Vulnerable Taxpayers - what is being done?
In commenting on George Osborne’s budget announcement about digital tax accounts, Low Income Tax Reform Group (LITRG) Chairman Anthony Thomas could not have put it better when he said:
“for the substantial minority who have never accessed the internet, paper must remain a valid option and not an afterthought. No-one should be forced to file online to comply with their tax obligations."
LITRG are doing a difficult and far reaching job as well as they can with the (mostly part time and volunteer) resources they have.
Obviously they can only be of use to those who know they are there and I hope they won’t think me unkind when I say that their website needs reviewing – I logged on to the page headed ‘Getting Help’ and there was incorrect text e.g. “There is a charge for telephoning all HMRC lines and you would be wise to check with your service provider to understand how much that will be”, a couple of the links did not work and there were spelling mistakes.
But that is minor to the main fact that they are there and can assist when asked.
The reason I am looking into this subject is because of a phone call I received from a client. He asked whether I would take on a friend of his who is dyslexic. The friend is a subcontractor and used to go down to the HMRC office every second week of April when some HMRC assistant would complete and submit the return and the refund would be made.
This year he was not aware that all enquiry offices had closed on 30 June 2014 and as he does not drive he asked my client to take him to the office. My client thought that a bit funny as he was sure he had read that they had closed but said nothing until they arrived at the address to find that the office had indeed closed.
He did not appreciate that you now have to do everything online and according to my client was very upset not knowing what to do to get his refund. As it happens he’s become my client but that is not the point. He is a typical vulnerable taxpayer – who didn’t know who to turn to for help and can’t use a computer.
So this tale got me looking further to find out what is being done for people such as my (new) client (if anything).
When writing commentary on recently issued Consultation papers for accweb I’ve noticed that none make mention of the impact of the proposals on vulnerable people but my investigations show that this does not mean that they are being forgotten.
One of the most important recent consultation papers is the one on the Direct Recovery of Debts (DRD). In that paper HMRC made no mention of vulnerable taxpayers but in their response to the consultation CIOT pointed out that:
“There are obvious concerns about how these proposals might adversely and disproportionately affect vulnerable and elderly taxpayers and it is important that such people are identified early in the process. We ask that HMRC consider excluding these taxpayers from DRD or, alternatively that HMRC commits to taking a common sense approach when dealing with such taxpayers, using DRD as a last resort only.”
So it is very pleasing to read in the Summary of Responses that HMRC have been persuaded to establish a “new vulnerable customers unit which will work closely with the voluntary sector and whose prime focus will be dealing with DRD cases in the early stages of its operation.” But note the words ‘in the early stages’ – this has ‘we’ll do it at the beginning and then you are on your own’ feeling.
Other organisations may have included a comment about vulnerable taxpayers in their submissions (accweb did) – this cannot be ascertained - but from looking at the list of ‘Stakeholders Consulted’ it was interesting to see that a number of those who did respond were from organisations with an interest in vulnerable persons i.e. Association of Credit Unions, Consumer Council, LITRG, Money Advice Trust, StepChange Debt Charity, Tax Help for Older People, TaxAid, TaxPayers' Alliance and the Westminster Advice Forum.
It seems that although HMRC may be ignoring the more vulnerable taxpayers in their vision for complete digital strategy some organisations are making sure they are not forgotten and they (and us as their supporters) must make sure that HMRC keep being reminded.