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Monday, 20 May 2024 / Published in Uncategorized

Accountants are facing heavy workloads and long hours so employers need to focus on how to support their mental health and wellbeing

On the back of Mental Health Awareness Week the experts at CIPD HR-inform look at how to make supporting employee mental health a priority.

Stress, depression and anxiety accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health in 2022/23, at 17.1 million, showed figures from the Health and Safety Executive.

On average, 19.6 days working days were lost for each person suffering with these mental health issues. That, alongside the findings of the mental health charity Mind that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem every year means that making efforts to support employee mental health is an important priority.

It is important to show commitment to employee mental health by introducing a mental health policy. This should set out the company’s legal obligations and outline what actions will be taken to ensure a safe and non-discriminatory environment for employees. The policy can also outline how to respond to issues caused by poor mental health.

Mental health policies can include:

  • adjustments during the recruitment and selection processes for those with poor mental health.
  • examples of indicators of poor mental health.
  • how the organisation will support action planning to help improve mental health.
  • workplace adjustments.
  • how absences caused by poor mental health will be managed.
  • supporting those absent through mental ill health in returning to work.
  • confidentiality and disclosure to third parties.
  • additional support such as employee assistance programmes.

It should be accessible by all members of staff, and they should be encouraged to read it. 

To help promote a workplace culture that supports mental health, take steps to raise awareness of mental health and what it is being done in the workplace to support it.

This can increase understanding of mental health conditions and their symptoms, and counteract any negative stigma associated with mental health.

In turn, this can encourage greater tolerance of mental health at work and help employees be more understanding about the impact poor mental health on their colleagues.

Awareness can be raised through days dedicated to supporting mental health or participation in awareness events such as Mental Health Week. It is also worth implementing an employee assistance programme that can provide external support and counselling for employees struggling with their mental health.

As well as raising awareness, organise specific mental health training to help the workforce become more informed about this area and highlight what support is available if an individual, or team member, experiences mental ill health.

Training managers on how to spot mental ill health and manage an employee struggling with this this can be invaluable, as it increases the likelihood of issues being identified and dealt with sooner than otherwise.

Monday, 20 May 2024 / Published in HMRC

The quality of HMRC service has hit ‘an all-time low’ with wait times on phone lines five times longer than just four years ago and online services unable to fill the gap

In the face of funding pressures, HMRC has pressed on with attempts to reduce costs despite its poor performance, meaning that the tax authority and taxpayers ‘have been caught in a declining spiral of service pressures and cuts’, warned a highly critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

HMRC is not expecting to meet its telephone performance target this tax year and has not made clear what level of service taxpayers should expect, added NAO.

This was despite spending £881m on the HMRC customer service directorate in 2022-23 and having 21,282 full time equivalent staff. But the outlook for taxpayers is not good, as HMRC has indicated that it is going to have to cut staff by 14% this tax year.

The message is to avoid HMRC helplines wherever possible, and there are signs that many taxpayers do just that with 60% of taxpayers using online services, webchat and the HMRC app to complete transactions.

This still leaves 40%, or at least 14 million taxpayers who could prefer to use the phone to contact HMRC. The only saving grace is that millions of taxpayers avoid ever having to contact HMRC unless they have a problem.

Despite HMRC’s plans to go ‘digital first’, it admits that an estimated seven million taxpayers will still need support to use online services.

But awareness of HMRC’s online services is limited, with NAO reporting that ‘many of HMRC’s customers do not know about its digital services, so it may be able to increase uptake by improving awareness’.

HMRC’s advertising and communications budget to promote digital services has been increased to £3m for 2024-25, up from £1m last year but there is a challenge to persuade people that online services are safe to use.

There is widespread fear felt by taxpayers that they might do the wrong thing based on their own information sourced from the HMRC website especially as most people are not tax experts.

The NAO stressed that ‘despite recent improvements, HMRC does not know enough about how effectively digital services meet customers’ needs’.

For example, less than a third of customers in 2023-24 completed transactions covering fixed-rate expenses, or tax relief for expenses of employment using the interactive P87 form.

‘The high level of avoidable contact that HMRC reports shows that it has not yet optimised its digital channels to meet customers’ needs,’ NAO said.

Taxpayers cumulatively spent 798 years, or seven million hours, on hold waiting to speak with HMRC in 2022-23 – more than double the 365 years spent waiting in 2019-20.

The average wait time was 23 minutes for the majority of 2022-23 when it was just five minutes four years ago, highlighting the rapid deterioration in HMRC service. Advisers answered 22% fewer calls compared with 2019-20, but these took 21% more time to handle on average.

In addition, NAO said: ‘Many avoidable customer calls are caused by HMRC itself for reasons including process failures and delays, and customers chasing progress.’

One of the shocking figures in the report was that HMRC estimated 72% of calls in 2023-24 were caused by ‘failure demand’, which included calls caused by HMRC’s process failures or delays, taxpayers chasing progress and taxpayer errors. This proportion had increased from 65% in 2018-19.

Another sign of the increasing complexity of the tax rules resulted in the length of phone calls with advisers go up from 11:24 minutes in 2019-20 to 13:48 minutes in 2022-23.

While the total number of telephone calls has reduced, the total amount of time HMRC advisers are spending on each call has increased. This means HMRC’s workload has reduced more slowly than reductions in call volumes.

More taxpayers have complex affairs, for example, working for multiple employers simultaneously or as freelancers, meaning they have less straightforward needs, while fiscal drag has also brought more people into the tax system.

As HMRC comes under increasing pressure to respond to a growing demand for help on its phonelines, it has had to abandon plans to cut six helpline services in 2024/25 after an outcry from all the professional bodies and even the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

The NAO warned that ‘the move to digital service has not eased pressure on traditional services as much as HMRC expected. The quality of service provided by HMRC telephone and correspondence has been far below the levels expected in recent years, and has not met annual targets.’

In 2022-23, HMRC advisers answered 20.5m calls, out of 38m call attempts.

With HMRC’s call-handling workload falling less than expected, it has not been able to make all the staff reductions it planned. Due to budgetary constraints, it now needs to cut staff numbers by 14% in 2024-25, despite only achieving a 9% reduction over the last five years.

This brutal job cutting programme may now be put on hold, however, as this week the Treasury gave HMRC an emergency £51m of funding to address the phone line chaos.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: ‘HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been below its target service levels for too long.

‘While many of its digital services work well, they have not made enough of a difference to customers, some of whom have been caught in a declining spiral of service pressures and cuts. HMRC has also not achieved planned efficiencies.

‘HMRC must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels.’

The NAO recommends that HMRC develops more realistic plans for cutting the services it is replacing with online services and adopts a more customer-focused approach to encourage the take-up of new services.

It must also ensure that as well as the need to develop not new digital services it focuses on improving its existing digital services, particularly where performance or customer satisfaction is low.

The NAO also said that there should be less reliance on old fashioned means of communication like letters, stating that HMRC should ‘increase opportunities for customers to send correspondence and documentation through secure electronic networks, including HMRC portals, which are cheaper, or faster than postal correspondence for customers to use and easier for HMRC to track and administer’.

For future spending reviews, HMRC should only plan to make staff cuts from changes to its digital services once improvements have taken effect and the benefits can be estimated with confidence.

HMRC should also reduce avoidable and expensive forms of contact, for example by increasing opportunities for customers to send correspondence and documentation through secure electronic networks, and learn from the implementation of its digital projects.

NAO report, HMRC Customer Service 2024-25

Wednesday, 06 March 2024 / Published in Fraud

Companies House has begun a phased rollout of new powers to improve the quality and reliability of its data and clamp down on abuse of the companies register

The register is used 14 billion times a year and the new rules are designed to ‘improve the quality and reliability of the register. Cleaning up the register will not happen overnight but it will enable us to improve transparency,’ Companies House said. ‘We will use data matching to check the company details and we will do more and more as time passes.’

Most of the changes require significant IT investment and will take place over a number of years with a need to hire more specialist investigators. Companies House has already heavily invested in data science capabilities so they can be ‘ahead of the curve in terms of our future capabilities. We recognise that technology is changing all the time and we have to keep pace with that’.

The organisation has grown quite dramatically in the last year with the recruitment of over 160 people, and plans to take on another 60 over the next few months to deal with the rollout of identity verification using the new Gov.uk One Login, which is replacing Government Gateway accounts.

Down the track, Companies House will introduce compulsory identity verification in 2025, as well as streamlining accounts filing requirements for small companies to require all companies to provide profit and loss accounts, a director’s report where accounts are not audited, and no more abridged accounts from 2026.

A timetable for these changes has not been announced but they are expected to come in over the next two to three years. The measures will require secondary legislation through a number of statutory instruments.

‘This large and complex set of changes will be introduced in phases over the coming years,’ Companies House said.

The first measures under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 (ECCT Act) came into force on 4 March.

Companies House currently has quite limited powers to question information – under the new rules, it will be able to take a much more robust approach, and will be able to query information already on the register. This will see officials at the registry challenging any inconsistences from new and existing entries on the register, for example, if a company has unusually high share capital, or directors registered at other addresses, then this will be investigated.

The most significant changes include greater powers to query information and request supporting evidence, more robust checks on company names and the ability to remove factually inaccurate information.

In future, companies will not be able to use a PO Box as their registered office address and must have an appropriate address at all times.

Companies House has written to a few thousand companies telling them to change their addresses as they are currently using PO Box numbers.

All companies will also have to supply a registered email address although this will not be published.

There will also be a requirement for subscribers to confirm they are forming a company for a lawful purpose when they incorporate, and for a company to confirm its intended future activities will be lawful on its confirmation statement.

In terms of powers to target criminal abuse of the register, Companies House will also be able to share information more proactively with other government departments, including HMRC, and law enforcement agencies.

Some of the fees for sharing the information with law enforcement have been removed and Companies House is already sharing trust data from the register of overseas entities with other departments, which is proving to be a ‘really rich resource of data especially for HMRC’.

This means that Companies House will be able to ‘share data to help disrupt economic crime. We will be much more proactive and will help UK’s drive to tackle economic crime. We have received funding to increase capabilities in this area and have hired more investigators’.

The new powers to investigate entries are similar to powers for monitoring the Register of Overseas Entities.

There will also be new criminal offences and civil penalties for failure to comply with the rules. 

Companies House CEO Louise Smyth said: ‘These new and enhanced powers are the most significant change for Companies House in our 180-year history.

‘We’ve known for some time that criminals have misused UK companies to commit fraud, money laundering and other forms of economic crime.

‘As we start to crack down on abuse of the register, we are prioritising cases where people’s names and addresses have been used without their consent. It will now be much quicker and easier to report and remove personal information that has been misused. This will make a real difference to individuals.’

From 1 May 2024, Companies House will also increase fees to take new future expenditure into account, as well as making sure costs are recovered from existing expenditure.

This is the first phase of measures to improve corporate transparency, with further legislation required to enforce new reporting rules for smaller businesses with the introduction of mandatory profit and loss accounts, and end of abridged accounts, , and the new failure to prevent fraud offence.  

Vincent Billings, partner in the corporate and commercial team at SA Law, said: ‘The aim is to create better transparency and remove the presence of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ companies. But this is a source of anxiety for many company directors, who are worried about being caught in a position where they have failed to comply with the new laws.

‘There are other major changes to be expected later down the line – including a new ‘failure to prevent fraud’ offence, which means directors could be held liable for failing to prevent fraud committed by a member of staff, or a business or individual they’re associated with.

‘With consequences including financial penalties and potentially even prison sentences, it is vital directors are up to speed with the changes and seek appropriate advice if they’re unsure about anything.’

The new rules are meant to crack down on kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse the current open economy. 

Business minister Kevin Hollinrake said: ‘Companies House now has the tools to take a much harder line on criminals who take advantage of the UK’s open economy and can now ensure the reputation of our businesses is not tarnished by the UK playing host to the world’s scammers.

‘The new reforms provide further protection to the public from companies fraudulently using their address and will begin to remove the smoke and mirrors around companies hiding behind false information.’

Wednesday, 06 March 2024 / Published in HMRC

The government is investing £305m in a single login system for taxpayers and agents using online services such as HMRC with the launch of GOV.UK One Login

The new login service has two factor authentication and will be rolled out across all government web services to replace Government Gateway accounts over the next three years.

The project is being led by the Cabinet Office with HMRC one of the first government departments planning to roll out the service.

In future, users will only need a single login to access all central government services, rather than remembering multiple accounts and passwords. Gradually, over time, One Login will replace all existing login and identity checking platforms across central government. Government Gateway is over 20 years old and was first introduced in January 2001. 

The Cabinet Office said: ‘The GOV.UK One Login programme as a whole has a cost of £305m, which includes development, implementation, running the system and support for users and services. This is over a three-year period and will see up to 145 services from across government join by March 2025’.

In a bid to prevent fraud, One Login includes two factor authentication, which requires users to set up their account with a code used in addition to the password, for secure logging in.

When a user proves their identity using GOV.UK One Login, there will be sophisticated counter-fraud measures in place to ensure they are who they say they are.

GOV.UK One Login will improve digital inclusion by offering multiple ways for people to prove their identity – including those without photo documentation (like a passport or driving licence) – and access government services online, the Cabinet Office confirmed.

As the rollout is expected to be completed within a year, there will be pressure to transfer millions of Government Gateway individual users to the system.

In a statement, HMRC said: ‘From Spring 2024, HMRC will begin to invite individual customers without existing HMRC online sign-in details to create a GOV.UK One Login account. There will then be a gradual migration of existing Government Gateway customers starting with very small and controlled numbers.

‘HMRC is still in the private testing stage, so precise dates are yet to be confirmed.

‘Initially, only a small number of users will be able to access HMRC services through GOV.UK One Login, with volumes building gradually over time. There will be no sudden switch-off of the Government Gateway service.

‘This measured approach is designed to ensure a high-quality experience for users.’

It is important to note that HMRC will contact individual taxpayers to advise them to migrate.

HMRC stressed: ‘Existing Government Gateway users will be informed when they need to create a GOV.UK One Login account to replace their Government Gateway – they don’t need to contact HMRC.’

‘It will not happen for everyone at the same time, and you do not need to do anything unless we ask you to.

‘You do not need to do anything differently to access HMRC online services, until we prompt you to.’

The scheme is projected to deliver at least £700m of benefits by April 2026, the Cabinet Office said.

This spring, users new to HMRC will have to set up a new GOV.UK One Login. Later in the year, all users returning to HMRC services will be directed to use One Login, rather than Government Gateway.

Agents will continue to use Government Gateway to access their services for the time being and HMRC has not yet finalised details of how the agent rollout will work and the timetable.

Once the system is fully operational, the full range of HMRC and wider government services will be available online through the single login, including income tax, student loans, and Universal Credit, which are currently available through Government Gateway.

At the moment, there is simply a list of links to other pages on gov.uk sites, including find a grant, apprenticeship assessment service and basic DBS checks.

HMRC has issued initial guidance on the new login, stating that ‘GOV.UK One Login is a new way of signing in to government services. It provides a simple way for you to sign in and prove your identity using an email address and password’.

Over time it will replace all other sign in routes including Government Gateway that many customers and businesses currently use. 

Going forward, anyone accessing government services online, including HMRC, will automatically be asked to create a GOV.UK One Login.

The One Login service will have to be used by accountants and tax agents although full details of how these accounts will interact with client accounts has not been published.

HMRC confirmed: ‘If you’re a tax agent, or an organisation with a business tax account, you will continue to use Government Gateway until you’re asked to create a GOV.UK One Login.’

There is a new authorisation and identity verification process to sign up to the One Login, which means you will need to have some identification documents such as a passport or driving licence to complete the application. 

Users will have to input an email address and include the preferred method to get security codes, either via a mobile number or an authenticator app.

Once you start the registration process, HMRC first checks your email address by sending a six-digit security code to verify the email.

Once an account is created, the system will send security codes to verify identity via text message or authenticator app for mobiles, tablets or computers. Then users can access their account via https://www.gov.uk/account

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