Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-307)

MR NEIL HAMPER AND MR SIMON SWEETMAN

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

Mr Beard

  300. One was late filing.
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes, very much so.

  301. You also say in your memorandum, "Most enquiries are still worked from a confrontational attitude by Revenue Inspectors. A revised framework for enquiry work is about to be issued to Inland Revenue staff, and it is hoped that this, together with working together initiatives, will reduce the confrontational attitude which is too often apparent in enquiry work." Could you elaborate on what you are saying about this confrontational attitude.
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes. I think the traditional approach of the Inspector was that he or she was not looking at a tax return, was not looking at a set of accounts, unless they had a reason, because they had to give a reason in the days before Self-assessment for carrying out that investigation, so to a certain extent, they started with the assumption, "This person is guilty, all we have to find out is exactly what it is they have done". The basis for that changes with Self-assessment because they are entitled, for instance, to look at cases completely at random and they do not have to state any reason, so, theoretically at least, they start off with much more of a notion of audit, that what they are trying to do is simply discover the truth, and the truth may be what is there already. In my view, the Revenue did not do enough at that point to retrain its inspectors in the changes in the legislation, and that many of them have continued to behave in exactly the way in which they behaved before, and many of them, I think, perhaps coarsened by too much investigation work, are really extremely confrontational.

  302. In that passage I quoted to you, you referred to the "Working Together Initiatives". What are these Working Together Initiatives?
  (Mr Sweetman) This is an attempt to bring the Revenue tax agents and representatives of taxpayers together to talk through the points that are causing friction. It started as a national scheme; it is now being adopted in local areas. I am the Chair of one side of the Committee for the area that I live in which is Suffolk and North Essex. This has started quite recently, and it is not the first initiative, but if the Revenue and local practitioners can talk to each other honestly, then there are prospects for improvement, because you start to understand each other's problems.

  303. Is that their attempt to break down this confrontational attitude?
  (Mr Sweetman) Yes, I think it is.

  304. And from what you see personally, or as an organisation, is that starting to address the problem?
  (Mr Sweetman) It is certainly starting to address the problem in terms of the view from the Revenue's Head Office and in what they are telling their staff now. Whether they are telling them loudly enough for them all to get the message, time will tell.

  305. You mean they are still unreconstructed and aggressive?
  (Mr Sweetman) There are some very unreconstructed Inspectors of Taxes, yes.

Chairman

  306. You refer just there to the confrontational attitude of Tax Inspectors. In the last comment in your paper, you talk about customer service and call centres. In fact, you were a bit sniffy about call centres. Having told us today about the confrontational attitude, you seem to paint a sort of golden age whereby the honest citizen has dropped in to chat to his local Tax Inspector. Which is right?
  (Mr Sweetman) I think there is a distinction to be made between enquiry/investigation type work and day to day routine work. Perhaps in that sense, certainly, the picture I have painted is too black in that I think a lot of people would say that on their routine encounters with the Inland Revenue over the years, they have found them very helpful, very cooperative and willing to explain things. So it is that distinction in the routine. For instance, small employers have said often that what they really valued was the person in the tax office, the tax officer who had probably been there for 15 years, had handled their case all that time, and effectively knew it really very well and was able to understand immediately what the problems were going to be, which is what you do not get, I think, with the call centre approach.
  (Mr Hamper) Could I add to that. It is not just peculiar to the Inland Revenue. I think this is a large organisation in every sphere of the commercial world. How many of us have dealt with 0845 numbers with the banks, for example, and it is exactly the same thing, this depersonalisation of contact. I think that is the point we were trying to make there.

  307. It does not just apply to the Revenue.
  (Mr Hamper) No, it applies across the board.

  Chairman: Thank you both very much indeed for coming today.





 
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