Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-307)|
WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002
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
(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
(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
305. You mean they are still unreconstructed
(Mr Sweetman) There are some very unreconstructed
Inspectors of Taxes, yes.
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.