Robert Maas, consultant at CBW, looks back at his 50 years as a tax practitioner – and his experience creating HMRC’s inaugural self-assessment system.
I may be 72 but I have no plans to retire. Each morning I wake up at 6.30am, eat a bowl of puffed wheat or cornflakes, watch a bit of television – often I’ll watch documentaries but this morning I managed to fit in five episodes of The Simpsons – then I’m in the office by 10am. I’ll clock off at 5.30pm and spend my evenings at jazz concerts or supporting West Ham United.
Some people might say it’s time for me to hang up my hat but my routine works for me. Three weeks of holiday a year is all I need – this year I’ll spend them on a cruise to Alaska – but the rest of the year I am quite honestly content spending my days practicing tax.
Since joining CBW two years ago I’ve done mainly tax consultancy work, but since I qualified in 1965 at a small London firm called Godwin and Taylor I’ve had all manner of experiences: I’ve been tax partner at Stoy Hayward, back when it was a tiny practice with only 11 partners. I’ve fallen out with those very partners over the development of the tax practice, started my own firm, Robert Maas and Co, and built it from a one-man practice where I paid my secretary more than me to a substantial firm that merged with Casson Beckman in 1983. And I fell out with that firm too! That led me to join Blackstone Franks, which is now part of CBW.
But what I am proudest of in those 50 years is being part of the consultative committee that established the self-assessment tax system – the biggest change in tax procedures in my lifetime.
I was a member of that committee throughout its life. I spent about 1,500 hours on self-assessment over three years – a fair chunk of my available time. Our main role was trying to put together a system that struck a balance between the needs of both sides.
In practice, I think that my contribution to the committee was to be awkward. I think HMRC felt that the outside people on the committee caused too much aggravation. And I was seen as the most aggravating of them all.
Self-assessment was tantamount to huge change. But I think most practitioners would agree it has turned out to be a change well worth making. However, that was 20 years ago and the current-day Revenue is incredibly different.
In particular, it has been starved of staff as a result of the government making very deep cuts and this has forced it to change some of its procedures. In doing so a lot of the safeguards of self assessment have disappeared and self assessment no longer works in the fair way that was originally intended.
Fortunately, as I continue as a volunteer for ICAEW’s tax faculty, I am still in a position to get involved in the consultation on changes to tax procedures. One of the things I hope – and expect – the faculty will be consulted on is the proposal in March’s budget to scrap annual self assessment tax returns in favour of a monthly online system.
If I’m honest, my gut reaction is that the measure hasn’t been thought through. I think the government is rushing into this – and into the digital transition – far too quickly.
While in theory it’s great for HMRC to say “we will pre-populate your tax return with the information we’ve got,” that relies on the information they have being accurate. And often, it’s not.
Though one thing I’m confident of is that, regardless of how that pans out, regardless of how quickly or slowly the digital revolution comes about, and whatever other changes HMRC makes in the 50 years to come, our expertise as tax practitioners will be relied upon as much as ever.
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