Research by HMRC shows that more than half of agents have accessed clients’ online accounts, suggesting that agents’ needs are not being met. The findings tally with recent feedback to ICAEW’s Tax Faculty, but overall give a more positive impression than might have been expected.
HMRC has conducted independent research to gain a “better understanding of the different agent business models, how they interact with HMRC’s digital services, how they seek support, as well as the services they would like to see offered by HMRC.”
The research was conducted between November 2021 and May 2022 when the pandemic was still a significant factor in peoples’ minds. Agents praised HMRC for its agile response to the pandemic.
Key findings include:
Agents’ relationship with HMRC
Agents tended to be pragmatic in their perception of HMRC and expressed an understanding that HMRC ‘has a job to do’ and does its best, often under difficult circumstances.
Agents expressed mixed feelings towards Making Tax Digital. While they believed it would bring efficiencies to the way they worked, some also had concerns that it undermined their role. Others worried about how their clients will cope with more frequent reporting.
Experiences with the agent dedicated line and other communications with HMRC were broadly positive, although some were frustrated by a lack of consistency in the perceived quality of advisers and the waiting time.
Agent use of technology
Four profiles of digital proficiency and acceptance emerged:
- digital resisters, with minimal digitalisation of their processes;
- digital accepters, using software tentatively;
- digital embracers, fully confident in digitalisation; and
- digital insisters, invested in fully digitalised ways of working.
Agents were generally happy with their choice of software, with no security concerns. They felt that the benefits of working digitally outweighed the costs, creating efficiencies that would offset the time taken to become familiar with new processes.
Around eight in ten agents (77%) reported that clients used specialist accounting or bookkeeping software to submit their records to them (42% some clients, 24% most clients, and 11% all clients). Two in ten (21%) reported that none of their clients use accounting or bookkeeping software.
More than half of agents (57%) encouraged or insisted that their clients used specialist accounting or bookkeeping software to submit their records to them. Among these agents, 49% said they encouraged clients, while 9% said they insisted that their clients use software. A similar proportion (10%) said it varied by client. A third reported that they preferred their clients not to use specialist accounting or bookkeeping software to submit their records to them, unless they felt confident to do so.
Use of HMRC’s digital services
Even though Helpsheet A of Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation (PCRT) states that members should avoid knowing or using their client’s personal access credentials, 58% of agents reported having signed into their clients’ online accounts at least occasionally. Only 41% said they have never done this. This suggests that current HMRC digital services for agents may not sufficiently meet agents’ needs to access client data.
Just under a third of agents (30%) thought digital services had improved, while 51% thought they had not changed over the last 12 months. Despite this, 48% of agents found it easy to deal with tax issues on behalf of their clients. The newer agent services account (ASA) received more criticism than the older HMRC agent online services account.
The top pain points for agents included:
- having two separate accounts with different login details;
- limited visibility of VAT returns (now resolved); and
- not being able to see the same information as clients through HMRC’s digital services.
The top improvements suggested included:
- having a secure email link to communicate with HMRC;
- greater access to client data; and
- having a single sign on portal.
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