Memorandum submitted by Advice Northern
Advice NI is a membership organisation that
exists to provide leadership, representation and support for independent
advice organisations to facilitate the delivery of high quality,
sustainable advice services. Advice NI exists to provide its members
with the capacity and tools to ensure effective advice services
delivery. This includes: advice and information management systems,
funding and planning, quality assurance support, NVQs in advice
and guidance, social policy co-ordination and ICT development.
Membership of Advice NI is normally for organisations
that provide significant advice and information services to the
public. Advice NI has over 70 member organisations operating throughout
Northern Ireland and providing information and advocacy services
to over 150,000 people each year dealing with over 237,000 enquiries
on an extensive range of matters including: social security, housing,
debt, consumer and employment issues. For further information,
please visit www.adviceni.net.
Advice NI welcomes the opportunity to contribute
as our member organisations have seen a marked increase in the
number of tax credit enquiries and a steady rise in tax credit
overpayment enquiries since the introduction of the present regime
in 2003. As a direct result of the increased tax credit workload,
Advice NI facilitated an eConsultation on the tax credit overpayment
issue, culminating in a report summarising the main issues generated
by the eConsultation surrounding the tax credit overpayment issue.
The full report can be viewed via http://www.adviceni.net/econsultation/default.asp
From a Northern Ireland perspective, Advice
NI would summarise the ongoing tax credit issues as follows:
Although the implementation of the
Paymaster General's Ministerial Statements in 2005 does seem to
have had some effect, tax credit difficulties and in particular
overpayments continue to occur. Advice NI believes that the tax
credit system is generally difficult for most people to comprehend
and that overpayments remain an inherent risk within the tax credit
Advice NI continues to advocate that
the system for disputing the recovery of tax credit needs to be
overhauled. HMRC are the judge and jury in relation to making
decisions on tax credit overpayments. There needs to be impartiality
and independence in the handling of tax credit overpayment disputes.
If not there may well be the potential for legal challenge under
Human Rights legislation (right to a fair trial) but aside from
the legalities the lack of independence contributes to a continuing
lack of confidence in the process for disputing the recovery of
tax credit overpayments.
Advice NI is concerned that there
is no local point of access to highlight NI-specific cases and
issues. The centralisation of tax credit overpayments processing
to GB and the removal of any "local point of access"
is frustrating for advisers and clients alike. NI has representation
on the Tax Credit Consultation Group but this forum is not ideal
as meetings take place in London, the agenda is very full and
it is not particularly responsive to the needs of NI advisers
Advice NI believes that the communication/information
flow between HMRC and Northern Ireland organisations could be
improved. As an example, Advice NI has had no proactive contact
made by HMRC on providing updates, news relating to tax credit
developments and perhaps NI-specific statistics regarding uptake.
Again this perceived communication vacuum may be a side-effect
of the centralisation highlighted above.
Advice NI welcomes the funding streams
made available by HMRC to reach out to the "hard to reach"
vulnerable customers and in particular people from Black and Minority
Ethnic communities. However from a purely Northern Ireland position,
Advice NI would underline HMRC's equality duties under Section
75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This comment is made in the
context of the ongoing debate around integration of people from
BME communities and where responsibility lies in terms of the
responsibilities of the state and responsibilities of the individual.
Advice NI believes that care must be taken to ensure that a balance
is struck and that HMRC continues to meet it's statutory equality
duties in terms of providing either direct or indirect information
and support to people from BME communities.
Finally Advice NI would make comment on ensuring
public involvement in the process of debating tax credit issues.
It is important that people have every chance to feed in and express
their views. Regarding the latter point, Advice NI believes that
more could be done to actively engage with a wider range of stakeholders[en
rule] most importantly the general public who are most affected
by tax credit issues. Advice NI would offer the eConsultation
service as one of a range of potential tools for maximising participation
and we would ask HMRC to keep this situation and this offer under