Hard look at HMRC guidance
Wendy Bradley reviews the Office of Tax Simplification’s report: Guidance for taxpayers: a vision for the future. But she is not impressed.
The OTS paper setting out their vision suggests four themes:
- HMRC should make rewriting their guidance a priority,
- it should be made easier to find the right guidance,
- there should be a "renewed collaboration across the tax community" to work on rewriting guidance; and
- there should be more clarity about when, whether and to what extent a taxpayer may rely on that guidance.
Is a rewrite worth it?
The idea that a grand rewrite of taxpayer guidance should be made a priority has echoes of the Tax Law Rewrite Project, which turned out to be somewhat of a lead balloon.
Putting time and effort into rewriting tax legislation into more accessible language was clearly a good thing in itself, but at the end of the day, the users of tax legislation were more invested in the knowledge they had already acquired of the "old" legislation. New users didn't appreciate the work that had gone into the rewrite, and existing users by and large were just annoyed to have to relearn stuff they already knew.
Asking HMRC to put serious resources into a similar rewrite of their extensive guidance seems to me to be pie in the sky: the costs alone would be enormous. Surely it would be far better to concentrate on making new guidance better, a task that can be absorbed into the department's business as usual and so in existing costs.
The goal of making it easier to find guidance is much more urgent, as anyone who has tried to find answers on gov.uk will appreciate.
The OTS document is a bit light on how this might be achieved aside from the recommendation that "more work" should be done. I came away with the impression that the OTS would like HMRC to build a better search engine than Google, clearly a non-starter.
Hallmark old vs new
I would like to see all existing guidance "hallmarked" to indicate whether it was an existing or “old” guidance. This already happens to government policy websites when a new government is elected, so it's clear they show the position under the old government and that you need to check they remain current before relying on what they say.
This hallmarking procedure would avoid reinventing the wheel by rewriting guidance which already exists and is accurate, but doesn't conform to new standards. All new guidance should then have good quality links embedded in them as a matter of course, so that material can be read sequentially or out of sequence, but it is clear where it is not the last word on a subject and how to follow through.
Loss of focus
The OTS vision of a "renewed collaboration across the tax community" particularly concerned me.
Although the OTS document speaks of users being divided into taxpayers, tax advisers and HRMC staff, it seems to lose this focus when looking at how it sees guidance being produced in future.
The taxpayer is not part of the "tax community" envisaged as writing new guidance, yet tax advisers are envisaged as rewriting HMRC manuals to make them more user-friendly… for tax advisers.
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This is a nonsense. HMRC manuals are to guide HMRC staff in their job of administering taxes. They are, rightly, made public under the Freedom of Information Act but that does not change their fundamental purpose any more than the ability to tune your radio to a police channel changes the purpose of the communication between police officers and their control room.
The OTS identifies current guidance as divided into three strands: mainstream, specialist and manuals, and suggests that a "new strategic approach" should instead be structured on:
- context where no guidance is needed because it is built into the process which is being undertaken
- entry level guidance
- detailed guidance
The "no guidance" level seems to be elements like pop-up instructions when completing a form. Entry level guidance seems to be the kind of material which appears already on gov.uk pages. Detailed guidance appears to be roughly analogous to HMRC manuals.
I feel OTS has misled itself. Take this assertion, for example: “very few taxpayers will ever wish to read tax legislation; guidance is the only way in which taxpayers can know and understand what the law means for them in practice." (para 1.4)
OTS staff has clearly never dealt with a retired schoolteacher with time on their hands and a question about their tax code.
A citizen has the right to know and understand why and how they are being taxed, rather than segmenting guidance into levels of presumed requirement it needs to be vertically integrated. So you can begin with "what does XXX mean on my payslip" and get all the way to the relevant legislation should you choose to do so.
The OTS does highlight the fact that up to date tax legislation is not freely available in the public domain. The latest Finance Acts are available on gov.uk, but the law is not consolidated as each Act changes earlier Acts. This renders the legislation on gov.uk useless, and even positively dangerous, as the casual reader will not know that the law has been updated.
I think the OTS is asking the wrong questions and so has come up with the wrong answers. There is, surely, a legitimate expectation (in public law terms) that HMRC will follow its own guidance.
The problem is that in a world where the government website style reduces complex guidance to a single paragraph written for a reading age of a pre-teen it is not enough to rely on the single page that comes up on Google. Only connect, as E M Forster wrote. There are a lot of connections to be made.
Wendy Bradley is a retired tax inspector, now working as a freelance journalist.