To regulate or…

August 20, 2012

How much does it  cost to pass a piece of legislation?  Any idea?  No, I don’t know either.  I suppose it must vary according to whether the legislation is debated in both Houses of Parliament, the length of the debate, the numbers involved…?  How much of the costs of the upkeep of the Lords and Commons would you apportion to the legislative process?  What about statutory instruments?  They can either require a positive or negative process – in some circumstances they have to be positively passed, but in some they go through on the nod unless someone actively objects.

I’d be fascinated to know if anyone has any figures on the bare costs of  making legislation, any legislation, as opposed to any costs and benefits imposed or accruing from the legislation.  But whatever the cost IS, common sense tells us that there is one.

So there has to be a benefit from making legislation, or else why would we (as a country) incur the cost in the first place?

This is the question that seems to be have been entirely overlooked in the consultation on withdrawing the requirement to make a self assessment  return, which closed last week.

Essentially, if you are sent a Self Assessment Return, you have fallen into the HMRC sausage-machine and will need to fill the return in and send it back or you’ll be ground up by the machinery and spat out at the other end after penalties and determinations and pursuit of imaginary (estimated) debts.  So it’s a good thing that there’s an “out”.

But there already IS an out – HMRC has the power, under its “care and management” of the tax system, to say, actually we sent you this one by mistake, don’t bother.

The question that OUGHT to have been addressed by the consultation was whether this was enough or whether there was a need to replace the HMRC discretionary power with a legislated, mandatory provision.  Unfortunately what the document seems to me to address is whether it’s better to have legislation or – nothing.  Ask the question that way round, and you get an entirely different answer.

Asking whether we can rely on HMRC to exercise its discretion with common sense, even-handedness and some human compassion would have been a revealing question.  How disappointing, then, that the Department chickened out of asking it.

Here’s the response I sent:

This is an individual’s response and will also be published, with commentary, on my blog, http://tiintax.com.

1. If HMRC already has the power under its “care and management” provisions as stated in the consultation document, then I cannot understand what advantage is there to legislation?  The government is committed not to regulate unnecessarily and on the evidence of this consultation document I cannot see that a case has been made that legislation is either necessary or desirable.
2. Should there be a deadline?  No.  People don’t know what they don’t know.  If people don’t understand the requirement to file and don’t comply, they won’t know there’s a deadline they have to meet to explain that they don’t think they need to comply until they’ve passed it!
3.  Is a sanction needed if people lie to get the notice rescinded?  Well probably, but is legislation required to introduce a NEW one?  Wouldn’t the circumstance be covered by the existing power to make a discovery assessment, ie HMRC would discover an amount hadn’t been assessed by reason of the taxpayer’s negligence or fraud.  This looks like regulatory creep to me.
4. The impact assessment is wrong: the state that currently applies is that HMRC *can* rescind the requirement under their care and management powers.  The impact assessment tests the proposal against the concept of HMRC being UNABLE to remove a requirement to file once a self assessment return is issued.  What it should, of course, be testing against is the status quo, the current flexibility being in HMRC’s hands.
5. The question to be addressed – both in the IA and in the consultation – surely is whether there is any need for LEGISLATION, rather than whether there is any need for FLEXIBILITY.  The consultation document says there is already flexibility, and does not make a case for there being legislation to codify how the flexibility might be exercised

Sorry and all that!

One comment

  1. The main problem is not with HRMC, but with year after year of under-funding and staff cuts imposed by government. The big private companies can afford expensive top flight lawyers, HRMC can’t and don’t get the level of training — or the time to study — that the full time legal professionals do. I believe in HRMC: they’re doing their best, while government ties their hands.

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