Setting up an Agent Services Account is one thing, getting into it can be something else altogether

David Cox documents the trials and tribulations he endured when he signed up for an Agent Services Account

For my sins, very few of which I can now recall, I have worked in accountancy since time immemorial, and in taxation specifically for over 40 years.

In most walks of life, this would have equipped me with a breadth and depth of wisdom and experience, to which the next generation could only aspire. Sadly, in the world of UK taxation the relentless march of legislation, regulation and technology has rendered accumulated knowledge something of an encumbrance. But for every old duffer whose heart sinks at the prospect of yet another major change, there is inevitably some young rapscallion whose heart skips a joyous beat at the challenge and opportunity it represents. 

For my own part, and despite my advancing years, I have tried always to keep abreast of change so, with the imminent threat of MTD ringing in my ears, I did battle at an early stage with the Agent Services Account application process. I successfully secured an account of my own and, heeding the dire warnings that appeared on screen, carefully noting and printing the various access credentials, I entered them to my secure digital record. All of this, of course, was a good many months ago. 

Quietly confident that I was ahead of this particular game, I set about educating those clients involved in the first wave (for VAT), upgrading both ours and their software as appropriate, and finally ‘bridging’ any residual gaps until all that remained was to sign them up individually for MTD. 

Accordingly, towards the end of March, I retrieved my access credentials from their hiding place and attempted to gain entry to my ASA for the first time since setting it up – only to be confronted with everyone’s favourite message: “Your details do not match”.

Numerous further attempts served only to convince me that, despite my best efforts, I must have misrecorded something. So I pressed the confessional “I have forgotten…” button. I was promptly notified that the system could offer no assistance, but that I should instead call the helpline. I will not dwell upon the helpline experience; we all know what to expect, and suffice it to say it did not disappoint. The helpline operative could not help, but in fairness did arrange for me to be contacted by someone who would, or at least should, be able to do so.

The promised assistance arrived by way of a telephone call some days later, but it took the subsequent exchange of several emails to establish the self evident fact; that there was a problem with my ID or password! Perhaps a little indiscreetly, I pointed out that this had been obvious throughout and that all I needed was to be reminded of my access codes or assisted in re-setting them – surely the simplest of remedies to the most common of problems?

Complete radio silence then ensued and it took two reminders, the second threatening a formal complaint, to illicit a further response. The eventual reply informed me, in a manner suggestive of its being common knowledge, that HMRC had no means of providing or of re-facilitating the resetting these particular credentials.

There were only two options: to use the recovery details created during the set up, or to have the existing ASA de-enrolled and to apply afresh. Rather tellingly, the advice was to opt for the latter, which I did, and although not acknowledged the system did thankfully ease the process somewhat by commuting certain data from the original application.

I was most grateful for the one-to-one assistance eventually given, but it was not easily accessible and my overall and residual concern is that HMRC’s system is seriously lacking, having no means by which credentials can be either be

re-notified or re-set. As much as we all try to retain such data safely, human error is an inescapable and ubiquitous reality and, as such, secure re-set facilities exist, and are in constant use in all major systems, no matter how great their need for confidentiality, Banks are the obvious example here.

Should we be surprised to find a new HMRC system displaying such apparent flaws? Perhaps not. In fact, a cynic might well take the view that it was naiveté or wishful thinking on my part to expect anything to the contrary. But as my old school chum Alexander Pope used to say:  “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”.

• David Cox is an accountant at Fenn Cox & Partners, based in Suffolk

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