HMRC: More than half of agents log in to client online accountsby
A study has found that 58% of agents log into their clients’ online accounts in an effort to get more accurate data. Respondents to the survey also called for a secure email link through which to communicate with HMRC, greater access to client data and a single sign-in portal.
Despite guidance from professional bodies that members should avoid using clients’ personal access credentials to HMRC’s online systems, a survey commissioned by the tax authority has found that 58% of agents admit to signing into their clients’ online accounts at least occasionally, with 16% of respondents stating they sign in “frequently”.
Answering the question, “In order to have better visibility of client data some agents log on to their clients’ government gateway accounts. Is this something you ever do?” only 41% of those surveyed said this was something they “never” do.
Commentary accompanying the research stated this suggests that current HMRC digital services for agents “may not sufficiently meet agents’ needs to access client data”.
The research highlighted that having equal access to information clients receive from their personal tax account (PTA) was both “desirable and necessary” to be able to conduct client services. As agents felt they were not getting equal access to this information, some were logging in to their clients’ accounts to see it or asking clients to share screenshots of information in their accounts.
The report noted that those using clients’ accounts more frequently tended to be semi-retired, unaffiliated agents, with a small client portfolio and who do not use either the Agent Services Account (ASA) or the Online Services for Agents Account (OSAA).
Better understanding of agents
The independent survey, entitled Research with tax agents to explore experiences of HMRC's digital services, was commissioned to give the tax authority a better understanding of agent business models: how they interact with HMRC’s digital services, how they seek to support, and the services they would like HMRC to offer.
Conducted between November 2021 and May 2022, the survey’s 870 participants were predominantly drawn from accounting firms. Bookkeeping firms, payroll bureaux and other consultants were also quizzed as part of the research.
In-depth discussions with agents conducted as part of the research drew a mixed response to HMRC’s overall performance, with many taking a pragmatic view to working with the tax authority. A number of agents acknowledged that the Revenue has “a job to do under difficult circumstances,” and praised HMRC for its response during Covid. However, positive feedback was mixed with frustration in several key areas.
ASA vs OSAA
One aspect that drew particular ire from the agent community was the requirement for two separate agent online accounts with different login details: ASA, through which agents manage VAT details, report clients’ capital gains tax on UK property, register a client’s estate or register a trust as an agent, and the OSAA which covers services including self assessment, corporation tax, PAYE and the construction industry scheme.
Most agents surveyed stated they used both ASA and OSAA accounts (75%). The OSAA had slightly more users (85%) than the ASA (79%), while only 11% of agents said they used neither agent account.
The ASA received more criticism from agents, with the research report speculating that this may be because “the ASA came second to the established OSAA and was felt to come without a clear rationale for being separate. In comparison, the OSAA was more familiar to agents, and some felt more confident with it having used it for longer.”
The report quoted snippets of conversations the research team had with agents about the two-login issue, which include:
- “It doesn’t cause particular problems having separate accounts but doesn’t really make sense… I don’t really understand why they’re separate accounts because you’d think once you’re an agent you’d just have one.”
- “We didn’t know which account to sign into and the name of the services is too similar. Then we had to get new logins… you have to ask why you’d have two logins for agent services. It shouts that the system isn’t finished yet.”
- “Can you imagine if Amazon said we had to use different accounts for different things?”
Email communication top of the list
The research also included a laundry list of suggested improvements for HMRC’s digital offerings. Top of the pile is a secure email link to communicate with HMRC, with 81% of respondents stating that this would have “a significant positive impact” on dealing with HMRC on behalf of clients.
“Agents had experienced using these email links when contacting customer services from other services, such as retailers, and found them beneficial as they track communications and provide a reference of conversations that can later be referred to,” stated the report. “Furthermore, secure email links allow customers to avoid telephone helpline waiting times, as well as the risk of repeat phone calls to resolve an issue.”
Agent feedback to the researchers quoted in the report included:
- “We want to be able to email with attachments, not to have to print everything off. A simple email would speed up the whole process.”
- “Emailing would save a lot of frustration. I spend 25 minutes waiting on the phone line and then they can’t help.”
Other suggested improvements in the report were greater transparency of client information, including access to clients’ PTA details, P60 information and VAT payments, a single client dashboard or list from within the ASA (a feature already available in the OSAA), and faster updates to online data within HMRC accounts.
While the research highlighted plenty of useful information and feedback from agents, it stopped short of outlining whether any of the suggestions were likely to be adopted by HMRC, and did not refer to any further actions that may be taken as a result of the report.
You can read the full report here: Research with tax agents to explore experiences of HMRC’s digital service.