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Get Carter

November 11, 2013

One of the things I am becoming increasingly interested in academically, and which you may have noticed as a recurring theme in this blog, is the disjuncture between people-who-know-about-tax and everybody else.  The most useful terminology I have found for this so far is to use a simile taken from Harry Potter and call the two groups “tax wizards” and “tax muggles”, particularly as the Potter analogy allows for people like me, a “squib” who knows about the existence of the tax wizarding world but doesn’t lay claim to any of its powers.

Let us thank goodness, then, for the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, a charitable offshoot of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, which aims to be, well, I suppose the Potter analogy would be the Ministry of Muggle Affairs – to

‘Target for help and information those least able in the community to afford to pay for advice and make a real difference to their understanding of the systems of taxation and related benefits whilst working to make them more equitable and accessible for their needs.’

They supported and won a test case, TC02910: L H Bishop Electric Company Limited and related appeals (I’m afraid I can’t find a link to this that isn’t on a paid website but here’s LITRG’s press release about it) about mandation of VAT reporting online.  In other words, some people can’t, won’t or at least find it very difficult to, conduct their VAT relationship with HMRC purely over the internet and wanted the same exemption that people with religious beliefs that prevent them using computers have.  (Incidentally, I had always rather lazily believed that this exemption was in place for the Plymouth Brethren but I see from their website that apparently they have been using computers for five years now… in which case, who DOES get the “religious” exemption?  Does anyone know?)

The argument was, essentially, that people who don’t use computers because they’re old – they didn’t learn at school and they have no particular desire or need to learn now, and they find it harder to take on board new information by reason of their age – and people who have a disability – either a cognitive disability that prevents them absorbing the information on a computer screen or a physical disability which prevents them using a screen or keyboard – ought to be exempt from having to file online.  In addition, people who live somewhere that doesn’t have a broadband service sufficient to get them onto the HMRC system, again, ought to be exempt.

The HMRC argument can be summarised as: “tough.”  Or, at least,

  • ask a friend or family member to do it for you on their computer
  • use a computer in a library
  • pay an agent
  • use a computer in an HMRC enquiry centre, or
  • use the Sekrit Phone A Friend service they invented just for this case (don’t ask)

The tribunal, it’s fair to say, wasn’t impressed.  Libraries are closing left right and centre.  HMRC enquiry centres are either closed or scheduled to close.  Asking or paying someone else to make a return has privacy implications.  And HMRC inventing a telephone filing method but then not telling anyone about it, well, this is what the tribunal had to say…

435.
The current version of telephone filing, as offered to the joint appellants, requires the taxpayer to agree three months in advance with HMRC a day and time (in HMRC’s business hours) when HMRC will ring the taxpayer in order for the taxpayer orally to state the figures on the VAT return…

440.
HMRC does not accept that telephone filing is inconvenient. They point out that the HMRC agent would ring back if the taxpayer was engaged. But the protocol established by HMRC for telephone filing is that the agent will only ring back twice, and will then write a letter to the taxpayer in an attempt to re-arrange the phone call.
441.
I find reliance on the postal service to re-arrange a phone call is unrealistic: VAT returns are due on set days. Unless the taxpayer arranges the first call to be on a date long before the due date, he would run the risk that if the call has to be re- arranged, the new date will be after the due date.
442.
HMRC do not suggest that the arrangements for the re-arranged call can be made over the phone. It is not part of the protocol, and as evidence above has shown it is very difficult to contact HMRC by phone.
443.
I find telephone filing is not a very convenient option for submitting a time sensitive document, the late submission of which will incur penalties.
and then (and this is my personal favourite part of the judgement)

496. Its concessionary status was not the only controversy over telephone filing. There are (at least) three reasons why it might be unlawful:

  • It may ignore s 25(4) Value Added Tax Regulations 1994;
  • It is an unpublished and largely secret concession;
  • It may be “Wednesbury unreasonable” in that HMRC do not appear to have considered all relevant matters
Unfortunately, though, the judgement isn’t going to be much use to most people, since (as far as I understand the rather detailed technical arguments) the litigation was only possible because there was a decision by HMRC (to put the taxpayers into the first tranche of people, those who had to file their VAT returns online from 1 April 2010) whereas most people will have to file online from April 2012 by generally applicable legislation and not by an appealable HMRC decision.So…  judicial review of the legislation, would seem to be the next step for people who are affected by the change to online filing but unable to make the change by reason of age, disability, or inadequacy of broadband.

Now moving HMRC’s services online was part of a programme of change that came out of the 2006 Carter Review (which noted that:

3.7 Some people still expressed opposition, as a matter of principle, to compulsory use of online services, especially for certain groups, such as pensioners.

so HMRC can hardly claim they hadn’t been warned!)

Carter also was reporting from a different world, where online services would be accessible via free publicly funded services like libraries and HMRC enquiry centres:

5.9 We also recommend that HMRC should work with other public and voluntary organisations to ensure that access to the internet, and appropriate assistance with using IT, are available locally, for example at libraries and UK Online centres, for taxpayers who wish to file their returns online but do not own a computer.

The impact assessment for the Carter changes was updated in March 2009 and contains (at Annex C) a rather good suite of specific impact assessments including an Equality Impact Assessment and an assessment of the extent to which the proposals have been subjected to “rural proofing”.  My problem with these is that they are just words: it is no earthly use to anyone to identify that the solution may be:

through a visit to an Enquiry Centre (EC) to file (if mobility permits) or a visit by an HMRC employee with a laptop  [IA p34]

if you then close down the enquiry centres and fail to set up a mobile service of HMRC employees who can come round to your house with a laptop.

However the TIIN for the specific requirement for VAT to be filed online dismisses any concern for equality altogether:

Equalities impacts

Equalities impacts were considered in July 2008. This covered all the business taxes covered in Lord Carter’s report and concluded that the requirement to file online and pay electronically did not, of itself, disadvantage any specific group of customers from an equality standpoint (although, as with any change, some customers might need help to adjust).

Or, to put it another way, “we did this already, didn’t we?  Get stuffed.”

I look forward to seeing if the Ministry of Muggle Affairs chooses to fund a judicial review of the regulations mandating online filing.  If so, I’d be interested in seeing what they make of the equality assessment and its oh so helpful assumption that Carter is OK because HMRC thought about equality a bit in the noughties so we don’t have to bother with all that stuff any more.

Oh, and the rural proofing?

Other impacts

None.

Yeah.  Right.

4 comments

  1. Wendy,

    Tax cases can be found on BAIILIs

    http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKFTT/TC/2013/TC02910.html for the one you want

    >


    • Excellent! Thanks


  2. There was also a case on the religious exemption recently

    http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKFTT/TC/2013/TC02913.html

    >


    • …interesting! Thanks for that.



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