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I don't like meetings. By Simon Sweetman

16th Jul 2008
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Simon Sweetman responds to his critic; "So, after all these years, am I still an inspector of Taxes at heart?"

It is true that I believe that HMRC is changing the way it does compliance, and I think it is changing for the better despite all the genuine worries about new powers. I think this because I see the evidence of intention to change : it has to be said that the proof of the pudding here is going to be what happens in real offices to real taxpayers. And it is also true that the way the process of merger and change has been handled has caused a great deal of pain and inefficiency throughout the system and most of that pain has been felt by taxpayers : but we may be getting through that, though so far it is the larger companies and the better off who are getting a better service through specialized offices.

When I wrote about enquiries recently the responses included a certain amount of paranoia. This was no surprise : it is an attitude I have seen time and again, and it has been fuelled over the years by the way in which some inspectors have behaved – I have worked with Inspectors who thought it a victory if the taxpayer cried. But fear and loathing is not a basis for negotiation, and after all negotiation is often what handling an enquiry is about, especially when your client has become almost terminally muddled in their record keeping.

But the paranoia is especially pronounced on the subject of meetings, which are seen as a kind of lengthy mugging. I have to confess to having been ambushed myself – this was by my own client, who suddenly decided to tell the Inspector that he took the first £50 out of the till every week before he recorded everything. Needless to say, he hadn't bothered to tell me !

HMRC will argue that a meeting can save a great deal of time in an enquiry, because you can cover the ground it might take months of letter writing to deal with. More importantly, in my view, a meeting can enable you to come to the core of any problems rather than constantly skirting round the real issues. Oddly enough, my client's £50 a week actually helped : there was now a clear focus to the enquiry and it was settled fairly quickly after that.

Now when I go to a meeting with a client it is because I believe that at this stage a meeting is the right way to make progress (whether the Inspector thinks so or not – there are times when it is me who asks for a meeting). I also want – as HMRC is supposed to provide – a clear agenda, and if the Inspector attempts to depart from that agenda then I say so and would suggest to my client that he or she does not attempt to answer any questions. Especially if the Inspector attempts some kind of off the cuff means test : if I think it useful I will normally suggest that I talk to my client about it later and will certainly not allow it to carry forward.

In my view a refusal to attend a meeting gives one message to HMRC : you are afraid of what will happen, either because you know something about your client's affairs that you don’t want to tell HMRC or because you think you will be bullied and not be able to handle it. Well, I'm sorry, but if that's the case then you shouldn't be handling enquiry work at all : you should be handing it on to someone who knows what they're doing.

One respondent seemed proud of delaying cases for as long as possible. What about his clients? Nearly all the people I have worked with have been worried, unable to sleep, and desperately keen to get things finished and would hardly want to think tht their own representative was slowing things down.

So I will say this here and now: the average small practitioner general purpose accountant is not experienced or knowledgeable enough to make a good job of enquiry work, and should work with a specialist to achieve results. Of course that is difficult, because it means that it will cost the client money in fees. That money will almost certainly be saved in tax, but that may not be obvious.


Replies (7)

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By User deleted
23rd Jul 2008 16:20

Humans not Robots?
I suppose that if this string illustrates anything it is the fact that HMRC officers are as variable as any other group of human beings. That being so it is perhaps unhelpful to consider them as if they were an homogeneous group.

Whereas one or two people's experiences have been (very broadly) positive, Nick's has clearly been anything but...

What should not be variable are the guidelines that each officer has to follow. For example:
EM1836 "Above all, never in any circumstances use words or phrases which could be construed by the taxpayer as a threat. "

Or what about this:
EM1875 "Unless you are reasonably certain that there have been understatements - and often it will not be possible for you to be certain at this stage - you should ask the taxpayer in a neutral way whether there is anything further that he or she has to tell you, taking account of what you have said. You should make it clear that you are not making any allegations at this point."

These are quite categorical instructions and one is entitled to complain (and be heeded) where they are not followed.

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By Nick E Morgan
22nd Jul 2008 14:46

Bullying Tactics
I just don't understand how you can say there is paranoia about meetings in one breath and then with the next acknowledge that reducing taxpayers to tears in meetings created job satisfaction for HMRC officers!

There are a list of 12 dirty tricks at . Help me - if you can - to change the dirty dozen into a filthy thirty and let’s put a stop to this bullying behaviour from HMRC.

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By billgilcom
21st Jul 2008 21:08

Like Peter I like meetings and have never been afraid of bullies and such - as they can easily be shown to be unworthy and exactly where they are lacking. However I have to say that I would never be too ready in following the expensive route - for the client - of going to the Commissioners.

Clearly the better channel is to properly prepare for "agenda" meetings where they can clearly be seen as an effective tool for getting a resolution to a sticky or difficult problem. Equally I also consider that there is nothing to beat a proper preparation for such a meeting by covering (but not covering up) the areas that are on the agenda - in part to stop the sort of situation that SS's client took it upon himself to surprise both him and the Inspector.

As to client's crying this is not a bad thing - when the Inspector has cracked a funny during the course of his friendly chat.

Equally I have to admit an interest in what Simon refers to about engaging a specialist but I would suggest that perhaps his comments have been taken loosely. Clearly if a specialists fees will be covered by the tax saved then clearly there will be a knock on effect in both interest and penalties. Anyway that is of course if there is unpaid tax in the first place. Sometimes it needs the specialist to think out of the box or use his/her experience and expertise to safeguard the client's rights if matters have not progressed satisfactorily.

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By nerys
21st Jul 2008 19:10

I do like meetings
I rarely comment but I must disagree with Simon on the subject of meetings. I hope, by now, that the local HMRC are aware that my refusal to attend a meeting gives the opposite message i.e. that I do not have any worries that I know something about my client's affairs that I don’t want to tell HMRC. If I knew something like that the first thing I would have done is organised a meeting and told the Revenue ( we should not be in the business of hiding irregularities) I certainly do not think that I "will be bullied and not be able to handle it." I quite enjoy meetings but do not want to indulge in my pleasures at the expense of my client. My principal concern with early meetings is that, with the best will in the world, inspectors do use meetings as "fishing expeditions". Clients will make innocent comments which lead the Inspector away from the original thrust of the enquiry down innocent and unproductive cul-de-sacs. Consequently a great deal of time and effort has to be put in to prove that there are no problems in those areas and to get us back onto track. Therefore, before I will agree to a meeting I want us to be very focussed on the areas to be resolved and to be very sure that there is likely to be a possibility of resolution. I am not going to waste my time in technical arguement with an Inspector if he has not got the authority to make an executive decision. I would rather present those arguements to the Commissioners.

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By Johhny
18th Jul 2008 16:26

I'll second that
Simon, as you know I am an investigations specialist so I do have a vested interest. However, my main interest is in making sure that matters are properly squared away with HMRC, the best settlement is reached in the circumstances, due regard is given to the client's rights and the boundaries of HMRC's powers are not breached.

I get a lot of my work by way of referrals from small firms, either to take on a case (perhaps part way through) or to give a particularly knotty case a cold review. There are notable exceptions but most of the cases I see have been handled poorly - it is both preferable and advantageous for the client to have a case dealt with properly in the first place rather than having to repair and regain control of a badly handled case. Not engaging specialists in appropriate circumstances is not only against the guide to professional conduct endorsed by the main tax bodies, it is also a false economy.

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By AnonymousUser
17th Jul 2008 18:19

Not necessarily, if the agent has insurance
but there in lies another scam of sorts, I suppose. Ultimately, the underwriters will make a profit, and that will be at someone's expense. Evens it out a bit, perhaps

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By mikewhit
17th Jul 2008 17:34

One way or another ...
"it will cost the client money in fees. That money will almost certainly be saved in tax,"

So the client is no better off - he either gets mugged by HMRC or charged by the specialist to arrive at the "fair" amount of tax ...

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