HM Revenue and Customs

Part of Suppmentary Estimates 2010-11 — Department for Education – in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 2nd March 2011.

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Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Treasury Sub-committee, Chair, Treasury Committee 4:33 pm, 2nd March 2011

My hon. Friend makes a point that I was intending to make, and he makes it very fully. Because I want to give other people the opportunity to speak, I will not elaborate on it.

I wish to say a further word about HMRC as an institution. It has a very difficult job. Nobody likes the taxman, and it is easy to kick HMRC. I have no doubt that most people there are struggling to protect the revenue fairly and trying hard to do a reasonable job. Doing that job requires a strong sense of collegiality and loyalty to the ethic of the institution. When I was an adviser in the Treasury in the ’80s, I had a lot of contact with people in both the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, and I thought that they were the salt of the earth. They were immensely dedicated to their jobs and civil servants of the best sort. One had no doubt that they were a highly motivated group of people, or that morale was high.

What about now? The Cabinet Secretary runs an annual staff survey, which has been going on for many years. It shows that HMRC has the lowest morale of any Government Department. Some 25% of staff want to leave as soon as possible or within a year, and only 15% believe that the department motivates them to do their best. Only 12% say that the department is well managed, and the survey goes on with a similar litany.

There is some good news, which relates to what I said a moment ago. The job content is still considered interesting by three quarters of staff, and more than three quarters say that they can rely on their colleagues. There is still some collegiality. Even that will not last unless we start to put right what has gone wrong. HMRC will become dysfunctional unless action is taken to bring to an end the string of disasters that has befallen it.

Let me give some examples. Last September, the Government were forced to announce that up to 6 million taxpayers were to receive letters informing them that they had paid the wrong amount of tax through PAYE. That had been caused largely by the introduction of a new computer system, which was simply not up and running in time, and it provoked a powerful Public Accounts Committee report, which detailed the failures. There was the matter of the incorrect PAYE notices in January 2010. That provoked even more critical treatment in the PAC report. Then there are the phone call response times—try ringing HMRC. The National Audit Office found that in 2008-09 only 57% of call attempts were answered. That disastrous performance declined even further for a time, before recovering recently. I could give other examples.

What is the root cause of the problems? Some clues probably come from that survey of staff morale. It shows that the collapse of morale appears to have coincided with the merger. I know that the survey on morale began in that form only at the time of the merger, but it charts a decline from then. I believe that the merger was probably a mistake, and I said, from the Front Bench at the time, that merging two institutions with such different cultures was unlikely to be worth the candle. However, now that the merger has occurred, I am equally clear that unscrambling it would also be risky.

In any case, the department is reorganising itself. It is moving from a regional structure, with customer contact based on local offices, to a centralised model. We have heard that before. The experience of the banks with that centralised model, whereby they got rid of Captain Mainwaring, was distinctly mixed. However, the die is cast on the move to a centralised model and, in HMRC’s case, the performance of the new centralised model is not entirely disastrous. Its figures suggest that overall customer satisfaction was 73% in September 2010.

The key question must be whether that reorganisation can be completed while cutting so many more staff. The hon. Member for Leeds East will consider that issue. I hope that it will be completed, but it would be the triumph of hope over experience, if we consider the history of other Whitehall Departments and their reorganisations.

Of course, the large firms with which HMRC engages will not feel the effects of the reorganisation. They will continue to receive a good service. They provide most of the tax yield, and I understand why HMRC devotes so many resources to focusing on them. However, I worry greatly about the small firms—those least able to absorb the turbulence whenever HMRC reorganises itself. I worry particularly that, while HMRC may make savings, it will merely shift the burden of administration to taxpayers and their accountants in small businesses. The effect on the whole economy will not be neutral. It is not a matter of £1 spent in HMRC transferred to the private sector—it may be worse than that, eroding overall business efficiency and bringing downward pressure on GDP.

In a recent evidence session, I asked the Institute of Directors and the main bodies representing the accountants to start to estimate a full compliance cost for firms that deal with HMRC. It has never been done before and it is not easy work. However, we must have at least some core figures to enable us to monitor over time the full compliance burden placed on firms by HMRC. There is no point—absolutely no point—in creating a leaner HMRC at the price of massive compliance costs in the private sector. My challenge to the institutions that represent the private sector is to find that true cost of compliance. I also want to allude to some challenges for the department and the Government.

First, all the evidence that the Treasury Committee has seen suggests that HMRC needs to communicate better with taxpayers—it must find ways of giving clearer and more accurate answers to reasonable queries, and to give those answers quickly. Secondly, it is vital that staff have the training and experience that they need to work with taxpayers. There is no earthly point in a call-centre culture that is based entirely on read-outs from computer scripts.

Thirdly, we need to consider incentives as well as penalties as a means of encouraging the right amount of tax to be paid. Some argue that HMRC should consider a general disclosure facility to encourage the disclosure of previously undeclared tax. We need to reflect on that. There is a risk with amnesties, which is the road down which that proposal goes, but it needs to be looked at.

Fourthly, we must accept that with PAYE coming under increasing pressure as more people develop a variety of sources of income rather than rely on employment from a single source, further changes to PAYE will inevitably be necessary, as well as the coming introduction of real-time information. Those changes must be made extremely carefully if we are not to have yet another major road crash, such as we have seen in the past few years.

I should like to end by offering one crucial, big challenge to the Government. Much that is wrong with how HMRC operates is not its fault, and nor is it the fault of taxpayers. Rather, it is the fault of us—legislators. Successive Governments have put ever more complex legislation on the statute book. In 2009, a leading legal database found that the UK had the longest tax code in the world. That is a charter for accountants and for evasion opportunities. Length means more complexity, and complexity means higher costs for all of us. In evidence to the Treasury Committee, the IOD told us that KPMG estimated the total cost to the UK economy of running the tax system at 0.4% of GDP. I wager that that is an underestimation, as I alluded to a moment ago.

My challenge to the Government is that we must have tax reform. I was struck by a point made in a discussion paper in the Mirrlees review on tax administration, which begins:

“Most of modern tax theory…completely ignores administration and enforcement. The policy formation process is not much better, too often addressing implementation only after reform has been determined”.

Of course, administration should be an integral part of the decision-making process, but in recent years, tax policy formulation has been travelling in the opposite direction. The 2004 O’Donnell report resulted in most decisions on tax policy being taken in the Treasury, with implementation done by HMRC. It is widely held that the policy-making function in HMRC has gradually been downgraded, but we must reverse that. I urge the Government to return to a situation in which there is much greater creative tension between HMRC and the Treasury on policy formulation. If we do not do so, there will be more episodes in which the implementation of policy—delivery—mysteriously turns out to have an unexpectedly high cost or to be unacceptably complex.

In that respect, I very much welcome the creation of the Office of Tax Simplification. However, that will not be enough. We must have better policy and a simpler tax system that gives greater certainty and stability. I hope that the forthcoming Budget will point the way on that. Business and the self-employed in particular are crying out for such measures. We need a series of tax-reforming and simplifying Budgets. In the long run, everyone will gain: HMRC will have a better system to manage, taxpayers will have something that they can understand and the UK economy will have a tax system that creates opportunities for better long-run performance.

The tax system loses the respect of taxpayers, however grudging, when it becomes as complex as the one that it looks as if we are developing. Once we have arrived at that point, the country has a big problem. We will be on the slippery slope towards wide-scale evasion and an erosion of the tax base. I will not name the EU countries that are on that slippery slope, but there are quite a number, and we all know which they are. It is partly with that in mind that the Treasury Committee has launched an inquiry into the principles of tax policy that are needed for such reform. We will be reporting shortly. If we in the UK get those principles right, many of the problems that we have heard about today will diminish, and a more prosperous economy and stable society can result.

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