In which I unleash my inner Sir Bufton TuftonDecember 19, 2012
I find myself turning into Sir Bufton Tufton as I read TC02006, the tax case of a chap called Philip Procter who was appealing against a surcharge. (I would include a link, but I can only find it on databases you have to pay to access, sorry.) I mean, I know it’s a clear sign of middle age that you start thinking things have gone to hell in a handcart “since my day” but in this case I think I’m justified in a bit of red-faced splutter.
I should explain that, “in my day” I have been to the old-style Commissioners hearings and represented the old Inland Revenue, so I have some small experience of trying to put together the Departmental case from different people’s paperwork and making sure the facts were correct, the paperwork was in order, and the case hung together.
And I realize that it’s a very different department today – today’s HMRC isn’t location based like the old IR but based on vertical “silos” that have outposts all over the country, so a case file (if they still HAVE case files) is made up of bits and pieces from people all over the country who work in different areas of the business that might not ever have spoken to each other…
…but still. That’s no excuse.
If I were still working in HMRC and read what Judge Guy Brannan had to say about the HMRC case I’d be wincing. If I were still working in HMRC today and were involved in management of the appeals service I’d be horrified. And if I were Mr Procter or his advisors I’d be sending a copy of the judgement to the Adjudicator’s office and asking for compensation.
There were factual errors in the HMRC case. Judge Brennan says:
These errors, although involving relatively minor matters of dating, do not fill me with confidence in the reliability of the description of events contained in the Case History.
This seems to me to be judicial politeness for, um, “teller of tales, your trousers have combusted”
The very least you should be able to rely on from HMRC is that they give an accurate account of their actions, and in this case it seems they weren’t able to say who said what to whom and when.
Mr Proctor had a time to pay arrangement in place. HMRC cancelled it, but apparently didn’t tell him. And it seems when he rang them about the surcharge notices he was getting, he was assured on a couple of occasions that this was a mistake, the time to pay arrangement was still in place, and he should carry on paying under the arrangement. The HMRC evidence was that he’d been told on “numerous occasions” that the arrangement had been cancelled, but the judge wasn’t prepared to accept HMRC’s “evidence” and, from the facts as recounted, I can entirely see his point. And it’s an extremely scary one, because – although anyone can make a mistake – you ought to be able to rely on HMRC to try its best not to make them, and to put them right when it finds it has. Above all, when it does a case review prior to going to the Tribunal, it ought at least, at very least, to get someone competent and outside of the initial clusterfuck to read over the file and see if the case stands up. That’s the part that I can’t get over – not that the Department might have made a mistake or three, but that its “review” was, seemingly, such a dog’s breakfast.
There’s more, though: that’s not an isolated incident, it seems. Taxation magazine have started an occasional series devoted to “obvious and avoidable mistakes by HMRC”. There are really enough for a series? They start with the case of someone issued a notice to make a self assessment return in January, who then made the return within a fortnight, but was charged a late return penalty for making the return on paper after the paper filing date!
This is mixing up two different things. The normal date for making a self assessment return is October for paper, January for online – so, yes, if you need to make a return for 2011-12 you need to do it before the end of January online, and if you send in a paper return you’ll be charged £100 penalty, even if it’s not the end of January yet (and even if you’ve no tax to pay!)
But that’s only if you’ve been notified that you need to make a return. If HMRC tells you now, or indeed in January, that you need to make a return, then the time limit is three months from when they tell you, whether you make the return on paper OR online.
Or in other words, either HMRC didn’t check the facts, or they didn’t understand their own legislation.
Still, stuff happens, right? One is an accident, two is a trend… but three? Three is problem. Three would be a symptom of a department that’s been cut too far too fast, whose management has lost the plot and whose staff are demoralized and unsupported. Shall we stick at two? Let’s cross our fingers…