“May you live in interesting times“, often referred to as the Chinese curse, is reputed to be the English translation of an ancient Chinese proverb and curse, although it may have originated among the English themselves. It is reported that it was the first of three curses of increasing severity, the other two being:
“May you come to the attention of those in authority” (sometimes rendered “May the government be aware of you”). This is sometimes quoted as “May you come to the attention of powerful people.” (Alternately, “important people”.)
“May you find what you are looking for.” This is sometimes quoted as “May your wishes be granted.”
The tax profession in the UK lives in interesting times; indeed all three of the above curses might be thought applicable to the experience of being a taxation practitioner in the early 21st century. Yet that experience need not necessarily be a negative one; there is also an opportunity to help to forge an improved and fairer tax system, for the benefit of all concerned.
HMRC is in the early stages of consulting on the implementation of what it refers to as its “Agent Strategy”. This refers and relates to those of us who act as agents for taxpayers in dealing with HMRC in respect of their tax affairs.
There are a lot of us; 43,000 according to HMRC’s database, with 70% being members of one of the main UK accountancy, tax and law representative bodies, and 80% holding a formal tax qualification. We act for 1 million companies, 2.3 million other businesses and 9.7 million individual taxpayers, around 40% of whom fall within the self assessment system. I am indebted to Rebecca Benneyworth. doyenne of tax lecturers, for these figures.
There are three aspects to the Agent Strategy; enrolment, self serve and the Agent view. They are all interlinked, and will be introduced over time as a package.
All agents will enrol with HMRC and be issued with enrolment credentials. The purpose is to enable a business relationship to be built on trust, enabling contact time between HMRC and agents to be reduced and security measures regarding agent access to taxpayer data to be relaxed to some extent.
Those who enrol with HMRC will be automatically eligible for ‘self serve’. This system will enable enrolled and agents to control and execute various basic tax transactions on behalf of clients. On offer are likely to be:
Self-authorisation for enrolled agents
Generation and amendment of coding notices
View and (possibly) amendment of allocation of payments and liabilities across the range of taxes
‘Track and trace’ for repayment claims and correspondence
Electronic shared workspace
HMRC will seek to use the data already available and obtained through the enrolment process to provide a ‘picture’ of agent engagement with HMRC, enabling HMRC to form a view about an agent and structure their engagement with that agent accordingly. This reflects a concern within HMRC that at present it cannot identify good or poor agents with any reliability.
Both HMRC and the tax profession are concerned that this should not lead to regulation of the tax profession by HMRC, in HMRC’s case because it does not have the resources to carry out this function. The possiblity of an ‘all qualified tax profession’ has been aired, but HMRC is of the view that qualification is not a single identifier of quality or competence (with which I agree). However, HMRC does believe membership of a professional body to be a plus, as such bodies carry out functions of supervising their members and upholding high professional standards.
HMRC appears happy in principle with the concept of professional bodies regulating their own members, but this does beg the question of who should supervise those agents who are not members of such bodies. HMRC believes they should be required to demonstrate a ‘minimum level of competence’, but probably lacks the skills, and almost certainly the resources, to carry out this function, which might be carried out by the existing professional bodies (presumably if they were paid for doing so) or by some body formed for the purpose (which again would need to be paid for by someone).
This is probably the key issue associated with the agent strategy, with your answer to the question “who should regulate” probably depending to a large extent on where you come at the question from. Some form of regulation for unqualified agents does appear to be necessary to the successful working of the strategy, however.
So here we have both ‘living in interesting times’ and ‘coming to the attention of those in authority.’ Meanwhile, the consultation on the agent view element of the agent strategy and on other issues such as the General Anti-Abuse Rule and the proposed tax relief cap offers tax advisers a real chance to play a part in shaping the 21st century tax system as a more efficient, fairer and clearer system tha n we have been used to in the past. Hopefully ‘finding what we are looking for’ in this respect will prove to be more of a blessing than a curse!