who are not members of professional bodies, but no broad consensus except that those who are currently in business as agents would have real problems joining certain bodies, as their rules would prevent them from continuing in business while obtaining a qualification.

There was absolute agreement with the proposal that HMRC refusing to deal with an agent should be supervised by an independent body, and not done by HMRC unilaterally. It was accepted that this would be difficult to set up, as speed would be of the essence, so the Tribunal may not be the right place, but nevertheless this was considered essential.

Replies (6)

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By Marion Hayes
15th Sep 2011 22:56

Thanks Rebecca

That seems a fair summary of the variety of comments we saw on the discussion groups. If we have all written separately as well about issues we felt strongly about the message should get through.

I think it was suggested that we would like to see a first stage of a fully working single view before the Agent view and more complex areas of Self Serve are initiated. Perhaps you could add that as an appendage please?

Marion

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By Rebecca Benneyworth
16th Sep 2011 09:11

Thanks Marion

This represents the Executive summary of our report, and I'm adding as the body of the report comments made by members which are on-topic and responsive to the document (rather than those discussing between ourselves). I hope that those who took part in the debates both on the main site and the discussion group are satisfied with my summary and feel that it gives a fair representation of the views of the community as a whole.

I'm also going to append the URL's for the articles on the main site and the discussion group, should anyone on HMRC's team wish to read the discussions in more detail.

Please can anyone with anything to add or amendments to suggest post on here by 4pm so that I can update and finalise before close of play. Sorry that I have not given you long folks, but it has taken me a lot of time to try to draw all of the differing views into a coherent response.

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Me!
By nigelburge
16th Sep 2011 12:59

Thank you Rebecca

for all your time and effort into compiling this. I know that you have received a lot of "stick" from some posters however I feel that I can certainly speak for the majority in expressing my appreciation at the considerable time and effort it must have taken you.Indeed,

 I am certainly not aware of any other submission to HMRC specifically taking into account the views of small and unqualified tax agents.

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By ShirleyM
16th Sep 2011 14:00

I agree with Marions request

And would also like to add my thanks too, Rebecca, for donating your time and perseverance.

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By The Black Knight
16th Sep 2011 14:13

Thank you too :-)

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By weaversmiths
16th Sep 2011 15:53

Thank you.

Many thanks from a very small agent.

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