Archive for the ‘’ Category


Alternative visions

November 8, 2018

The Office of Tax Simplification has a vision of the future of tax guidance.  Funnily enough it makes no mention of the previous review (the Good Guidance Guide, also known as the Anderson review) nor for that matter the Guidance on Guidance, a booklet with a yellow cover (sunflowers, I believe) which was current in my day. Maybe it’s a spinal reflex: every ten years or so someone says Something Must Be Done about Guidance, writes a report, and adds it to the shelf.

Not that I’m saying guidance has stayed the same. From manually updated HMRC manuals and printed pamphlets for taxpayers, to Tintax (electronic manuals) for HMRC staff and the grudging move to online for taxpayer guidance, to todays whizzo talk of pop-ups and voice operated search functions, and government mandated web pages with a paragraph of text written in a register with a reading age of nine, we are clearly in a dynamic system.

Which is why it’s disappointing that OTS’ review is so… static. Set up a panel of the Great and the Good. Get a Senior Manager to be in charge. Consult on whether we want HMRC guidance to be binding… It IS the twenty-first century, you know! That’s just not how things are done any more.

So here’s what I’d do. First, watermark all existing HMRC guidance with something that says “this guidance was written before G-day so may be difficult to follow. Seek advice” or words to that effect.

Second, leave HMRC manuals out of this. As I have said elsewhere, HMRC manuals are written to instruct HMRC staff how to administer the tax system, not to advise taxpayers how to interact with the tax system. It’s available to citizens under the Freedom of Information Act – that doesn’t mean it’s written for citizens to use, any more than police radio is intended for easy listening just because your radio might pick it up.

Third, make use of metadata – a webpage might well only have one paragraph of text on it, but with minimal work it should also be able to tell you when it was written (and by whom), where to go next for more detail, and have a clickable link to archived previous versions.

Fourthly, integrate guidance vertically as well as horizontally. By “horizontally” I mean across levels of expertise – taxpayer, practitioner, specialist. And by vertically I mean that even the simplest guidance should also be capable of further exploration (a “for more detail click here” link) that takes you from taxpayer to practitioner to specialist guidance and ultimately to the actual legislation. Don’t get me started about the state of the legislation online, but seriously the government buys its own legislation back from commercial firms because it can’t be arsed to update it properly and talk about don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.

Yes, set up a supervisory panel… of retired teachers and other similar volunteers. Not the “tax community” who are big enough and ugly enough to argue their own corner with the revenue. No, the voices that aren’t being heard here are the taxpayer community, the actual citizens affected by this, who may have strong views on how they want to find out about the legislation that affects them.

And then write the new stuff collectively. Or, rather, keep guidance divided into three parts. The simple instruction/write according to standards so a nine year old can read it/drop down and pop up help that comes with the HMRC forms, fine. That’s a customer service function. Fund it. Let HMRC write it. It will pay for itself. The HMRC guidance for its staff? Leave it alone: let HMRC keep it, use it, update it, and publish it under FOI. But don’t mistake it for taxpayer guidance. No, that’s the third layer: the “can I claim for a painting under the plant and machinery rules” “is there still a tax exemption for keeping a horse” “how do I claim for research and development” level of guidance.

Which – it’s the twenty first century after all – we should wiki.

Yes, you read it right. Use the wikipedia model. When I was last an HMRC policy worker, we actually had a wiki, sharing internal advice across different government departments. My staff wrote the guidance on how to produce a TIIN and kept an eye on any edits, but it was helpful for the people who “owned” the policy on, say, equality to be able to edit or expand on or add links to the relevant bit of the guidance rather than one person have to know everything about everything.

Set up a tax guidance site on the wikipedia model. How to stop people trolling it? Sign in via your taxpayer ID (the government gateway or equivalent) How to tell whether it’s accurate? It’s a dynamic system but it’s hallmarked with the date and time and name of the last person contributing, and with specific rules about how a page may be edited and why. It’s very far from perfect but then so is HMRC’s existing guidance. So, yes, let’s have a collaboration between the tax profession, HMRC and the interested taxpaying population. But let’s do it twenty-first century style.


’twas the night before Budget…

March 7, 2017

It’s the night before the Budget. Why does HMRC have four open consultations on the website?

Let’s look at them, shall we?

Withdrawal of extra statutory concessions 2017 is a call for evidence that was issued in January and closes at quarter to midnight tonight.  Unless you’re really interested in the withdrawal of extra-statutory concessions, I suggest we leave that one well alone.

Hybrid and other mismatches – draft guidance is some technical guidance for HMRC staff and for businesses on how the legislation on, er, hybrid and other mismatches will work.  It’s complicated stuff coming out of the OECD BEPS project and I really feel as if I ought to buckle down and make an effort to understand it…

However in the real world…

Simplifying the administration of Alcohol Duty published 16 February, closes 26 April.  This seems like a private conversation between the alcohol industry and HMRC but is being conducted in public for the sake of transparency.  Again, I feel as if I ought to care enough to read it through, but again…

Finally we have:

Sanctions to tackle tobacco duty evasion and other excise duty evasion launched on 17 February and closing on 10 May (according to the website) or 12 May (according to the document). Sigh.

Incidentally I notice that the list of “who should read this” starts with “The general public”.  Seriously?  Then how are they communicating that they would welcome views from the general public?

More to the point, what is it doing sitting on the website today, the day before Budget, when you’d expect there to be a clean sheet of proposals ready for the Chancellor to start overwriting the tax rules again?

Could the answer lie in the paragraph on “getting to this stage” where it says that “at Budget 2016 the government announced that they would consult on sanctions to tackle the illicit trade in tobacco and duty evasion.” And, lo, before the next Budget… so they have.







Open consultations

January 12, 2017

Oh look, there are still seven open consultations on relating to the policy area “tax and revenue”.  Of course, it’s a slightly different list of seven from the last time I looked…

(Employment Allowance: restricting the allowance from employers of ‘illegal workers’ closed on 3 January

Withdrawal of extra statutory concessions – technical note and call for evidence opened on 10th January and runs till 7th March)

However as yet there is no sign of the promised responses to the seven consultations on the “making tax digital” proposals. And weren’t we supposed to be able to try out the free software in “autumn 2016′?  Er, hello?


Straws in the wind

January 9, 2017

You may remember that in 2012 I published the rules for production of a tax impact assessment here, after I obtained them via a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request.  I remain surprised that they are not on the publication schedule like the instructions for Regulatory Impact Assessments since they are the equivalent.  Well, 2012 is a while ago, so on 7th November I made a FoI request for an updated copy and received an automated response with a reference number.

A month went by, so I sent a little reminder that the twenty working days deadline had been breached, and received an email back which said

Unfortunately I am currently unable to confirm your request for information being received by the Freedom of Information Team.  I have noted the reference number you have provided would have been generated by one of the department’s online enquiry forms but am unable to trace your request…

The email went on to ask me for a phone number and I had a conversation with them where they said that my request – and, judging from the reference number, a number of others – had been lost in the system.  I emailed it again directly, and I’m still waiting for a response.

Except… well, last week I received this:

Please do not reply to this email.

Thank you for contacting HMRC. You have submitted an on line enquiry using an incorrect system to a mailbox which is no longer monitored. Due to this, I am unable to reply due to Data Security issues. Could you please direct your enquiry to the correct department by following the attached hyper-link or by reviewing your Personal Tax Account, details for which are below:

Is this a phishing email?  (Because who follows hyperlinks from emails, seriously?) Or is it a response to my original FoI request (which was made on the page I got from putting “FoI” and “HMRC” into Google – I find “incorrect system” a bit annoying tbh).  Am I ever actually going to get a response to my FoI request – which I made twice, once to the automated system and once in a clear email to the person who had phoned me, and I imagine the information commissioner will find at least one of those to be a valid request.  Look HMRC, what the hell is going on?

OK, but obviously the FoI form is a separate part of the HMRC computer system: a failure there won’t have any impact on the system they build for MTD, right?  I mean, right???




Edit: this morning I received this response from the HMRC phishing email address:

Thank you for contacting HM Revenue & Customs.

The e-mail / phone call you received was from HM Revenue & Customs and is nothing to be concerned about.

If you think this communication is incorrect, you may wish to contact the relevant HMRC business area. HMRC contact details are published within the link below:

If your query relates to HMRC online services, you can contact our Online Services Helpdesk by telephone – 0300 200 3600 (opening times 08.00-20.00 Monday to Friday, 08.00-16.00 Saturday), or by following the link below


HMRC Online Security Team

I’m really none the wiser.


New Year

January 4, 2017

It’s ‘go back to work’ time, oh joy.   The last time I looked there were 106 open consultations on the website. If you filter by the subject area of Tax and Revenue you’ll find there are seven:

  • Technical consultation: draft regulations for the Apprenticeship Levy
  • Hybrid and other mismatches – draft guidance
  • Tax-advantaged venture capital schemes – streamlining the advance assurance service
  • Scope of VAT Grouping
  • Tackling offshore tax evasion: A requirement to notify HMRC of offshore structures
  • Simplifying the Gift Aid donor benefits rules: further consultation
  • Employment Allowance: restricting the allowance from employers of ‘illegal workers’

Yeah.  Still can’t list them in the order in which they close, though.


Holiday reading?

July 20, 2016

If I’m reading the Parliament website correctly (and always assuming nothing has changed with the change of Prime Minister), then Parliament “rises” – goes on holiday – tomorrow, 21st July.  They will be off for the summer, coming back briefly for ten days in September before the party conferences, until term starts properly again on 10th October.   (And even then the poor dears will need a break for a week in November – what DO they do all day! – to see them through to Christmas.)

It really makes you wonder about the 65 open consultations listed on the website today, doesn’t it?  Are people really going to give up some of their time to give their views on, say, the future of the inter-city West Coast rail franchise (closes 8th August) or the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment: second independent review call for evidence (closes 16th September) when the Minister who signed off on the actual consultation may not be in place when the results are in, and in any event policy priorities are likely to have changed?

HMRC has six open consultations: each of them opened on 26th May and each has a closing date in August (and, great flying spaghetti monster, after all this time and a positive recommendation from the House of Lords Merits Committee why can STILL not manage to let you list consultations in order of closure date???)

HMRC also has a new minister: Jane Ellison MP, the new FST.   Maybe the most useful thing she could do on her last day before the recess might be to have a quick look at the six consultations, check whether they still align with the new priorities she’s (presumably) going to be setting for the department, and decide whether they need to go ahead.  It’s my guess that a notice on the website (plus an email to “stakeholders” and other “usual suspects” who might be working on responses to the consultations) to the effect that they’ve been put on hold: take the summer off and come back in September… might be quite welcome.  What do we think?



February 2, 2016

How long does it take for an issue to fall from “current affairs” into “history” or to be forgotten altogether?

I ask because I had an odd experience while completing my tax return on Sunday afternoon (well of course I left it to the last minute – I’m a retired tax inspector, after all, and you know what they say about the dentist’s children’s teeth).

Because I had checked (and written a smug blog entry about it) that I was able to log onto the HMRC system in good time this year.  But when I sat down on Sunday morning and typed “HMRC self assessment” into google I didn’t get back to the expected page with my details already saved.  Instead I found myself in at a page headed “sign in and file your self assessment tax return” which had a link to “sign into your online account“… which did NOT have my login details already filled in as I had hoped.

Now I had, of course, taken the precaution of writing down my “HMRC User ID” (and my UTR) inside the front cover of my account book.  But I had not written down my password and it seemed my computer had not helpfully retained it in its memory and it was now 11am on 31st January and ouch!  And, incidentally, if you need a new password (which was my first thought) you can only get one if you agree to have an “online Government account email address” which I have so far refused to accept.  This is because I suspect that signing into a government email address will be as much a bore and a chore as signing into one’s self assessment account, and I utterly refuse to have legal notices like notices to file and reminders to file sent to an address which it is unlikely I will remember to log into.  To me, a reminder goes to, you know, the thing you actually look at like your ACTUAL email address.

But this is beside the point, which was that time was getting on and I still hadn’t managed to log into my self assessment account and it didn’t look as if I was going to be getting a new password any time soon enough to make a difference.  Aha!  I thought, I can follow one of the other links on the “sign in and file  your self assessment” page which helpfully offers the option of signing in with “a GOV.UK Verify account”

I don’t know what that is, I thought, but it sounds like something I should have.

So I went to this page and clicked on “this is my first time using Verify” and arrived… here.

Now, if you haven’t clicked on any links so far in this blog, I suggest you click on this one, because it tells you that

A certified company will verify your identity. They’ve all met security standards set by government.

A “certified company”.  Not HMRC.  Not any arm of the government.  A “certified company”.  They are:

  • Verizon
  • Experian
  • Digidentity
  • Post Office

I failed to register with the Post Office, and then I failed to register with Experian, mainly because I had already given them a remarkable number of details from my drivers licence and my debit card and they then wanted my passport details as well which I refused to give them.

I realise that 2006 is a long time ago, but do we recall the protests against the introduction of a national identity card scheme?  I seem to recall that the one of the principal objections was that it would enable government to join up different databases and put together an enormous mass of data about our individual movements and activities.  There was a campaigning group, NO2ID, which still seems to be operational.

I was never quite sure which side of the argument I was on.  I used to be a tax inspector, after all, so I could see just how bloody useful being able to join up government databases would be.

But to me, if there’s one thing worse than having a government identity card scheme, it’s having a privatised one.  Great flying spaghetti monster, I’d rather have a democratically elected government tracking me than… an American mobile phone company, a credit reference agency, a private Dutch company or the bloody Post Office!

(After lunch I tried again.  I googled “HMRC login”, which took me straight to this page, where my HMRC User ID and the password were already helpfully in place.  Phew!  And, yes, I’ve done my tax return, on time, thanks.  Inner peace my eye!)

So.  What do we think about Verify accounts?


Aha! (an update)

May 11, 2015

OK then; it’s 8pm on May 11th and the consultation on HMRC Penalties still shows up on the list of five open consultations from HMRC… but the consultation itself is shown as closed.  Conclusive proof, I think you’ll agree, that by “12.00pm” the website means “12 noon”.

I know, I know: I really will try and get out more.


One small change…

May 11, 2015

Look at one small point from the list of open HMRC consultations: the closure date.  Here’s a reminder of the current five:

  • HMRC penalties (Closes 11 May 2015 12:00pm)
  • Commissioners’ Directions for customs (Closes 15th May 12.:00am)
  • Tax-advantaged venture capital schemes (Closes 15th May 12:00am)
  • Removal of manual customs declarations (Closes 5 June 2015 11:45pm)
  • Reform of the Landfill Communities Fund (Closes 10 June 2015 11:45pm)

So does the first one close at lunchtime or do we have till midnight?  Do the next two close at midnight on May 14th, midday on 15th, or midnight at the end of 15th?  The last two at least make it clear that they close at the end of the day on 5th and 10th, but, seriously, is representing midnight such a difficult concept in the twenty-first century?  It’s a nice notes and queries question, but the Royal Observatory and Greenwich, the owners of GMT so to speak, tell us helpfully that there is no such thing as 12.00am.  Noon is when the sun is at the meridian line, so it’s neither “ante meridian” nor “post meridian” – neither before nor after that point in time.  The “correct” designation is either 12 noon or 12 midnight.  Alternatively you should use the 24 hour clock, in which case it’s 00.00 for midnight and 12.00 for noon.

Please,, can you just pick one?