Tax practice in the UK

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Rebecca Pennyworth has been considering the issue of the relationship between accountants and the Revenue over at Accountingweb (with the usual apology to those who cannot get access). I already dealt with some aspects of this here yesterday - but there's an important point to add, which builds on the idea of practice assurance.

Of course there are lots of niggles about the way the Revenue works at the moment which drive all reasonable tax practitioners mad. As she says:

Although we hear about lack of consultation on the big issues — such as trusts and the filing deadline — it is the day to day little things that cause the most frustration. Dealing with badly trained staff at call centres; promised returned calls which never happen; never being able to speak to the same person twice. How about nominated agent contacts? The same person within the HMRC agent team who deals with each of us regarding all problems, and fields problems and directs them to the appropriate office. Again, replacing the local contact now gone.

I agree with her - this is what's required to get things right.

But there are two other things that are required. The first is mutual respect. As Paul Wilby argues in an excellent article in the Guardian today (which I seriously recommend):

Everyone employed by central or local government or its agencies - from doctors to roadsweepers - felt denigrated and undervalued

and:

As any teacher knows, if you tell people often enough that they're no good, they will eventually be no good. Tell the world that the public sector is undynamic and needs injections of private-sector efficiency, and the best and brightest will keep out of it.

Accountants are very, very good at saying the Revenue are no good. And on occasion, that's true. But let me be candid - they think the same, in reverse, and because accountants will not subject themselves to any real form of quality control check, even in this age of practice assurance, who can blame them? At least the Revenue are subject to public scrutiny - accountants are not.

So, the second thing that is required is a test of competence before someone is allowed to be a tax agent. This, I should stress, should not be related to professional qualifications. There are appalling, but well qualified accountants. And there are excellent unqualified accountants. The test should be of these things:

  1. initial competence;
  2. continuing competence as evidenced by training and/or testing and ongoing practice assurance that tests the quality and ethical standing of work done, with results published;
  3. willingness to subject oneself to a complaints procedure - including complaints from the Revenue;
  4. carrying professional indemnity insurance.

This creates a level playing field. Why would any serious practitioner object?