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HMRC agent services: what you need to know now

Caroline Miskin provides an update on HMRC online services for agents and recommends setting up agent account and taking part in the forum.

HMRC agent servicesLack of agent access to HMRC’s online services has topped the list of frustrations for many members in practice for several years, especially since the business tax account was launched in 2014, and the personal tax account in 2015 without access being provided to agents.

Encouragingly, HMRC is on the record as accepting that agents need to be able to see and do everything that their client can, and that it has fallen short in meeting this ambition. HMRC has completed the first phase of a review to create a new and much improved set of services for agents.

The next step, with the involvement of the profession, is to identify priorities and develop a detailed roadmap for the provision of online agent services. Note, though, that implementation is likely to be dependent on how HMRC prioritises its many transformation projects and on the outcome of the Spending Review 2018.

This article explores the latest developments in the online services that HMRC provides (or doesn’t provide) to agents, and ends with a call to action: now is the time to set up your Agent Services Account (ASA) and join the HMRC agent forum.

What has held things up?

HMRC’s online services for agents have lagged behind services for taxpayers for various reasons. To me, two appear particularly significant:

How to ensure that agent access to client data is authorised and secure

The government gateway agent portal through which HMRC has been providing online services does not meet current security standards. This issue has been addressed for individuals and businesses by the introduction of two-step verification (2SV). However, 2SV is not a practical solution for agent access. Equally, the government-wide identity assurance system – VERIFY – does not work in an agent context (and has also proved problematic for individuals). The solution: the ASA, which is covered later in this article.

HMRC’s API strategy

HMRC had started to develop web-based online services for agents, such as the private beta PAYE payments and liabilities service for smaller agents, when it introduced its application programming interface (API) strategy. This means that HMRC now seeks to develop APIs and then, where possible, leave the development of software products for agents to commercial software providers.

HMRC continues to follow this strategy although in certain cases, such as the trust registration service (TRS), it has had no alternative but to develop a web-based service. Commercial software products generally provide better functionality and user experience; the issue is one of cost to the agent or taxpayer.

Agent Services Account

As HMRC rolls out new online services to agents, these will – in most cases – be made available through the ASA. All UK-based agents can now set up their ASA. The account is expected to be made available to overseas agents before Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT becomes mandatory in April 2019.

What services are available through the ASA?

Currently available are:

  • MTD for income tax (soon to be followed by MTD for VAT);
  • the TRS (self assessment (SA) returns for trusts are still filed as previously); and
  • a pilot of a new service which will provide agents with access to some of the information in clients’ personal tax accounts (this is still at an early stage of development).

How do I get an ASA?

The link to set up an ASA. When an agent accesses one of the services listed above they will be prompted to set up their ASA if they have not already done so.

Hints and tips on setting up an ASA

  • A fundamental feature of the ASA is that each firm can and will have only one account. The account is linked to the UTR of the firm (the income tax SA UTR for sole practitioners, partnership UTR for partnerships and corporation tax UTR for those trading as limited companies). Many firms have several different government gateway IDs for things such as different offices or taxes. Once a firm has set up its ASA, it will need to link all these government gateway IDs to the new ASA, although they will continue to be used for existing services.
  • The process involves setting up a new government gateway user ID. It is important to make a note of the ID details when they appear on the screen as they cannot easily be retrieved later. These details will be needed to access the ASA and care is needed not to confuse them with existing government gateway IDs.
  • A new agent reference number is allocated during the process and this also needs to be carefully recorded.
  • Agents should carefully consider the email address to use when setting up the new government gateway ID and ASA. It may be appropriate to use a centralised email address that has some permanence.
  • A fairly common issue agents encounter when setting up their ASA is a mismatch between the postcode and the UTR. Agents should check that the postcode they provide is the one on HMRC’s record for the firm’s own UTR. In some cases, addresses were originally set up incorrectly in HMRC’s systems and the issue needs to be resolved by contacting HMRC.

I recommend that agents set up their ASA now, even if they have no immediate plans to use the associated services, in case any difficulties are encountered.

What happens to existing government gateway user IDs and the agent portal?

HMRC has assured us that setting up an ASA does not affect agent access to existing online services. Agents will continue to access income tax SA, VAT, corporation tax and other services using their existing government gateway IDs.

Once an ASA is set up, the next step is to connect existing government gateway IDs to that ASA so that existing client authorisations will be recognised (currently only possible for income tax SA). The government gateway IDs will be recognised when accessing existing services.

More information

HMRC runs regular agent services Talking Points webinars which cover this topic in more detail and demonstrate the screens involved. The latest webinars were held at the end of April 2018 and recordings are available.

Agent services outside the ASA

HMRC has made some agent services available outside the agent portal and the ASA.

iforms

Many services now use iforms but only a few (such as the TRS and some national insurance forms) can be submitted online by agents. iforms are forms that are completed on screen. They can also be submitted online, but while being developed are sometimes only available to complete online before being printed and posted. These forms cause a lot of frustration as they do not allow the agent or taxpayer to see the whole form because each screen has to be completed before progressing to the next one. The forms that can be submitted online now have save and retrieve functionality. The Tax Faculty is working with HMRC on how iforms are being developed and we will provide more detail on this topic in due course.

Pre-population of data in SA returns

HMRC released the SA pre-population APIs into public beta in March 2018. This service pre-populates returns with information on individual employments, income, tax deductions, benefits, national insurance and marriage allowance. The private beta version of this service was well used during the SA peak by those who had access, though there were some capacity issues. Members should contact their software provider for information on when this functionality will be incorporated into particular software products.

It is frustrating that HMRC has introduced 2SV access control over this service rather than making it available through the ASA. The 2SV process requires the agent to provide personal details to HMRC, even though they are acting in an agent capacity. ICAEW has expressed concern about this and has been advised that the solution is a temporary one.

HMRC agent forum

A new way for agents to raise HMRC service and process issues that are potentially widespread (ie, not client specific) was introduced in 2017. The online HMRC agent forum is available to all ICAEW members and instructions on how to join are available.

The issues and HMRC’s responses are monitored by the professional body members of the Issues Overview Group (on which I represent ICAEW) and escalated where appropriate. The time it takes for HMRC to understand an issue, get a response from the relevant HMRC team and implement any solution can be frustrating but the forum can and does work if agents actively engage and provide the weight of evidence that is needed. I would encourage all members in practice who are involved in tax to join and participate in the forum.

About the author
Caroline Miskin is technical manager at the Tax Faculty with responsibility for practitioner tax matters