Posted on May 7, 2020  
by Noel Guilford

Just when they hoped the government was coming to their rescue, the millions of self-employed workers in the UK have been delivered a blow by HMRC who have announced that their tax agents are barred from claiming the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS) grant on their behalf.

The SEISS will be open for applications from 14 May, and on 4 May HMRC started to contact taxpayers who it believes are entitled to claim an SEISS grant, telling them to be ready to claim when the portal opens next week.

In a bizarre email to tax agents on Monday, which some thought was a scam, HMRC also appealed to tax agents to help their clients prepare – knowing that most wouldn’t be able to make the claim themselves – and to explain to clients why they may be ineligible (which will apply to many).

The email went on to explain, however, that tax agents wouldn’t be able to access the SEISS portal to make the grant claims on behalf of their clients.

Tony Margaritelli, chair of the ICPA, said the exclusion of tax agents from the SEISS portal went down like a lead balloon with his members. He added, “Accountants and bookkeepers are appointed by clients to look after their affairs and are trusted to do exactly that but yet at the time of their most pressing need HMRC is denying us the ability to do just that.”

Genuine or scam?

The initial contact to self-employed taxpayers is being made by email. Or, if the taxpayer has no email, HMRC will text message where it has a mobile phone number. Only where HMRC does not hold an email address or mobile phone number for the taxpayer will it send a physical letter, but this letter may not arrive until after the scheme opens for applications.

There are already numerous scam texts circulating purporting to be from HMRC, such as the one in which a taxpayer was asked to reply with their UTR number; information which could be used by the scammer to make a fraudulent claim.

The genuine emails and texts from HMRC do not include an active link to click on; they only tell the taxpayer to be ready to claim.

Not necessarily eligible

The fact that the taxpayer has received this initial contact about the SEISS grant from HMRC doesn’t mean that they will meet all the criteria to receive the grant and, indeed, many who also receive employment income or pensions won’t qualify. HMRC will have the information about the trader’s profits for the years to 2018/19, but to claim the SEISS the taxpayer must also have traded in 2019/20 and be intending to trade in 2020/21. This information about current and future trading intentions will not yet be available to HMRC.

HMRC is encouraging taxpayers to use its SEISS eligibility checker tool to check whether they can claim. However, this online tool only asks for the taxpayer’s UTR and NI numbers, it doesn’t ask about current or future trading intentions. Tax agents can use this checker on behalf of clients, and ask HMRC to review the case if they think a client has been incorrectly rejected as ineligible to apply.

The taxpayer is not required to use the checker tool in order to make a SEISS claim. However, if they do use it and provide an email address as requested for further correspondence, this may speed up the process of the claim. HMRC will use that email address to tell the taxpayer exactly when the SEISS portal will be open for them. This will be a specific date between 14 and 18 May, with different days allocated to different taxpayers. To claim self-employed workers will need their Government Gateway ID and password as well as their UTR and National Insurance number.

Locked out

The professional accountancy bodies have pressed HMRC for agents to be included in the process pointing out that many self-employed workers don’t need, and therefore don’t have, online access, however this appears to have fallen on deaf ears, which is surprising as HMRC already knows who every Agents’ clients are.

HMRC has advised that agents should not use their clients’ credentials to apply for grants on behalf of clients and that doing so may trigger HMRC fraud checks and delay payment of the grant.

There will be a telephone-based SEISS grant application service for the digitally excluded to use. HMRC has not released any details of that, however calls to HMRC are extremely difficult at the moment; one of my clients was on hold for 25 minutes today and then unceremoniously cut off before trying their online chat function to which he received no reply either.

If you are self-employed and expecting to receive a grant under this scheme contact your accountant or tax agent as soon as possible to obtain the information you need to claim when the portal opens; if you have online access ask them to invite you to a Zoom call and share your screen with them so they can talk you though the application form in real time.

Tax agents with many hundreds of self-employed clients will find this a time consuming process but at the moment this appears to be the only option.

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Noel Guilford

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