Over recent weeks HMRC has been carrying out an email campaign to encourage more tax agents to sign up to the Agent Forum and engage with the conversations online. So what is the forum, and why would you want to join?
From the early 1990s, agents could discuss issues that they encountered in day-to-day practice with HMRC at Working Together meetings. These face-to-face meetings ran in various guises over the years and allowed agents and HMRC to get together to discuss problems, identify “the grit in the system”, and ultimately try to resolve problems.
Following the closure of HMRC offices in 2013 and 2014 and changes to the internal workings of HMRC, these meetings ceased. A new way of facilitating communication between agents and HMRC was needed. Since 2016, the focus has been on the development of a digital communication platform and the forum emerged out of this work. It completed a pilot phase in 2017 and, as at March 2018, there were 390 registered agents taking part.
What does the forum do?
The forum is designed to capture potentially widespread issues, i.e. problems that could affect a number of clients. Agents can flag up concerns, contribute their experiences as evidence and receive updates on current issues. Agents can also assist each other with suggestions or solutions, or suggest ideas for operational improvements to HMRC.
HMRC representatives monitor the topics raised and can provide answers or updates. No individual client data should be posted on the forum, but HMRC frequently requests that specific examples are sent to them privately via email.
The Issues Overview Group
The forum is also monitored by members of the Issues Overview Group (IOG). The IOG is made of up of professional body representatives and HMRC. The IOG meets regularly to discuss new or emerging operational issues or problems. These often surface first on the forum.
Recent issues that have been highlighted include problems with P800s, incorrect late filing penalties for trusts, processing delays for paper returns (often required as a result of the significant number of filing exclusions in 2016-17), and refunds of Class 2 paid under self-assessment.
The activities of the forum and the IOG are reported in HMRC’s regular Agent Update. Current and previous editions of Agent Update can be found here.
How to sign up
At present, membership of the forum is restricted to agents who are members of professional bodies. Consideration is being given to widening access to all agents, regardless of their professional affiliation as both HMRC and the representative bodies are keen for as many agents as possible to be involved in the forum.
Instructions on how to join can be found on your professional body’s website.
Using the forum
Once logged on, you will see that the forum is divided into 15 different subject areas including:
- Announcements – HMRC posts here and it is worthwhile keeping an eye out for announcements of new initiatives or publications, changes to procedures, updates on availability of HMRC online services and also requests for volunteers for pilot schemes.
- Terms and conditions – this area contains guidance for users of the forum, including the “house rules” which all users should follow.
- Technical tax areas – this is divided into 11 areas including CGT, MTD, PAYE, CIS, Self-assessment and the Trust Registration Service.
- Ideas and suggestions – ideas regarding the working of the forum itself can be posted here.
- Cleared topics – this is where issues are moved to by HMRC when HMRC considers that they have been cleared. Occasionally it is felt that a matter has been closed too soon. If this is the case you can raise any concerns about early closure with your IOG representative. Contact details for IOG representatives can be found in the Agent Update here.
Within each subject area, individual issues, queries or questions are raised as “topics”.
If you have an issue you want to raise, it is a good idea to run a search first to see if the matter has already been raised and potentially answered. To search, don’t be fooled into using the large “Search” box on the top left, directly under the GOV.UK heading. Instead, go to “Posts” in the blue bar and select “Search” from the drop down menu there.
If there is an existing topic that is relevant to your issue, you can add your comment onto the existing thread by opening it up and clicking “Reply”. If not, then you can create a new topic by opening the relevant area for your query and clicking the green “New Topic” button in the top right-hand corner.
Once posted, each topic is issued with a reference number by HMRC. This is added automatically to the start of the topic title.
If you find a reply particularly helpful you can rate it from one to five stars by clicking on the drop down “Rate” box on the right-hand side next to the reply.
In addition to the search function, after your first visit, all subsequent logins will present you with the option to “read new messages since the last visit”. You can also see the most recent or popular posts by selecting the relevant option under the “Posts” drop down menu.
If a topic is interesting there are options to “Bookmark it!” or “Watch” the post. These options can be found in the drop down menu under “More” on the top right-hand side of the post. Topics that have been bookmarked will appear on your bookmarks list, found under “My community”. If you are “watching” a post instead, then you should receive an email when a reply is posted to the forum.
While the forum is not perfect – the search function can leave a little to be desired – as more agents join and contribute, HMRC and representative bodies gain stronger and wider evidence of emerging issues that need resolution. The resolution of those issues can then, in turn, be shared with agents via the forum.
Helen Thornley is technical officer at the ATT.
 ATT members can find sign up details at https://www.att.org.uk/agent-forum.
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