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Don’t be a muggle.

February 7, 2014

Here we go again.  Tax wizards get to have opinions about tax and are listened to by HMRC and the Treasury.  Well, sometimes, anyway.  And the rest of us – the tax muggles – can just stop worrying our pretty little heads about our tax codes and pay up when required.

Yes, HMRC has published some lovely HMRC Stakeholder Research … which, as Richard Murphy points out, may have been conducted by Ipsos Mori, an independent organisation, but was conducted using a sample “provided by HMRC”.  Er… I might not have got very far in my academic research, but that one rings all the ethical bells they’ve been at pains to install in me!

So who are the hand-selected stakeholders whose opinions are so important to HMRC?  Why, they are:

  • corporate stakeholders (30 per cent are voluntary and community sector, 30 per cent are agents mainly representative organisations, 40 per cent are businesses, associations or industry groups)
  • politicians (including Members of Parliament as well as members of devolved assemblies) ␣
  • journalists (both national and regional).

Hmmmm…. sounds more like market research to me.  You know, where you go to your biggest customers and check whether your corporate brand is on the up or not.

Maybe we just differ on what we mean by “stakeholder”? There are dozens of academic articles on stakeholder identification and stakeholder salience backed up in my reading queue.  I’m pretty sure, though, (without getting even half way down the list) that “stakeholder” doesn’t actually mean what HMRC seems to want it to mean in this report.

Look at it this way.  It’s a perfectly legitimate object for a large organisation to want to know how it is seen by the people who will influence its future.  If you were a government department, you’d want to know how MPs and journalists viewed you.  If you were a government department dealing with finance, you’d also want to know how your biggest payers viewed you.  It’s no different from a TV channel taking more notice of its advertisers than of the people who watch the programmes.  We’re all stakeholders in the channel, but you’d expect them to take more notice of, you know, the ones with the money.

Oh, and look here: HMRC did the same survey with a similar group of “stakeholders” last year.  Only LAST year they asked about consultations:

Opinion was split among stakeholders on HMRC’s consultations. While most felt that HMRC understood their needs, similar proportions felt consulted and not consulted on issues that affect them. While many consultations were felt to be relevant, useful and well run there was a sense that some were a matter of “box-ticking”. These are then seen as a waste of time and potentially serve to damage relationships as feedback may not be listened to or acted on – especially if many consultations arrive at the same time so stakeholders do not feel they have the resources to respond to them all.

Stop laughing at the back, there!

HMRC have done this before, of course.  Remember the “stakeholder conference” last July?  Have a look at the link here and scroll down to see the names of the “stakeholders” who were invited.  Who represents you in that list?  (The Daily Mail?  The Prince’s Trust?? TaxAid???)

There’s the thing.  There are nearly thirty million people paying income tax in the UK.  Aren’t they – aren’t we – also stakeholders of HMRC’s?  Of course we are.  The difficulty is, how do they find a way of talking to us?  We express our opinions via the ballot box, but which of us voted for “tax competitiveness” (and how do we vote against it?)

But look at the “future challenges” identified in the first piece of “stakeholder research”, and quietly ignored in the second:

The main challenge facing HMRC, according to its stakeholders, is improving its public perception and trust. In particular, this seemed driven by a negative perception that HMRC does not treat all customers and taxpayers in the same way (particularly comparing its treatment of ‘ordinary’ individuals or small businesses with its attitude towards large firms…)

If HMRC doesn’t talk to the ordinary, the small, the muggle… then we have a problem.

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