It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Nigel Mills on securing the debate. Once again, he is bringing to the attention of the House his knowledge and expertise of the tax system and representing his constituents so well on a number of matters. He does so today with regard to the extra statutory concession A19, and the debate has been helpful. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond, and I hope to be able to address his questions.
Before doing so, it is worth recognising that HMRC has made considerable progress in modernising the PAYE system and bringing the legacy issues for PAYE customers up to date. The national insurance and PAYE computer system—NPS—became operational in early 2010, enabling HRMC to bring all taxpayer records on to a single national database held under unique references. For the first time, HMRC has been able to bring together all sources of income for a customer under one reference. Although I know that there were considerable problems with the implementation of NPS, now that it is fully automated, it is a very cost-effective process that enables HMRC to reconcile nearly 60 million PAYE tax records very quickly.
In October 2010, HMRC’s late chief executive, Dame Lesley Strathie, made a commitment to the Public Accounts Committee, in response to an NAO recommendation, that HMRC would bring PAYE up to date for taxpayers by the end of 2012-13. It is on track to deliver on that commitment and it has already settled 17.9 million unreconciled customer records. As a consequence of those improvements, in the last two years, the number of unexpected tax repayments and demands issued by HMRC has been higher than usual, and in turn, that has led to an unprecedented number of customers contacting HRMC for help and advice. HRMC recognises that on occasions its customer service has fallen short of the standards that it wants to provide. HMRC has taken steps to improve its customer service over the past year—for example, by investing in its contact centres—and it is making customer information more accessible and easier to understand. It recognises, however, that there is more to do, and it is building on this year’s improvements to give all taxpayers the services that they rightly expect.
A significant proportion of the complaints that HMRC has received relate to HRMC’s implementation of ESC A19, and HMRC consulted on the operation of the concession over the summer. It has listened to the views of taxpayers and to comments in the media. Its current operational process was developed in response to the exceptional circumstances of 2010, when steps needed to be taken to ensure that the 166,000 requests that it received could be dealt with quickly. To respond to a question raised by my hon. Friend, from September 2010 to
HMRC looked to deal with those matters as quickly as possible, creating a dedicated team and a streamlined process that included a more relaxed approach to the reasonable belief test during 2010 and 2011. It also raised the collection threshold to £300, and as I said in my statement to the House in January 2011, HMRC would not reconcile the tax affairs of 250,000 pensioners for whom we believe a request under the concession would have been successful. HMRC recognises that there is much more that it needs to do to improve its implementation of the concession for the future. There is work in progress to deliver process improvements and better guidance for officers dealing with requests, and particularly to improve the service for those customers who will always need help understanding and managing their tax affairs. That work is specifically aimed at reducing the number of customer requests that become formal complaints.
At this point, it may be helpful if I try to respond to some of my hon. Friend’s specific questions. He asked whether HMRC had published all the internal guidance on ESC A19. HMRC has published all guidance except where it considers that publication of the decision-making process that it uses to determine the reasonable belief test would prejudice its application. If HMRC published certain items, all cases would be phrased in a particular way to meet it. That would not be helpful, but that is the only reason why guidance would not be published.
HMRC has not changed its policy on ESC A19. HMRC has been looking to improve its consistency of decision making in these cases. Taxpayers have an appeal route to the Revenue adjudicator if they cannot agree the position directly with HMRC. Perhaps it is worth saying a word or two about that appeal route, which was raised by my hon. Friend. If a claim is refused, the taxpayer can request a second review. The taxpayer can make a formal complaint to HMRC. The taxpayer can then request a review of the formal complaint decision. The taxpayer can ask the adjudicator or ultimately even the parliamentary ombudsman to conduct a review. It is correct to say that there is no statutory right of appeal to the tribunal. That point has been tested with the tribunal, and that was the conclusion reached in that case.
Of course, HRMC has a responsibility to collect the tax correctly prescribed by Parliament. ESC A19 is a concession that applies where HMRC has not acted in a timely or accurate way, but clearly there is not complete flexibility for HMRC to agree not to collect the tax that is due.
My hon. Friend asked whether, in some cases, the matter should be taken to the employer or pension provider first, rather than going to the taxpayer. HMRC has a process that allows it to approach both the employer and the taxpayer at the same time. In the majority of cases, a review under ESC A19 can be conducted quite quickly to establish the nature of the error. HMRC is happy to discuss individual cases with taxpayers if the taxpayer feels that it is their employer who has made the mistake.