'Taxation' magazine editor Mike Truman has turned crusader by proclaiming his opposition to HMRC's practice of referring to the public as "customers".
Truman wants HMRC to go back a professional civil service model rather than aping business terminology, replacing "customer" with "taxpayer" or "claimant" depending on the person's relationship with HMRC.
“We are all fully aware that when we deal with HMRC we are not customers at all,” Truman wrote. "We are not buying anything from them, and we do not have a choice about whether to interact with them. We cannot, except in certain complicated double taxation scenarios, decide to pay our taxes to the American IRS or to collect our benefits from the French Securité Sociale. Someone who is being investigated for serious fraud is not a customer of the unit that is carrying out the investigation, nor should they be treated as one. Some might argue that, although inaccurate, the use of the word ‘customer’ by HMRC is unimportant.
"It is important if it makes me wince every time I read it, because it distracts my attention from what follows. It is also important for the reason given by George Orwell in his seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’.”
The use of the word customer to describe taxpayers has been growing within the department for the past decade, predating the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise. It has is now become a lazy form of shorthand within HMRC, when (correspondents, contacts, users, members of the public), but if senior management feel an overwhelming desire to say ‘customers’ when talking to each other, it probably doesn’t do too much harm, provided they stop using it when talking to taxpayers, claimants and their advisers.
“I don’t want HMRC to treat me as a customer. In fact, I don’t want the focus to be on me at all. I want it to be on them and their staff. What I want is for my tax affairs to be handled by civil servants, in all senses of that phrase. What I mean by it most of all is that I want government departments to stop playing at being businesses and to return to the traditional values of the professional civil service.
“While that might carry certain negative connotations of being bureaucratic and pen-pushing, those are outweighed by the positive ones of being independent, professional, fully trained, having great integrity, and providing a public service. Those are the values Dave Hartnett was defending when refusing to breach taxpayer confidentiality under questioning from the Public Accounts Committee; they are not the values of a ‘customer-centric’ organisation, because you only please customers in order to make more money out of them.”
Taxation magazine is running an online petition to press its campaign home. Only 99,700 more signatures are needed to force a parliamentary debate on the subject. Don’t push at the back there! There should be plenty of bandwidth to accommodate you all.
You can also follow the campaign’s development by monitoring the Twitter hashtag #NotACustomer.
2012 Taxation Awards
Truman launched his anti-customer diatribe on the morning of the Taxation Awards (24 May). For those who couldn’t make it, the winners were:
Big Four tax team PwC R&D Tax Credit Team
Regional tax practice Francis Clark
High net worth team Smith & Williamson
Law firm tax team Olswang
In house team Legal & General Group
National firm tax team Grant Thornton National Employer Solutions
International tax team Grant Thornton
Tax writer John Endacott, Francis Clark
VAT team Ernst & Young Retail Indirect Tax
Rising star Kelly Sizer, CIOT
Single-office practice Creaseys
Technological innovation Low Incomes Tax Reform Group
Consultancy team McKie & Co (Advisory Services)
Investigations team Crowe Clark Whitehill
Tax personality of the year Anthony Thomas, Thomas & Company, Coventry
Lifetime achievement John Andrews, CIOT