What we learned at: AAT annual conference 2018

AAT annual conference
Tom Herbert
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AAT members descended on the De Vere Estate for the organisation’s annual conference for a diverse programme of keynote speeches and workshops.

Day one focussed heavily on the compliance challenges faced by profession, with keynotes from not one but two HMRC officials, but there was also time for attendees to reflect on networking and the future of the profession.

Here’s what AccountingWEB learned from day one of the event.

Go home and prepare for MTD

Making Tax Digital for Business deputy director Oliver Fisher echoed Treasury minister Mel Stride’s call that it was full-steam ahead for the government’s Making Tax Digital (MTD) programme.

Speaking at a conference keynote, Fisher said the move is essential, not only to modernise HMRC’s own systems, which he described as built on ‘burning platforms’, but also to nudge businesses to do the same.

On a practical level, Fisher confirmed that exemptions for the upcoming MTD regime would be “unsurprisingly familiar” to those familiar with VAT: religious grounds, and not ‘reasonably practical’ (the example given was around access to broadband, but this will considered on a case-by-case basis). If a business is insolvent, MTD will also be voluntary.

He also confirmed that the tax authority had sight of two examples of ‘bridging software’, and that one member of the Big Four accounting firms would be making their offering available free to charities.

Agent services: ‘A medium to long-term project’

The issue of agent services remains a top priority for HMRC, according to its director general for customer compliance Penny Ciniewicz. Agent Services accounts are being developed as part of HMRC’s MTD programme, with each agency having a single account linked to its UTR.

“Our ambition is that agents will be digital by default,” said Ciniewicz. However, she went on to say that the Revenue is “under no illusion” about the scale of the task, and that “delivering a comprehensive digital service is a medium to long-term project given its complexity”.

When a packed conference hall was asked who uses their Agent Services account, only four hands went up. Speaking after the session, Fisher told AccountingWEB that this was not representative of the general population, and urged accountants to sign up and “dip your toe in the water – particularly if you have VAT clients”.

The smart money’s on IA

The curtain came down on the day with an engaging talk from Samuel Ellis at InterWorks Europe on the increasing use of data analytics in accountants’ day-to-day work.

While thousands of column inches have been devoted to how the march of the robot accountant will spell the end for the profession. However, chartered accountant Ellis argued that a much more realistic prospect is that of intelligence augmentation (IA).

“Instead of replacing what we do, the robots will help us make more accurate, faster decisions,” said Ellis. “Rather than robots taking over the world IA theory has us working together to increase productivity.”

Pause and effect

Before proceedings officially began, early arrivals were treated to a networking session from business coach Sue Tonks. With the “era of digital tax approaching”, Tonks urged participants to build their relationships” by being “interested, not interesting” – in other words, listen more than talk at networking events. “Openly enthusiastic people don’t generally make good networkers,” she stated.

One specific takeaway for attendees was a trick Tonks deploys to help new acquaintances remember her name - the ‘pause and effect’. It goes something like: First name, pause, first name again then surname with gusto – a variation of the tactic used by the government’s top fictional spy to great effect.

HMRC has a full dance card

HMRC’s Ciniewicz kicked off the keynotes on day one with a head-spinning tour of the tax authority’s current priorities and changes.

Speaking to a packed keynote hall, the sheer scale of Ciniewicz’s presentation went some way to highlight the breadth and depth of the issues HMRC is currently dealing with, including Brexit, Making Tax Digital, IR35, avoidance and evasion, money laundering, the disguised remuneration loan charge and agent services.

Ciniewicz also highlighted some of HMRC’s successes on issues such as narrowing the tax gap and reducing caller waiting times, and said that the tax authority wants to continue to work with accountants to help develop and shape the services it provides.

About Tom Herbert

Tom is editor at AccountingWEB, responsible for all editorial content on the site. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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