VAT: How well did HMRC perform?

By   January 15, 2018

The Public Accounts Committee has published its report on HMRC’s Performance in 2016–17. Things are far from rosy…

The report highlights concerns for customer service from growing challenges facing HMRC. It states that HMRC is undertaking 15 major transformation programmes and comments that “With Brexit it faces additional pressures and is having to consider how to change priorities. It needs to be clear about what it will do differently, or not do, and what the impact will be on customer service.”

“Together with the Treasury, HMRC has to make tough decisions on how it allocates limited resources to its operations to increase tax revenues, protect performance levels, prioritise its transformation and estate programmes, and invest in measures to tackle tax evasion, fraud and error.”

Comments from the Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP do not hold back:

“HMRC’s transformation programme would have been less risky had it not attempted to do everything at the same time. What was already a precarious high-wire act is now being battered by the winds of Brexit, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Action arising from allegations in the so-called Paradise Papers could also significantly increase the authority’s workload.  HMRC accepts something has to give and it now faces difficult decisions on how best to use its limited resources—decisions that must give full consideration to the needs of all taxpayers. In particular we are concerned about the effect on people simply trying to pay their fair share. HMRC’s customer service has improved on the appalling levels of recent years but its claims about call-answering times don’t stack up. Any new deterioration would be wholly unacceptable.”

There are concerns too about the impact of changes in the welfare system, which could increase the financial risks faced by vulnerable Tax Credits claimants. At the same time, the level of Tax Credits fraud and error has gone up and is only going to get worse.

These are serious, pressing challenges for HMRC, requiring swift and coordinated action in Government. As a matter of urgency the authority must set out a coherent plan and demonstrate it is fit for the future.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Specifically, there are eight conclusions and recommendations which are summarised below:

  • The ‘Paradise Papers’ leak suggests potentially serious and extensive allegations of tax evasion and avoidance.

Recommendation: HMRC should obtain the information from the ‘Paradise Papers’ as soon as possible, and report back to the Committee by March 2018 to set out its response, including any additional revenue likely to be at stake.

  • HMRC is unclear how far it can close the tax gap with existing resources.

Recommendation: HMRC should set target levels for reduction of the tax gap, including for the SME sector, and set out how HMRC will be more responsive to emerging risks.

  • HMRC’s transformation programme is not deliverable as planned due to unrealistic assumptions, and increased pressure from the additional workload caused by Brexit.

Recommendation: HMRC should report back to the Committee by March 2018 with clear plans on how it will manage the many challenges it faces due to Brexit and its ongoing transformation programmes and update its original assumptions and amend its forecasts for its transformation programme, particularly those concerning customer demand for its various services.

  • The committee is not convinced that HMRC will obtain value for money from long-term leases, without break clauses, for its new estate of 13 large regional centres.

Recommendation: HMRC and the Government Property Unit should use their strong negotiating position to ensure they gain sufficient flexibility in the terms for the four regional centre leases yet to be signed, and should examine ways to build in greater flexibility from the eight regional centre leases already signed.

  • The committee recognises the improvements in customer service since the unacceptable levels of 2015−16, but are concerned about HMRC’s ability to maintain this level of performance.

Recommendation: HMRC should ensure it continues to deliver a consistent and reasonable level of service to all its customers. The committee will be monitoring performance and will return to this issue.

  • The average time it takes for customers to speak to an adviser when they call is longer than HMRC claims.

Recommendation: HMRC should introduce a new set of measures that better reflect the actual experience of customers. Automated telephony time should be included within the five minute speed to answer target.

  • Vulnerable people receiving Tax Credits are at increased risk of financial problems as they transfer to Universal Credit.

Recommendation: HMRC to report back to the committee by March 2018 to explain how it will take care of the interests of vulnerable people receiving Tax Credits. This should include how it will work with DWP to manage claimants’ transition to Universal Credit, and protect them against aggressive departmental activity to reclaim overpayments due to error and fraud.

  • We are alarmed to hear that the level of Tax Credits error and fraud has risen and is only going to get worse.

Recommendation: HMRC should set out its strategy for tackling Tax Credits error and fraud, given the additional risks posed by transfer to Universal Credit, including a cost-benefit analysis of its approach.

From a VAT perspective, it does seem that customer service has slightly improved from what was a completely awful level the year before. Unfortunately, this service is still unacceptable and frankly, I also find that the time waiting for a telephone call to be answered as stated by HMRC is highly dubious. Personal experience insists that they still have a great deal of work to do in this area and this is reinforced by discussions with other advisers in all areas of tax.

 

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