What's sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander at HMRC

The tax man has a draconian regime for late filing of personal tax returns and is very hot on there being no acceptable excuses, says CBW’s Andy White.

The efficiency and speed benefits supposedly brought by enhanced technology, such as online filing of returns, seem to flow in one direction only. Long-suffering taxpayers have online access to all the information they could possibly need to complete their tax returns, multiple ways of contacting HMRC to get help with problems, and online filing options to ensure that return can be captured and logged by HMRC with maximum speed and efficiency.

One can quite see why HMRC deadlines are immovable and zero tolerant...

Except that, with an example of the double-standards which is becoming increasingly common in government departments, these same rules don't appear to apply to HMRC itself. The systems automation is clunky; the people on the end of the phone are not always available to help or helpful, and it is frequently difficult to get a response to queries.

The process is slow and unwieldy. Anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate that the process is even more intractable when money is owed to taxpayers rather than to the taxman (although this can't be proved because HMRC doesn't keep a central record of the average amount of time it takes to process a personal self-assessment tax repayment). Furthermore, most tax practitioners will testify to the astonishing increase in “lost” letters within HMRC offices. By a remarkable co-incidence, most of the correspondence that gets mislaid seems to relate to claims for repayments of tax.

At the same time as it is enforcing tighter rules, HMRC is less and less efficient itself. Penalising individuals for failing to comply with standards that HMRC is incapable of meeting itself is duplicitous. HMRC received more than eight million self-assessment tax returns in 2009/2010, and the burden on HMRC will only become greater in future.

The current system is unfair and needs to be stopped. Despite undoubted pressure from government to maximise tax revenue, HMRC needs to either adopt a little compassion and understanding, or take some of its own medicine. How much more efficient would they become, I wonder, if they faced the same penalty regime as taxpayers?

HMRC need to realise that merely referring to taxpayers as “customers” does not engender respect.

What is required is a genuine recognition of the very real hardship faced by many taxpayers and an acknowledgment that all stakeholders need to work together to produce an efficient and credible system of tax collection.

Andy White is a tax partner at accountancy firm Carter Backer Winter (CBW). He can be contacted on 020 7309 3917 and at andy.white@cbw.co.uk.

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