HMRC searches Wikipedia for answers

Richard Hattersley
Community correspondent
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HMRC lost a tribunal after relying on Wikipedia for the definition of electromechanical switches to classify the correct commodity code.

Wikipedia is used as a useful resource, but due to the collaborative nature of the online encyclopaedia, where anyone can edit an article, the information shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For further proof of Wikipedia’s unreliability, look at the fallout from the number of false celebrity death claims which grace the wiki pages.

Universities distrust Wikipedia and some even mark down students for citing Wikipedia as a source. Harvard University advises students that “there is a considerable risk in relying on this source for your essays” and says Wikipedia should be used as a “basic reference guide”.

However, HMRC ignored this advice and used the online encyclopaedia not as a reference guide but to uphold a decision against an appeal. But the tribunal dismissed HMRC’s use of Wikipedia’s as evidence.

In the November first tier tribunal, RJS electronics [TC04870] disputed HMRC’s original decision which classified four switches the company sold under a commodity code which attracts a duty rate of 2.3% after researching the facts on Wikipedia. Instead, RJS claimed the switch should correctly be classified as “electromechanical snap-action switches for a current not exceeding 11A”, which carries a 0% duty rate.

In May 2014, HMRC’s review officer revealed the research basis of his decision. “There is little guidance on the type of product and the Wikipedia information is not altogether clear,” the review said.

The appellant disagreed with the review officer’s verdict. “It is very important that someone classifying electronic goods is not just reading some page on the internet but they have at least a minimal understanding of the electronic terms.”

As well as accusing HMRC of relying on Wikipedia as its source, RJS said HMRC ignored parts of the extract used which contradicted their ruling. HMRC also used a definition from the Oxford dictionary during the tribunal which defines electromechanical as “specifically designating a mechanical device which is electrically 10 operated or controlled,” but failed to acknowledge the opening definition which stated ‘both electrical and mechanical action’.

In the tribunal, RJS dismantled the switch device, showing the small spring which acts to either connect or disconnect the conductors, and referred to their competitors whose understanding was identical to theirs.  

The tribunal sided with RJS, and ruled that switches are electromechanical as well as being snapaction. The tribunal dismissed the Wikipedia and OED examples as "not entirely consistent" and unreliable.  

Should HMRC use Wikipedia as a source?

Whether HMRC should trust the reliability of a collaborative website has caused some commentators to question whether the over-complicated tax code is in need of review.

RSM’s George Bull said: “Are we seriously at the stage where HMRC file and serve its Statement of Case relying on a Wikipedia definition as if it were authority? That’s Wikipedia which defines itself as ‘the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit’ and which, under the heading ‘Switch’ (a redirection from ‘electromagnetic switch’) states ‘This article needs additional citations for verification…’

“If so, then the tax code is in even more need of review than even the OTS recognise.”


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19th Feb 2016 22:46

Wikipedia is the online equivalent of the "man in the pub", but probably less reliable.

I wonder how HMRC would react if I quoted a Wikipedia entry to back up a tax evasion strategy. 

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22nd Feb 2016 07:30


No surprises here.  See a post of mine from about 18 months ago.  I found myself reading the relevant section of the VAT Act 1994 over the phone to the so-called "Inspector".  It was clear that the wording of this section was both:

1.  New to her, and

2.  Not intelligible to her.

So I had to read it slowly several times and explain its meaning to her.  She carried on with the case, notwithstanding the fact that after this phone call she 100% knew her ship had been holed below the waterline.

If you fire thousands of knowledgeable people and hire 20,000 donkeys from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, you've got to expect these sorts of tax cases which make you look like the bunch of jokers you really are.


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22nd Feb 2016 08:28


Whenever I look at a Wikipedia article it is usually riven with references to external sources, usually hyperlinked to footnotes, showing the source of the information quoted in the Wiki. And when there is a shortage of sources someone else usually scrawls all over the article with "citation needed" messages.

So while the article may not itself be top notch, its reliability can be scrutinised.

Maybe not.

With kind regards

Clint Westwood

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By chatman
24th Feb 2016 12:13

Wikipedia uses References

nogammonsinanundoubledgame wrote:

Whenever I look at a Wikipedia article it is usually riven with references to external sources, usually hyperlinked to footnotes, showing the source of the information quoted in the Wiki. And when there is a shortage of sources someone else usually scrawls all over the article with "citation needed" messages.

So while the article may not itself be top notch, its reliability can be scrutinised.

Exactly. Wikipedia is often a very good starting point for research.

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22nd Feb 2016 10:06


An article is only as good as the people who write it.  Less 'man in the pub', more 'we asked 100 people who know about the subject to write about it, but maybe they are experts, maybe they just think they are'.

And that's not taking into account malicious editing.

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22nd Feb 2016 22:06

surely the more worrying aspect

is that the powers that be in HMRC apparently do not bother to ensure their staff have access to appropriate technical resources so they can understand the issues and apply the law properly.

Why on earth should they even be expected to have recourse to wikipedia and the internet to understand the technicalities of the product?

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23rd Feb 2016 08:07


Perhaps a few more instances of this kind will lead to HMRC joining the rest of us in accepting that current tax law is ludicrously and unnecessarily over-complicated.

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25th Feb 2016 05:54

Something is missing...

I don't think such thing would happen if HRMC has properly researched, discussed and verified  its claim in order to ensure it has a strong case against RJS. weird...

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25th Feb 2016 12:24

Only yesterday

I had a protracted discussion on the Agent's helpline where I was firmly and confidently told that, "there is no such thing as extended carry back of losses for opening years, you can only ever carry losses back one year - computer says no".  Which it had indeed done, hence the telephone call.

The conversation then went along the lines of, "but your client didn't pay any tax in 2014-15 so there is none to refund anyway".  The next comment nearly made me laugh!  "But you can't carry a loss back to set against employment income in a  a non self assessment year".  Time to ask for it to be 'sent down' as one Revenue officer described the process of having something looked at properly!

Don't get me wrong I am a huge supporter of the Agent's helpline, it is mostly manned by pleasant sensible folks. I think that I would lose the will to live if I had to call the public helpline on a daily basis!

My gripe is about the training HMRC gives its staff. What of the poor saps who call the public helpline, manned by lower grade officers? What sort of nonsense are they told after a lengthy musical interlude?

I naively assumed that tribunal cases would be reviewed by senior techies to avoid stuff like this happening and wasting everyone's time.

I suspect that this is just the tip of a frighteningly large iceberg!

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