THURSDAY 8 FEBRUARY 2001 _________ Members present: Sir Michael Spicer, in the Chair Mr Nigel Beard Mr Jim Cousins Judy Mallaber _________ DAWN PRIMAROLO, a Member of the House, (Paymaster General), MR MIKE HANSON, Director, Finance and Strategy, HM Customs and Excise, MR TERRY BYRNE, Director, Enforcement, HM Customs and Excise, MS SUE PITHER, Personal Assistant to Stephen Banyard, Director, Business Operations, Inland Revenue, and MR DAVE HARTNETT, Director General, Inland Revenue, examined. Chairman 1. Minister, I apologise for being late. We will certainly not protract the proceedings beyond a quarter to twelve. (Dawn Primarolo) Sir Michael, before you start, could I also apologise for the problems over the original date for this meeting. I know my office spoke to you. There was confusion. I was actually on my way to Brussels, I had to go to Brussels for a meeting. I do apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused the Committee and to you. It will not happen again. I will be much more thorough in making sure that provisional dates stay in and we do not allow anything else. 2. Thank you very much. We were certainly told by your office that you love coming here too much to try to avoid us. (Dawn Primarolo) I do not think I would go that far but we will give it a whirl, shall we? 3. Can we start straight away with the issue we have been in correspondence about, the Rocques report. Could you say what deadlines have been set for the final version of the Rocques report to be reported publicly? (Dawn Primarolo) I have not set a specific deadline in terms of date. What I do have is an urgency to ensure that the outstanding questions - how much was lost between 1994-98, how it was lost, why it was lost, what has been done to ensure that never happens again - and any other lessons that need to be addressed are done as speedily as possible. That information at all times, of course, has to be shared with the National Audit Office. I want to be in a position to inform Parliament and yourselves as quickly as I can on the outcomes and if there is any further action necessary for Customs, what that will be. 4. Minister, the trouble with that response is that in your letter to me you said, if I can just read out the appropriate piece of it: "Customs tell me that although the basic facts", which is what you have been just talking about "have been established there is more work to be done before firm conclusions can be reached. Customs will therefore be asking John Rocques to carry out further analysis to complete his work as soon as possible". The facts seem to be clear, what seem to be now in question and possibly needing further doctoring are the conclusions. That does not quite match up with the answer that you gave me first of all. (Dawn Primarolo) I think we have discussed before, explaining to the Committee, this is about diversion fraud from our warehouses. It happened, as I tried to explain before, Customs knew it was happening and it was in the pursuit of evidence for prosecutions. This is a very complex area. The discussions with Mr Rocques, as I understand it between Customs and himself, are specifically in relation to some of the issues in that. I think it would be inappropriate to gradually release information. I think that what Parliament will want to see is a full statement and a reassurance that it has been stopped, it will not happen again, and what measures are in place to ensure that. That is what we are settling on. Of course, as I have said, all of the information is available, and has to continue to be available, to the NAO on the basis that they need to be kept informed because of the amount of revenue. 5. Do you think it is right that Customs should have the apparent right to reject the initial findings of an independent investigation such as this one? (Dawn Primarolo) Sir Michael, this is not about rejecting findings, this is about ascertaining the facts and the necessary steps thereafter. I would like to assure the Committee that this is not about saying that the report has not looked at some very complex areas and needs to, as I said before to the Committee, covering areas like the role of the National Investigation Service, the cases that were subsequently developed. Sir Michael, I really can assure you personally that I am not trying to conceal anything from the Committee or do anything that would not be proper. I am in some difficulty without having the full conclusions and in a sensitive area it is unwise for me to speculate. I am absolutely of the view that I am happy to keep you informed, and the Committee informed, and I will be available for questioning as soon as there is more information in the public domain for that. 6. I am not trying to be clever about this but your letter specifically says that the facts have already been ascertained and it is the conclusions that need further work on. (Dawn Primarolo) The facts are with regard to the revenue lost and the fact, again as I tried to explain when I had the opportunity to speak to you, that it happened with Customs watching it. This is quite difficult to get across, why exactly that happened and how it happened. It is not as if they did not know that it was going on. Those are the issues that I certainly want to bottom out. As you know, the reason I appointed Mr Rocques and established the independent inquiry was notwithstanding the fact that Customs had already undertaken an internal inquiry. My view is that we must leave no stone unturned, and I am still of that view. At the end of this we need to be able to draw a line and move forward. 7. Were you concerned that Mr Rocques said in the Financial Times last Monday that he felt the report should be published immediately? (Dawn Primarolo) I have not spoken to Mr Rocques and I do not know the source of the story that was in the Financial Times, although naturally I took note of it. I think it is probably best that I deal with the facts of it. As I have said before, and Members of the Committee may have some sympathy for this, what I will need to make sure is all the questions are answered, and answered clearly, on the outstanding items, and that is what I am doing now, or Customs are doing now. 8. Minister, you must have some idea in your own mind when it would be appropriate for this to be published? Are you saying, at least internally, "I want it by such and such a date and no longer"? Is there pressure coming from your office on this? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, I would like it sorted. I think that I, on behalf of Parliament, owe an explanation and that must be properly presented. If it was over a period of time when I was a Minister it may be a little easier but Mr Rocques is actually scrutinising a period from 1994 to early 1998, of which I have only been the Minister for six months. There is a great deal that needs to be sorted in that period. 9. Can you give us some indication when you think that it really ought to be out by? (Dawn Primarolo) I cannot give you an indication. I would not want to set a date. As I have said, I think that we need to have these answers on the public record as soon as possible. Chairman: Thank you. Jim Cousins. Mr Cousins 10. I find that exchange extremely helpful and I do understand the difficulties of the position that you have here today. Do you feel now that the question of the revenue loss involved in this has now finally been bottomed out? (Dawn Primarolo) Mr Cousins, this is a matter for the NAO as well. I am not in a position to be able to speak for the National Audit Office or comment on their views at this time, but naturally there has been wild speculation about the actual loss. From my point of view it is important that we make sure it is all agreed and made public, the actual loss, how it occurred, why it occurred, whether it has been stopped - Mr Rocques would have come back to me during the course of his inquiry if it had not - but also what we need to do to make sure this type of failure does not happen again. Forgive me, but there are some issues around the National Audit Office which I am not able to address to you but hopefully that situation will be clarified. 11. I think I am following you. (Dawn Primarolo) I am sorry, I am just not able to be more specific. 12. I do not intend to press you unduly for the actual figure, that clearly would be wrong, but just so we are clear about this, your last remarks do not in any way imply that there is a disagreement between the NAO and yourselves about the actual extent of the loss? (Dawn Primarolo) No, we do not have disagreements with the NAO. The NAO's role is absolutely clear and independent here, it is not negotiable. It is a matter for them because, again as I have explained before, this is a loss that occurred over a number of years that has not been accounted for properly to Parliament and, therefore, the procedure needs to be gone through with the NAO to make sure that is now properly accounted for and that is their responsibility. 13. The press release you issued when the inquiry was first set up made it clear that it came after an internal Customs and Excise assessment which was asked for by the new Chair of Customs and Excise, Mr Richard Broadbent. The press release does refer to "significant revenue losses" which Customs had presumably identified at that stage before the inquiry. I think it is appropriate to ask you are the figures that were under discussion then and the figures that are under discussion now of a piece or are they significantly different? (Dawn Primarolo) I am just taking advice that we are not compromising NAO's position. The figure is approximately the same, if a little lower. I am sorry, I cannot be more specific than that. 14. That is fine. (Dawn Primarolo) It is still a very, very significant sum. 15. A very, very significant sum? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, and now you are going to ask me what a significant sum is and I would wish I had not said that. I think the adage is when in a hole stop digging, and I think I should. This is a matter for the NAO. The internal report in terms of the possible scale of the loss is of the same order as that which has now been established is my understanding and that is a matter that the NAO will account for. 16. Chairman, when the Paymaster General looks at me like that and says it is a very, very significant sum, I worry about the two bottles of Galliano I bought in Rome Airport. (Dawn Primarolo) Two. Not litres? 17. Not litres. (Dawn Primarolo) That will take you some time to drink. 18. Clearly this inquiry was to some degree triggered by Mr Broadbent's own enquiries into these issues. It was something that was generated from within Customs and Excise by an examination that the new Chair of Customs and Excise carried out. That, of course, is very important, but can you tell the Committee what other specific changes and improvements Mr Broadbent has brought about? (Dawn Primarolo) This moves us more into the discussions about the restructuring of the department. 19. Yes. (Dawn Primarolo) It ties in with other agendas to do with Closer Working as well. I think it was on 17 January that Customs announced a major restructuring. The restructuring of Customs now is to divide it into two main business streams. The first is the business service and tax element, which comprises of all business tax and the facilitation of information of Customs, the international movements of trade services, etc, and that has a business focus and accounts for approximately 13,000 of our staff and their focus is on that. Naturally what we are seeking to do here is to deliver a service that is an improvement for the taxpayer, for the customer, improve compliance and make sure that the management through the organisation is properly focused on delivering those objectives. It is in two divisions now. The second division is the law enforcement and that comprises of all investigation, intelligence and detection activities. That would be all the drugs, smuggling, firearms, all the investigation service. That comprises of approximately 8,000 of our staff. There is a very small, and I cannot give you the number of staff because it is very small, logistics, finance, human resources, legal section. What Mr Broadbent and his new management team have done is considerably reduce what was the head office function. The head office function is basically the support for the Chairman and his team. The parliamentary unit and all other policy development is integrated into those two divisions which then, obviously, facilitate Closer Working, whether it be the enforcement side with other agencies, the police, Interpol, other intelligence agencies, and on the business side the Closer Working Framework that is being developed and focused on with Inland Revenue. Collections have gone, it is much more a focused delivery of a business service. 20. Are you expecting any job losses as a result of this? (Dawn Primarolo) No. There are no job losses. There is some reallocation. Obviously all of this has been negotiated with the employees. The unions and all the employees in the organisation have been fully consulted. I am not saying there are not some people who will be asked to consider the option to maybe move to another location from their present one, but that is very, very small indeed. There are people whose jobs will change as we shift our resources to more front line, that is the interface on the business side between ourselves and the customer, the taxpayer. 21. Have you set new performance targets or performance objectives for these new sections? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, we have. Obviously we have our PSA targets which --- 22. I am here more talking about ones that may be generic within Customs and Excise. (Dawn Primarolo) What we are doing at the same time, and I think this came from the Committee as well, it ties in with our Closer Working, is to set specific objectives in terms of measuring improved customer service, improved compliance and better facilitation. I think the Committee requested that there was an annual report in looking, for instance, at the Closer Working, in measuring that, and that it should be made annually to this Committee. Yes, I am quite happy to do that. What we need to establish is how we measure that. We have our standard measurements that our PSA requires of us - how quickly we answer phones, how quickly we do visits, etc - but we really want to focus much more on the improvement of the quality of the service. This also fits into the joint work that Customs and Revenue are doing on the question of compliance costs, in measuring those and trying to find ways of reducing compliance costs for our taxpayers. 23. The regional units, as we understand it, are to be abolished. Does that mean that the co-ordination, if you like, both of intelligence and deployment between these two sections will all be done at headquarters? (Dawn Primarolo) No. Somebody correct me if I get this wrong. The operations of the offices are intended to ensure that those offices can respond quickly, not only following what is required by the department as our overall objectives but to have more responsibility for delivery of those objectives and to be able to fine tune them for particular need. There is always cross-reference. What Mr Broadbent and his team have tried to ensure in this reorganisation, and obviously it is early days yet, are clear lines of accountability and who will be able to be in contact with whom, rather than nobody having responsibility until it gets to head office. That is being reversed now. 24. This may not be policy but do you accept that the organisation of Customs and Excise in this way lends itself to a future split in which the business services side of Customs and Excise would effectively become part of the Inland Revenue and the intelligence and investigation aspects of Customs and Excise would become part of the Home Office services, the development of the National Criminal Investigation Service and so on? It does lend itself to that. (Dawn Primarolo) That is not the motivation for the reorganisation. We have been through this discussion before about merger between Customs and Inland Revenue and my attitude to that, which is I am not convinced that is the way forward. What it does do is clearly, clearly identify the two main functions, the protection of society role, if I can call it that, which is within the enforcement, and the business taxation which is in the other unit and makes it much easier, I hope, for those two units to co-operate with all the other organisations that they have to. One of the things about Customs is that it is not just the Inland Revenue, important as the Inland Revenue are of course, that they are working with and co-operating with, it is a number of other Government departments, for instance the Home Office, MAFF, the intelligence services, DTI on trade facilitation. They have to have focused, clear relationships with a number of different organisations and this restructuring enables us to deliver that. If somebody takes the decision in the future that is for them but that is not the purpose now of the reorganisation, it is efficiency. 25. But you do accept that it does lend itself? (Dawn Primarolo) I do accept that some people might speculate it does, yes. 26. Right, that is fair enough. Coming to the Closer Working programme itself, which is going to be an important activity of the largest of the Customs and Excise two units, are you satisfied that there is now a meaningful programme of Closer Working which is targeted at producing measurable benefits? You referred to the annual report that we have requested and you have indicated your view about that. When could we anticipate that? (Dawn Primarolo) In terms of the progress of Closer Working, and I think that both Mr Montagu and Mr Broadbent covered this in their separate appearances, I think it would be an understatement to say that we have learned a great deal in the approach that hitherto had been used in order to encourage it. We now have real progress in a number of areas. I think that you have been informed, but just to recap, that what we are going to do, for instance, is have 14 of the largest businesses managed by joint teams, Customs and Revenue in one team, and that will start on 1 April. We are going to have 20 shadow economy teams and they will be operational, in addition to the ones we already have, on 1 April. We are developing a single unit on company voluntary arrangements, particularly looking at insolvency, which is something we need to do some more work on, and on joint debt recovery services, which has been of some contention in Parliament in terms of when the two departments engage in these activities. And, of course, a joint audit of our computer services. As I said, it is about getting better value for money, customer improvement, better compliance. Given that we are to start that, locating the teams, teams put in place, training completed, I think for the 20 shadow economy teams the final location has been agreed and the facilities are being developed. An annual report seems to me to be suitable in April 2002 because that is when the teams will have been assessed. I cannot personally see any problem. The Committee might prefer to have a sort of half-way house of an update, say six months into the process, with the formal report being done at the end of the first year. I can do a note to the Committee if you do not already have the information about where the locations of these different facilities are going to be rather than go through all the locations now. As I have said, I am happy to send a note or go through them now, whichever you prefer. Chairman 27. Would it be possible for you to write to me about that? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes. I have got quite a lot of information here, Sir Michael. It is things like where the audit computer accounts will be based, where the risk analysis and intelligence will be based, the actual locations. Rather than go through all the towns and cities I am happy to do a note for you and get it to you by Monday, if I can. Chairman: Fine. Mr Beard 28. Could you update us on the strategy for tackling tobacco smuggling that you launched last March? (Dawn Primarolo) The vast majority of the Customs' staff which were planned for introduction have now been recruited. I think we are at 85 per cent of the staff. Three of the x-ray scanners are now operating. There are two more being built for delivery in April and orders are planned for a possible further ten, but naturally we are assessing the scanners. The scanners are mobile, we can move them if necessary. We have undertaken the advertising campaign which is developing. In terms of the results, in the first nine months of this year 2.1 billion illicit cigarettes bound for the UK were actually seized. Our target for the year was 2 billion I believe. Yes, 2 billion. We have severely disrupted or broken up in those nine months 38 organised gangs, very large criminal gangs. In the first nine months we have seized 6,658 vehicles - Customs like to be precise about this - which is up 65 per cent on the corresponding year. Our combined efforts on intelligence gathering, disruption and seizure at ports and then inland disruption and seizure, as well as the use of our increased penalties, are very promising in these first nine months. We are achieving the first set of targets in terms of disrupting those who are organising it as well as seizing the goods. Clearly this is a three year strategy and we need to look very closely at our experience over these last nine months, and that is what we are going through now, and the last three months of the year when we have it, as to what that teaches us about what we need to do to increase our activities to meet the challenging targets of the next two years. 29. What elements of the strategy are proving most productive? Are the scanners proving very useful in all of this? (Dawn Primarolo) Absolutely. As you know, we are not talking about what was commonly known as the "white van" trade, although we have strategies to deal with that as well, this is the systematic freighting in in containers, often concealed, of millions and millions of cigarettes at a time. Our intelligence is informing which containers we suspect. It takes us, I think, three minutes to scan one of these containers now, it used to take us five hours with a larger number of Customs' officers to physically search these vehicles. Obviously the scanners are proving extremely useful. The disruption of the criminal chains by using the intelligence combined with action on the ground is proving very successful. Those are the main elements I think. 30. ASH pointed out in oral evidence that the essence of this smuggling is taking cigarettes from the United Kingdom and going through places like Andorra, Montenegro and Latvia. This must be a very big element of their economy, is it not possible to take steps at that end as well as at the United Kingdom end to stop this? (Dawn Primarolo) Indeed, and our intelligence work outside of the UK is directed at that. You are quite right to point out that these goods are coming back from wider fields, the Balkans, the Far East, South Africa, certainly outside the European Union. It is very important that we have that information. Obviously as we are seizing the goods we are profiling the goods that we seize. There is a significant presence of counterfeit tobacco products. It is difficult to estimate exactly but somewhere in the region of 20 to 30 per cent. The rest is predominantly manufactured in the UK by British tobacco firms and, in fact, three brands dominate what we seize. It is very important that in working with the manufacturers we are able to trace whether or not some of the exports actually end up having gone through a chain. They do not go to one place and come straight back, they go through a chain of different countries and then come back, so appear to be sold perfectly legitimately, and that is what happens subsequently. What Customs are working on is to find out whether and how that could be fuelling the products that are being smuggled back into the country and, therefore, what steps we would need to take to deal with it. That is a very urgent piece of work that we are currently undertaking. 31. Are you at all concerned that some of the tobacco manufacturers themselves are facilitating tobacco smuggling, either knowingly or otherwise? (Dawn Primarolo) The tobacco manufacturers in the UK continue to say publicly that they are just as concerned as the Government about the level of smuggling of products into the UK. So we have initiated steps to ensure that we are able to share information that may be helpful in helping us trace goods that are being rerouted back into the UK. Customs' teams have been into the manufacturers and are challenging and are requesting data on the export trade to see whether we can marry that up with the intelligence that we are collecting through the seizure of the goods. I think it is very important to say, nonetheless, that the export of cigarettes from this country is a huge trade and the overwhelming majority of that trade is perfectly legitimate and ends in source. What we have noticed is that certainly there appear to be exports to places where the domestic consumption would not indicate that level of purchase, if I can put it that delicately. 32. Minister, Mr Broadbent told us that he felt that there was "a very strong common vested interest" between the tobacco manufacturers and Customs and Excise in tackling the smuggling problem. Is that necessarily so? (Dawn Primarolo) The tobacco manufacturers continue to say that is their view, yes, and that it is not in their interests to see the growth in the last few years that we have in this huge trade - we are talking about one in five cigarettes before the Government started its action - and they wish to co-operate with us. So we now have a series of questions which we would expect them to co-operate in answering so that we can ascertain whether there is a link, and if there is what they, and us, need to do about it. 33. Is it not strange that so many of the smuggled cigarettes actually originate in the United Kingdom? (Dawn Primarolo) I think in the United Kingdom it is a huge industry in terms of production here. Of course, we are talking about very substantial companies: Imperial, Gallaher, BAT. These are world leaders, so it is not surprising that there is a huge manufacturing base here in the UK and a lot of that would be exported. 34. The campaign for Action on Smoking and Health has suggested that there is almost an unhealthy closeness between elements of Customs and Excise and the tobacco manufacturers. Would you care to comment on that? (Dawn Primarolo) I deeply regret that comment, it is not true. I think Customs are proving quite clearly now that cannot be true, once they have the specific resources and the new strategy, by their ability to challenge and to deal with this growing problem of the smuggling of cigarettes. I do not think it is helpful that anybody should speculate or make allegations, whoever they are, without the facts of the case, and there are no facts to substantiate such a proposition. 35. What did the Butler report into the collapse of the Regina v Doran case tell you about the workings of Customs and Excise's legal team? (Dawn Primarolo) It revealed the complexity of the work undertaken by Customs and in particular when you have a department that is putting together international intelligence collection and is trying to stop goods arriving here in the UK in the first place rather than wait for it to arrive here and seize it. My understanding is that on all of the points, and there was a review team to look particularly at the role of Customs having prosecution powers and solicitors' offices inside Customs, that report has now been reported to the Attorney General, because it was decided that the Attorney General would be the best person to deal with this. He will be making recommendations on that on behalf of the Government. I think that the problem for Customs clearly is they are very high profile cases, so when a case goes wrong it is big news. When their success rate is scrutinised they have a very, very good and high success rate, it is just that the nature of these cases means if they go wrong they are rather large cases that go wrong. 36. The Butler report was quite an indictment of the legal team in this particular case. Were the findings of the report surprising in the department? (Dawn Primarolo) Personally I thought it was rather mixed. It did say some rather good things about the department, it said quite a few. Obviously it is important, it is nice to have the good things said, but one has to focus on if there are weaknesses and those need to be addressed. Customs are a robust organisation in the sense if something is not being done correctly then they will set about taking on the recommendations and dealing with it. The review on whether or not the solicitors' offices should remain in Customs and Excise, as I said, is a matter for the Attorney General and not for me, and I think that is right given some of the criticisms that have been made, and will be reporting soon I understand. 37. You have already received the report that you are referring to? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, we have, but the Attorney General is in the lead on it, not us. The review team looking at what should happen, on behalf of the Attorney General, obviously is looking at both the reports. 38. When is it likely to be published? (Dawn Primarolo) I really do not know that because it is not in my gift. 39. There is no forecast? (Dawn Primarolo) No. I do not think it is going to be very long though. (Mr Hanson) It should be ready soon. (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, I understand it is going to be quite soon. It is the Attorney General, we will just be notified when he has made the decisions on the date. 40. The significance of the case that I was referring to was that it did sponsor the Butler report and the Butler report, from its findings, did result in this question of whether the prosecuting powers should be retained by Customs and Excise, so there were some significant things arising from that. What factors, when you consider the report, will you be taking into account in deciding whether the prosecuting powers should be retained by Customs and Excise or not? (Dawn Primarolo) The Attorney General will decide that and that is what the report is about. 41. The Attorney General will decide? (Dawn Primarolo) Absolutely, yes. Customs in terms of both of those reports were exonerated but obviously the issue of whether it was correct to have the prosecuting authority within the same department was a particular focus. That was then taken out to a review that then looked at both of the inquiries. That review was appointed by and reports to the Attorney General. Obviously they would have sought information from Customs in the progress of that. The Attorney General will take a final decision on what is best, whether it remains or goes somewhere else. 42. Will that take into account the relative conviction rate of the present team compared with other prosecuting authorities? (Dawn Primarolo) I presume so. I presume it will take everything into account, yes. This is a review being done on us, so other people will decide these things. Judy Mallaber 43. Can we move on to the Inland Revenue and particularly its changing role as a result of legislation over the last few years. How well do you think the Inland Revenue has coped with the changes to its remit introduced since 1997? I am particularly thinking of things like the introduction of tax credits and enforcement of the minimum wage. (Dawn Primarolo) I think that the Inland Revenue, which has had a huge change, both with the development of tax credits, with the Contribution Agency moving in, has coped extremely well and it has met all of its performance targets set by the Public Service Agreement. At the same time, the cost of collecting, price per pound, has gone down. It has dropped to 1.1p per pound collected. Across the board, whether it be telephone calls or letters, the mobile advice centres or the customer service performance, the complaints, what has been done on tax credits, minimum wage enforcement, it has done a fantastic job and I think that is generally recognised, how well the department has coped. That is obviously not to conceal the fact that there have been particular issues around IT. 44. What do you think have been the particular challenges as a result of the legislation? (Dawn Primarolo) They are all significant challenges. Perhaps you should ask my officials which they thought were the worst. I should imagine that the movement of the Contribution Agency into the Inland Revenue, the moving of the staff, the management of that, the bringing of the Contribution Agency into the systems of the Inland Revenue, was a huge issue, and clearly the movement of tax credits as we took the tax credits in and developed them on. I think the biggest challenge for Inland Revenue is one of culture, that they have to move, and are moving, to be a department that has, if I can put it this way, social responsibilities. They are the lead department for the payment of the tax credits, the monitoring of the national minimum wage, as well as their functions as a tax collecting department that also has compliance responsibilities. Customs and Excise have to do the same but Inland Revenue have to do it much more, which is to balance now a sort of enabling, facilitating role with, if you like, an enforcement role, a collection role. Although there have been management changes to bring in more staff, actually changing those attitudes and how the department operates is a huge challenge. 45. What work has been done, for example, to enable the staff to deal with handling a rather different client base from its traditional areas of work? What particular things have you put in place to assist staff to deal with that and to make that culture change? (Dawn Primarolo) Clearly with the Contribution Agency the staff moved. With the tax credits some staff moved and we recruited further staff. What we have done through the department is to ensure that we have training and support in the department to move people to those functions. I have to say as well that the staff in the Inland Revenue are used to dealing with people and it is nice for them. They have a more diverse role and they are very excited about that and very keen to feed into the department's strategies for training and support of staff to take on those different roles that they now fulfil. 46. Are you getting a universally positive approach to that? I have just moved over from the Employment Committee to this Committee and we have been pleasantly surprised by the way the Employment Service has adapted its role to deal with a similar change in what they are meant to be doing. Are you saying to us that this is a success and that the Inland Revenue staff are fully on board? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, I would say that it is a success and I would say that the staff are on board. I would not want to say that the staff, in representing their views on what they feel is best for them, would not have other objectives. If you wanted it to be arranged we could certainly give you access to the sorts of things that have been going on, you could speak to our staff. We could arrange a visit for you so you can see in detail what we have done both with our tax credits and with the Contribution Agency, as an example, and with the national minimum wage enforcement unit, which I think has done a brilliant job and has worked very well indeed. 47. What have been the difficulties? What has not gone right? You obviously mentioned the IT. (Dawn Primarolo) The Inland Revenue has a huge IT system, I think it is in the top one per cent of IT users in Europe, and we need that IT to be user friendly for our staff as well as to be able to give the information. Obviously there have been pressures on staff in terms of deadlines to accommodate this change and the changes that have gone on and that has been very intense at different times. All of the staff in the Revenue have responded incredibly positively because they are committed to making sure that they give the very best service. Even on measuring, for instance, the level of complaints coming into the department and the percentage of complaints that go into the formal procedure and then to the adjudicator, we see a declining rate. Touch wood, we have moved away from the horrendous headlines in the late 1990s, 1997-98, that we were getting about staff, whether they were unfriendly or abusive or unhelpful, because they have improved so much on the customer service. 48. How can you continue to ensure that the Inland Revenue's traditional work, such as getting in the money from income tax which they need to be able to do as well as everything else, is not overlooked in the rush to embrace tax credits and the culture change and everything else? (Dawn Primarolo) It will not be overlooked. It is œ195.6 billion to overlook. Although our staff are very keen, particularly those who are specifically engaged in the tax credits, the Contribution Agency, in making the important contribution, all of the staff in the Inland Revenue, I think it would be fair to say, view their role as to collect the right amount of tax, and only the right amount of tax, in an efficient and fair way so that Parliament can take the decisions on how it wishes to spend that money on its public services. It is very difficult to convey strongly enough how the staff in both the tax departments see their crucial role in that wider picture of securing fairly the resources that are then allocated by Parliament to our public services. 49. How do you expect the Inland Revenue to evolve over the next few years? Where do you see it in another four years' time? (Dawn Primarolo) I think they probably wish "more slowly". I think we need to go into a period of consolidation. For instance, the Contributions Agency's IT system will be within IT2K (?) by August of this year, the tax credits by the following year. We could not do it any faster than that because of resources and priorities elsewhere. So we will have the integration there. The partnerships and the closer working with Customs clearly over the next year will develop and bed down, and I certainly think that all of us see now that the Inland Revenue needs to consolidate the changes it has already made and bed them in well, and that will be our priority. How could I describe what I would like? What I would like is that somebody rings up a local tax office and at the end of the conversation we have got to a position where we can say to that individual, "Would you like me to check whether you have paid too much tax and we need to give some back to you?" I would like that conversation for two reasons. One, that we were able to do it and, two, so that the taxpayer would not feel reluctant, as sometimes they are, to engage in that but confident that the Revenue is only seeking the tax level that is necessary and if there is too much which has been inadvertently given, we would give it back. 50. My local tax office has won plaudits for its Outreach work, so there are lots of good stories. (Dawn Primarolo) Absolutely, and they have done very well on Charter Marks. When we had the Tax Back Campaign, just as an example, we gave the challenge to our offices that they were responsible for getting the local publicity and I was stunned, amazed, at the imagination and diversity of what they did. There were tax inspectors busking in shopping centres - I hasten to say not because we do not pay them enough but because they wanted to get their message across in a different way - there was a huge range of things they were doing in their local communities, and I think that is something we want to build on. We have quite a way to go before we get to the user- friendly, softly, cuddly Inland Revenue. 51. I know you said you wanted to have stability but do you think there is a need to look fundamentally at the boundary between tax and the benefits system? (Dawn Primarolo) The Government is actively looking at that. The development of the next generation of tax credits and reforms we have undertaken to date are exactly about addressing the boundaries and taking away the cliff edges or the problems which were building up in the system, and that will not stop. Mr Cousins 52. I will certainly treat buskers with more respect if I think they are tax inspectors in disguise. (Dawn Primarolo) You will give them some money, will you! 53. There was a review of the Inland Revenue's policy work which was carried out last autumn and published just before Christmas, and one of its conclusions was that it was difficult to identify anyone in the structure of the Inland Revenue who has the background and capacity to think about the tax system as a whole. That is a fairly heavy criticism. How are you going to respond to that review and to improve the Revenue Department's work on tax policy? (Dawn Primarolo) Firstly, clearly when looking at the Treasury Department and the issue of policy we would not see the Inland Revenue as free-standing in future planning because clearly the Treasury itself has a role in that. What Revenue has done, and the report sees, is made a real improvement in strengthening its policy function and in particular to have dedicated quality staff who have the depth of knowledge on particular subjects and therefore can assist in the effective implementation of policy as well. The review team did give the Inland Revenue credit for its expertise, for its professionalism, for its integrity and for the development of things like the tax credits which shows its capacity to do that. What we have done in addition is that Mr Hartnett has the role of ensuring the co-ordination of work that is being developed in Revenue and that it has that focus, because I think the peer review was questioning not only that it was not going on but that the depth and the focus needed to be directed, and that is what is being undertaken now. In particular, the review referred to the need for developing staff and recruiting staff who would assist much more in evidence-based information and research, the modelling that is necessary, and again that is being addressed. I do not know whether I could commit Mr Hartnett to do a short note for you on the changes which are being developed to address that issue? 54. Yes, that would be useful. (Mr Hartnett) Yes. 55. The review did discover there was no business taxation model. Is that being done? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes. 56. Is it fair to say that some of the difficulties that the Government got itself involved in, like how you deal with taxing insurance companies' reserves or stock options in small e-economy companies, might have been avoided if there had been better and more coherent tax policy advice within the Revenue? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, it is being addressed - your first question. On your second question, I doubt it, ensuring that everybody is always at one with the Inland Revenue. We are in a changing world and it is changing very rapidly and we collect information, but I have had some salutary lessons as a minister on questions of consultation. When I tried to address it on the basis, "We have a problem here and it is a big problem, how do you think we might deal with this?", I was criticised for doing an inadequate consultation process and people wanted specifics. Then, of course, when we do specifics, people complain it is all cut and dried. I think the relationship not only of Inland Revenue internally in having that policy capacity but, most important, the dialogues with the representative bodies outside representing taxpayers, is something we have strengthened and continue to strength, so we have both our own views and information about how we see the tax system moving - if you like as tax collectors what we see the issues are - and also the experience of those businesses in terms of what would or would not work for them. That is never a perfect exercise but we have to strive to constantly improve it. 57. Yes, but the lack of a business taxation model points to difficulties between the Inland Revenue and the Treasury. I take your point about consultation outside, but there is a distinct feeling if you read that peer review report that all is not well about the exchange of proper advice between the Inland Revenue and the Treasury. There are mistakes which have been made which could have been avoided. (Dawn Primarolo) To be honest, I did not read the remarks quite as critically as that. Yes, the business model needs to be developed. 58. Needs to be developed? (Dawn Primarolo) Absolutely, and is being addressed. Yes, of course, there always needs to be the exchange of proper and relevant information between government departments, not just within the Treasury departments, when issues are being developed, but I thought the peer review was saying, "These are the things you need to specifically address", which we have. It also said, "There are things you have done very well and things that you have not done so well, concentrate on what you have not done so well, learn the lessons and put it right." The idea of peer reviews is not to be antagonistic, and the Revenue accepted entirely what was said and are acting on it. 59. Judy Mallaber mentioned the ever present problem of computing, and just to briefly come to that, can you bring the Committee up to date with how many cases will be closed from 1998-99? (Dawn Primarolo) As the clock was ticking by, I could not believe I might get through an entire hearing without referring to that. The original figures were reported to you by Nick Montagu. The figure now is 1.7 million where we have incomplete information and which we are working on. As Nick Montagu agreed with this Committee on working through them on an individual basis, we are hopeful and expect that the 1998-99 figures will be considerably reduced and will report to you at the end of the year where we are. 60. This carries the implication that potentially a very large number of taxpayers may either have paid too much or too little because of that. Can you quantify that? Is this something the National Audit Office are looking at? (Dawn Primarolo) I cannot quantify that at this moment with regard to the 1.7 million, but the answer would be, yes, it would be something, as I understand it, the National Audit Office would be interested in and would seek to quantify at the relevant time in agreement with our statisticians. 61. Do you think the computer systems that the Inland Revenue now has, bearing in mind it is two different ones anyway which do not completely talk to each other, are adequate for the job they are now committed to? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, I do. The average reliability of the Inland Revenue IT systems is over 99 per cent - over 99 per cent - which is well in line with any other comparable organisation. I do not know whether Dave Hartnett remembers but the scale of the information that we deal with in terms of it being processed through these computers is truly phenomenal. (Mr Hartnett) 30 million taxpayers. (Dawn Primarolo) We are talking about a colossal amount of information. There were particular problems which are well-documented with regard to the NIRS2 computer which was commissioned under the previous Government, was supposed to come live for the year ending 1997-98, was then transferred into the Revenue with the Contributions Agency, and there were particular problems with that 1997-98 year return because of the system not being able to deal completely with the information. Clearly, my priority as a minister when the particular system was transferred over to us was, firstly, to ascertain it would work and it could be made to work, that it should be stabilised and that we should move as quickly as we possibly could to deal with the 1997-98 returns and make sure subsequently the system was working well. We are confident in terms of the non-matched items that we will be restored to the previous position - we always had unmatched items at the end of every year, it is not just a product of a computer system, manually you would have those issues as well because it is about incomplete records, somebody may have done several different jobs and we cannot trace them, we do not have the right address, or they have moved on from an employer and that employer does not know where they are and you cannot match them up, so there has always been this issue of non-matched items. What we have to make sure is that that is in a proportion which would be acceptable and we find ways of driving that down even further, which is what we are doing. Although incredibly time- consuming and difficult to do, reviewing cases on an individual basis may help us in developing strategies for the future on how to monitor this better. 62. When the Government is considering tax changes, does it also have some kind of analysis of whether the IT systems which underpin it are robust enough to support the tax change? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, absolutely. An example would be the Working Families Tax Credit when we had to build out of the Family Credit IT system, and it constrained the development of some of the policy issues until we had improved the IT system enough to cope with some of the changes. We absolutely have to make sure we can deliver the policy, and IT considerations are paramount. Mr Beard 63. Do you think the self-assessment system is now settling down? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, I do. If you look at the number of returns and the proportion of people making returns, the self-assessment system is bedding down quite well. Clearly there are still outstanding issues which we need the information from previous years to refine, for instance, the use of the internet, and our experience from this year, and analysing - I believe it is called "mining", I do not quite know why - the data in terms of late returns and why we continue to get late returns. It is in about the same proportion as before self-assessment, so it is not new. This year we have tried to focus on whether particular groups were at risk of sending in late returns, so some of our advertising was targeted specifically at them. In the last few weeks as we came up to 31st January, something like 3,000 people were telephoned or written to, or both, who we thought were at high risk of not getting their return in on time. Now what we are doing is looking at the groups which may become late returners, whether there is an underlying policy issue there, or whether it is presentation and whether we need to focus more on those groups. 64. What is the proportion of late filers this year, given that the deadline was last week? (Dawn Primarolo) It is 10 per cent of the total. There are approximately 9 million self-assessment returns and about 10 per cent of them come in late. 65. Did I understand you earlier to say that was about the same as last year? (Dawn Primarolo) Approximately, and pre-self-assessment as well. Late returners is not just something which happened with self-assessment, it was always an issue in the tax system. 66. Are you at all concerned that the proportion of taxpayers submitting late returns and asking for the Revenue to calculate their tax bills is increasing? (Dawn Primarolo) We have no indication of that. Something like 49 per cent of the returns are received in time for the Revenue to do the calculation, which is the 30th September date. Obviously the Revenue will continue to assist and advise, but the date where the Revenue calculates a liability or refund seems to be working quite well. 67. Is that not rather a high proportion for a system which is intended to be self-assessment? If I understood you rightly, 49 per cent are asking for the calculation to be done? (Dawn Primarolo) 49 per cent returned on or before 30th September. 68. Sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were saying 49 per cent were the people who were asking the Inland Revenue to calculate their tax liability. (Dawn Primarolo) That is right, but after 30th September they could not even request that. After 30th September we do not guarantee to be able to do the calculation of their tax in time if they wanted us to do so. I was just indicating that 49 per cent of all returns are in before 30th September, which is the date people know about if they absolutely want us to do that. The percentage of those returns where we have calculated the liability, I do not actually have. I do not think we have that analysis. I can try and get it to see if we can break the information down. It is a bit like internet filing, 38,000 individuals did it but something like 130,000-odd were actually logged through internet filing because the remainder were done by representatives of the taxpayers. 69. 38 per cent filed by internet? (Dawn Primarolo) 130,000-odd filed by internet, of which 38,000 were individuals and the remainder were representatives who were doing the returns for an individual. 70. Is there anything which can be done to make internet filing easier, because it does seem to be a bit of a palaver for individuals? They have to register, receive a password by post, then install their own software. There are quite a few barriers to them doing it. (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, all of that is being changed. What we wanted to do, and we did actually say this, was to have the internet filing option and we knew we would have to refine and develop that, as happens with the development of these sites, and also that we would need to take the site off, close the site down, on two occasions because we wanted to make changes. What we are doing now is a review, learning the lessons, and making improvements, so the sort of points you are addressing are not issues for next year. 71. Do you have any target for the proportion of submissions you are aiming to have through the internet? (Dawn Primarolo) I do not have a target at the moment. What I have asked Revenue to do for me is a break down of the self-assessment returns - how many people do it individually, how many do it through representatives, of that split how many would, regardless of what we did, prefer still to do it through the post. So that we try and get a better understanding out of that population of 9 million who would be likely to want to internet-file and what we need to do to make that easier for them, rather than just assuming somehow we could make a one-size-fits-all for the 9 million, because in that 9 million you go from very simple, straight forward returns to very complex returns because of income and assets. Chairman 72. The one bit of unfinished business is this letter which you will be sending us on the closer working report? (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, and I also promised one to Mr Cousins on the peer review. 73. Yes. (Dawn Primarolo) And the policy co-ordination in particular. 74. We will give you, if it would be helpful, our input into the format question on the closer working. (Dawn Primarolo) Indeed, yes, that would be good, and the annual report, yes. Excellent. 75. Then we will have another meeting. (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, of course. We will try to get the notes to you by Monday. 76. Thank you. (Dawn Primarolo) Thank you very much.