Proposed scrutiny of HMRC's powers
The financial secretary to the Treasury (FST) has announced six actions which HMRC will take to maintain and develop public trust in its operations.
AccountingWEB columnist and retired tax inspector Wendy Bradley casts her critical eye over the proposals.
The announcement by the current FST Jesse Norman is in response to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s The Powers of HMRC: Treating Taxpayers Fairly report.
Half of the six points are anodyne suggestions that HMRC will improve its transparency by publishing more data (eg on debt management services). This will occur after a consultation on what data the taxpaying public would find useful. I won’t hold my breath.
There are also undertakings that HMRC will review taxpayers' experiences during tax compliance enquiries and report on the effectiveness of the work of its own "extra support" services.
My concern is that HMRC will be marking its own homework. Surely the effectiveness of the extra support it provides to taxpayers who need more than a website and call centre, can only be judged by researching the opinions of, and outcomes for, the taxpayers themselves?
A particularly welcome idea is the setting up of a new professional standards committee, although the announcement says it will be set up by HMRC (rather than being a body external to HMRC) and will "take advice" from experts and then "advise" HMRC on its deliberations.
We have been here before, with stakeholder bodies like the Customer Experience Committee and the Administrative Burdens Advisory Board, for example.
When HMRC publishes the new committee's membership and terms of reference later in 2019 we shall see just how independent-minded that committee might be, and how many teeth it is likely to have.
If it is another collection of the great and the good from professional bodies without input from civil society organisations representing the ordinary taxpayer, then I believe it won’t command the respect of the general taxpaying public.
Review of powers
A particularly problematic area of the FST's announcement is the response to the request for a review of powers.
The Economic Affairs Committee made a good argument that the time was ripe for a full review of HMRC powers and in particular on how they interact. They argued that no-one was taking a strategic view of how the various powers acquired over time work together.
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The FST spectacularly misses the noble lords' point and rejects this idea, explaining that each individual power has been granted by parliament. That parliament considers each element of legislation separately without asking how it interacts with existing legislation is entirely handwaved away.
In my view, it’s time to write to your MP and ask for this one to be looked at again.
I am astonished that there is to be a "comprehensive review" of the findings of the June 2019 report from the Adjudicator's Office and development of a secure communication channel.
The idea that members of the public would be able to email the Adjudicator is still "developing" -- a commitment I reported on in May -- is preposterous. How long does it take to set up an email account?
Lost in the din
Given the other things going on government today, it is unlikely that any of the proposals in this report will see that light of day in their present form.
It seems to be an admirable attempt by the House of Lords to do its job of holding the executive to account, and an equally proficient attempt by the government to walk away from doing anything too difficult.