When you get to my advanced years, time seems to gallop rather more quickly than it used to. So it was with some surprise that when I was hunting for something I wrote “a few years ago” I found that it was, in fact, over 10 years ago.
I was, at that time, commenting upon morality in tax, because in January 2003 the Chairman of the Inland Revenue had made two observations during one speech which had made me wonder about the breadth of this subject.
Firstly he had said:
The link between taxes and the social goods that would be impossible without them is the very foundation of tax morality and cannot be stated too often
And secondly he added:
the heart of [the Revenue’s] business is to ensure that everyone understands and pays what they owe and understands and receives what they are entitled to…In the Revenue we believe that we are leading the way in public service reform precisely because we are putting the consumer first.
I don’t wish to step into the general tax morality debate which has enough heat without my “tuppence-worth”, suffice to say that after all these years we may be closer to consensus on the problems, but still some way away from solutions.
I also fear that the Revenue’s “lead” in the last dozen years has not yet led them to the moral high ground of actually ensuring that “everyone understands and pays what they owe and understands and receives what they are entitled to”. And the people who suffer most from this Revenue failure are those who are unrepresented and even more so, if they have particular vulnerabilities.
It still seems to me that the legislation which gets produced the quickest is that dealing with avoidance; the policy which gets pored over most often relates to the big battalions; the information which gets updated first and most accurately on GOV.UK is that dealing with issues which raise revenue rather than those which explain reliefs, particularly for those on the lowest incomes.
So how moral is it for HMRC, year after year, to reluctantly give up on the task of trying to explain the convoluted law that they helped bring into existence, to those that need to know in a format that they can understand? Always the excuse is lack of resources. But I might put it another way, a lack of balanced priorities and a real determination to make a step change.
One suspects that, for the next few years of austerity, the political pressures on HMRC will mean that the vulnerable, be they tax credits recipients, or pensioners or the struggling self-employed may receive the “taxman’s response” that LITRG identified back in 1999:
I sent a message to the fish:
I told them ‘this is what I wish’.
The little fishes of the sea,
They sent an answer back to me.
The little fishes’ answer was
‘We cannot do it, Sir, because –’
[Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass]
The tax charities, Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, TaxAid and Tax Help for Older People have done their best over the years to bring issues of fairness to HMRC’s attention and to ask them to get the Revenue heart in the right place. And sometimes you do hear it beat, but then an emergency “avoidance” issue jumps the queue in the tax equivalent of A&E.
So that is why the face-to-face charities of TaxAid and Tax Help for Older People need our support either as volunteers or as donors of cash.
They have just started a joint campaign, which will get more momentum in the New Year, but while you are thinking of Christmas could I encourage you to make a donation via www.bridge-the-gap.org
Knowing well the two organisations concerned I can confirm your gift will not be wasted.
(founder of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group).
Editor’s Note. I am thrilled to be able to carry this post from John Andrews, OBE who is our profession’s most unsung of heroes. I have benefited, financially and otherwise, from my involvement in our profession and have accepted John’s invitation to give something back. I would encourage you to do so too.