Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 360 - 379)

WEDNESDAY 22 MAY 2002

DAWN PRIMAROLO, MR STEPHEN BANYARD AND SUE PITHER

  360. That is the tax year just gone.
  (Mr Banyard) Yes.

  361. What was it the year before roughly?
  (Mr Banyard) Slightly worse.

  362. And the year before that?
  (Mr Banyard) Was slightly better.

  363. I appreciate that you do not have the numbers but it would be quite helpful if you could give us definitive numbers for each of the years from 1996 so we can establish a profile. What is your expectation—and this will only be an estimate obviously—of the percentage you will not get in the tax year we are in now, and the year after that and the year after that? Do you do estimates and have targets for how you want to raise your performance?
  (Dawn Primarolo) I have to agree that as a target with Revenue, which we have yet to settle, but I want to see some improvement on that. I think we have answered this in a PQ in terms of the performance over the years. As soon as we have settled the targets I shall be happy to inform the Committee of what we would like to see in future years and how we have been performing since 1997[7]. It has been quite persistent around a small variation and one of the big challenges is to try to work out why there is this quite persistent number at the end. Comparing with the old system, which is not particularly easy to do, the system pre self-assessment, there were people who were persistent in that system as well. I am not sure that self-assessment has really cracked that particular problem, those who are compliant in the system and the amount of tax coming in, but those who continue to choose not to be compliant have not been addressed.

  364. Just to get a feel for it, have you any targets in your own mind for the reductions in that figure in the next three years as a Treasury target or something which might form the basis of public service agreements?
  (Dawn Primarolo) Firstly I have to consider and discuss with the Revenue the resources which will be available.

  365. You do not do it now for three years hence.
  (Dawn Primarolo) And then we shall call for year on year improvements and what we would expect.

  366. But would you publish the targets?
  (Dawn Primarolo) I believe they are published as part of the Inland Revenue PSA targets. I shall double check that. They are published and I shall certainly be happy to let the Committee know that.

  367. I only ask you to try to understand whether or not the penalty regime is adequate at the moment. I think when Mr Banyard came to see us in March he said, "... this is an area where we think we can do better", which was honest and open. In the course of trying to do better, have you looked at the Irish system of penalties at all? I was one of the four intrepid members of the Committee who had the privilege of speaking to the Revenue there and they had quite an interesting system. Is it something in the course of your work that you have looked at?
  (Dawn Primarolo) Yes, we are looking at the Irish system. They do not have the intermediate deadline which we do, where people can get the information to us by a certain date and we calculate it. Their initial attempts are much lower than ours: 75 per cent as opposed to our 90-whatever per cent. I understand that they resort to sending out a solicitor's letter as a reminder. Of course in understanding the differences, and particularly bearing in mind your visit and therefore that we should ensure that we have covered these issues, yes, in looking at the system and seeing where there are lessons to be learned they are not exactly comparable systems. I know that you have a lot of experience professionally on this. How tough penalties should be is a vexed question. I try to get the right balance but it is incredibly difficult when we are now trying to address those who persistently want to.

  368. On that point I have one specific question. I stress for anyone listening that I am not advocating this. In Ireland, which in very many ways is comparable to our own political system, it is a western, liberal, democratic, industrialised state, it is a member of the European Union, they actually has a system of naming and shaming. I think we were told that it is in the region of just over

12,000 in unpaid tax liability and after going through all the hoops and warnings and determinations you could end up named in a local newspaper, even a national newspaper. I just wondered, in the course of running an efficient tax system and I think we have heard a lot of empirical evidence that you as a Minister and your officials really do think through how the systems can be improved and all the evidence supports that you really are monitoring the operation of the British tax system closely, have you ever thought of that one? Have you considered it?
  (Dawn Primarolo) I have to say that I thought it was interesting. Like you, I am not advocating it for a minute. I am a little bit worried and I wonder on closer inspection whether the Irish system could become a bit of a badge of honour. The other thing is that when we prosecute people they get named, but we also take a lighter touch approach on the basis that some people make genuine errors, nonetheless they are in the penalty system. I was intrigued with this proposition that we might name and shame. I am not attracted to it, but the principle of putting pressure on is something that we can look at. It would probably be a bit expensive on advertising as well.

  369. That has not bothered your Government before now, has it?
  (Dawn Primarolo) Touché.

  370. There were differing views as to the efficacy of this system, the badge of honour point was also raised. I only mention it. If this were a system in Pinochet's Chile we would say of course it is ridiculous and we would never touch it. The fact that the Irish Government has operated it for in excess of 20 years or in that region made me just wonder whether it was something you were looking at. I stress that you do look at these issues and your officials are trying hard to look at new things and innovative things. Is this something you are looking at?
  (Dawn Primarolo) Certainly you could not look at the Irish system without looking at the issue of naming and shaming, but I have to say that I am not at all attracted to it because of naming and shaming incorrectly or the consequences and the balance with taxpayer confidentiality. We operate in a slightly different way. It works for the Irish and it might not work for us. It is an interesting point to look at.

  371. Fine. Your officials have not said, "This would be a brave decision, Minister".
  (Dawn Primarolo) No. I do not think they would even try to do that. I would consider it in the "This would be a very, very brave and courageous decision, Minister" category. "You're out of your tiny head" approach.

  372. Just going back to filing quickly, the National Audit Office said that in the case of the on-line filing four out of five attempts failed in the year 2000 and as many as three out of ten failed for the most recent tax year. It has been calculated that at this rate the target of getting 50 per cent of people submitting their assessment on-line by the year 2005 will be a target which is missed. I do not want to stoop to the level of the anecdotal, but on 21 May in the Daily Telegraph a Mr Charles Allis of Cobham Surrey said, "I have an MBA, designed several accounting systems and I filed US tax returns for several years, but the Inland Revenue software is simply terrible". I just wondered what your view was on those assessments, one anecdotal and one from the NAO, and what strategies you have put in place to tackle it. We all know that a software needs time to bed down. We would not expect it to be right in the first year obviously, but those are actually, even bearing that in mind, quite depressing statistics.
  (Dawn Primarolo) Ninety per cent filed first time[8]. There appears to be a lot in January this year and certainly some people repeatedly failed to file. I could not possibly comment on the individual case. I would agree with the general thrust of the point you are making which is that we have to strive constantly to improve and understand where the difficulties are being experienced and try to remove them from the system. A high percentage said in January that 90 per cent managed to file first time8. If I may, I take a little comfort in that it must be getting better, I hope, every month in terms of people being able to do that. There are still some people who are experiencing difficulty.

  373. We look forward to your teach-in with interest. I have certainly signed up already. I can hardly wait.
  (Dawn Primarolo) Excellent. Thank you. I look forward to it. Can I watch?

Dr Palmer

  374. I am interested in the determination procedure. If I have a stable income for years and years and years and then suddenly receive £500,000 from some source or other and I do not fill in a tax return, after a while the Inland Revenue will determine my tax based on previous returns and will make a good guess, not allowing for this windfall. Am I then no longer liable to fill out a return or will you continue to pursue me for my return even though you have charged me the determination?
  (Dawn Primarolo) We shall continue to pursue you for your return, so do not do it.

Chairman

  375. We have had evidence about enquiries. I quote Mr Robert Maas, the Chairman of the Technical Committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants who said to us "... there is a growing feeling that they" [the Revenue] "ask for information for the sake of asking for information, without any realisation that producing information is often very costly". Should taxpayers really have the right to know why they have been selected for an inquiry and what aspect of their return concerns the Revenue?
  (Dawn Primarolo) No, I do not think so. How the enquiries operate is on a profile and risk basis. I am not quite sure that I would agree with that proposition. It is very difficult to provide enough information in a system to make it clear as to the obligations but not provide so much information that you assist those who are trying not to fulfil their obligations. I still preferred the route of ensuring that the Revenue is better targeted at the information that it requires and is asking for information it requires rather than collecting information that it may not need. Part of the process of looking at forms, in looking at the taxpayers, in looking at who is in the system, will help us to develop that process and therefore develop the guidance we are providing to taxpayers in explaining how the system works. There is a difficult balance to strike there which we will do our best to have correct. It is not always possible to give all the information because it assists those inadvertently who are determined not to comply with the system.

Mr Cousins

  376. May I first of all say that we are extremely grateful for Mr Banyard's supplementary note on this point of payment methods and payment systems? I am aware of the Newcastle experiment and its relative success with payment of tax by direct debit. What I am not clear about is whether it is the intention to extend this system gradually throughout the country.
  (Dawn Primarolo) The Newcastle experiment is quite small in terms of a pilot. It is providing very useful information and certainly looking at how that could have wider application needs to be the next step in our consideration. We need to ensure, which is not the case at the moment, that people can pay us rapidly and conveniently in various methods, whether direct debit, over the internet, with credit cards. There are constraints for us on that in terms of expense to the Department in running those systems, particularly with credit cards. Yes, that is certainly something which I want to see us explore and develop to make it more convenient for the payments, so the taxpayer who does not quite get round to doing the payment but has done the return has a much simpler and quicker way of doing it and therefore does not find himself with penalties.

  377. You have mentioned these various payment options, credit cards and so on. The take-up of credit cards in this country is enormous now: 50 million credit cards. It does seem extraordinary that there is no ability to pay tax using these methods and that, despite the problems set out in Mr Banyard's note, there does not seem to be any timescale for their introduction.
  (Dawn Primarolo) The problem is that the credit card route is very expensive in the facilities which we as a Department have to pay for.

  378. Because of the transaction charges.
  (Dawn Primarolo) Yes. We need to look very carefully at whether that extra cost is justified in providing that additional facility. To go back to the beginning, it is really a question of what we should do first in working through these improvements to the system and therefore if there are savings elsewhere whether or not we can stand the cost. It is a very high cost for us, I am informed by the Department. It is not ruled out. It is just a question of what comes first.

  379. Your reference to high cost is obviously related to credit cards and one understands the transaction charges there, except that if you can pay your television licence by credit card it does not seem extraordinary that you should be able to pay tax by credit card. It does seem extraordinary that there is no timescale for introducing the other payment methods: direct debit, internet transfers.
  (Dawn Primarolo) You can pay into our St Austell office by your debit card and that is running. It comes back again to the points which were made earlier on as to whether it is well enough publicised that people can use it. You can pay on the internet by debit card, but some people may be reluctant to do that. A variety of payment methods is already open, but it seems to me that what we need to do is have a coherent package of credit/debit/internet/over-the-phone payments and putting those in place is not, for the size of what we are dealing with, as easy as it might seem on the face of it. It is a question of where we use our resources first. It is a question of priorities.


7   See Ev 100. Back

8   Note by witness: These details have been checked and in the peak period of January 2002, around 80 per cent of attempts to file on-line succeeded. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 25 July 2002