Taxpayers' Charter redrafted
Wendy Bradley picks apart the proposed redraft of the Taxpayers' Charter aka “Your Charter”, and asks whether the authors know the difference between standards and aspirations.
The Taxpayers' Charter was first sighted in 1986, then a product of the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise. The original Taxpayers' Charter is surprisingly hard to find (I couldn't track one down online) but there are numerous iterations which are online, the impulse to review, rewrite and rejig being universal.
What’s in a name?
The most contentious change in this latest draft is the evolution of the charter from being the Taxpayers' charter to today's HMRC Charter. No amount of referring to it as "Your Charter" will make me feel ownership of a piece of customer service flimflammery if it is only warm words and isn't backed up by action.
Currently, there are 14 headings: seven rights balanced against seven obligations.
The revised version mercifully loses this rather vexatious sham balance and instead sticks to seven paragraphs on:
- Making things easy
- Getting things right
- Being responsive
- Treating you fairly
- Being aware of your personal situation
- Keeping your data secure
- A word about respect
However, some of those are nevertheless a mish-mash of "rights" (or at least warm words about HMRC's aims) and obligations.
For example: "We aim to give you accurate, consistent and clear information. This will help you meet your obligations, understand your rights and what you can claim."
There is no undertaking here by HMRC to give accurate information, just an "aim" to do so, but the taxpayer is burdened with obligations including understanding their own rights. There is no reciprocal requirement on HMRC to clarify or explain the taxpayer's rights if they fail to understand the information that seems clear to HMRC.
The consultation asks respondents to consider the new draft charter through three lenses:
- Do you think the draft charter sets the right standards for HMRC’s service to customers?
- To what extent do you feel the draft charter sets out the areas that are most important to customers when interacting with HMRC?
- How you would like to see HMRC measure and monitor how it is performing against the charter, including how we can best listen to feedback and make improvements?
My issue with the first of these questions is that the draft doesn't seem to set standards as much as to articulate a set of aspirations.
For example, these points are all aspirations:
- When you get in touch with us, we aim to answer your questions and resolve things first time, or as quickly as we can.
- We will also explain what happens next and when you can expect a response from us.
- If we make a mistake, we will put it right as soon as possible
These statements are standards:
- We will answer the phone within thirty seconds, and reply to emails and letters within thirty days.
- We will treat you fairly.
Who is protected?
The draft fairness paragraph states:
"We work within the law to make sure everyone pays the right amount of tax and gets their benefits and other entitlements. We trust you are telling the truth, unless we have good reason to think you’re not."
This seems to be designed to protect HMRC from criticism rather than articulate their rights to the taxpayer.
I would like to see HMRC treat the Charter as an exercise in codifying taxpayers' rights. There are already many thousands of pages of legislation setting out their obligations.
Whether the seven parts of the new draft Charter are the right areas to concentrate on, is a good question. I think they represent a further iteration of the same kind of areas that have appeared in the Charter since its beginnings: how the tax authority will treat us, how they will communicate with us, and how they will treat us with respect.
Who judges the judges?
The interesting bit is the final question: how do we want HMRC to "measure and monitor" its progress against the Charter. If you look at HMRC's governance structure you will see they have a "Customer Experience Committee" whose duties include "challenging and supporting" HMRC on their customer service achievements and publishing reports on their compliance with "Your Charter". The membership consists of five non-executive directors of HMRC and three independent advisors from a retail chain, a bank and a data company.
Why is the Independent Adjudicator not on the committee? Representatives of Tax Help for Older People, Tax Aid, Citizens Advice? If it is really "Your Charter" then "You" – we – need someone on our side looking at the result.
Tell your friends!