Members of the House of Lords vent their spleens against HMRC in The Times:
Comment on the fiasco of the missing discs has concentrated on the sheer incompetence of those involved. Little attention has been paid to the doubtful legality of what Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sought to do.
The discs contained highly confidential information on 25 million people. HMRC had no right whatever to supply such information to a third party except in response to a request from a body with a statutory power to demand it. It may be assumed that the National Audit Office has such a power; but it did not ask for the banking and other details that HMRC included in the information it tried (unsuccessfully) to supply.
It would be interesting to know what possible justification the department had for attempting to supply confidential information for which it was not asked. The cost of excluding such information cannot possibly be a sufficient excuse.
House of Lords
I agree with Libby Purves (“They hate you. And in the end R&C will get you”, Nov 23). In common with quite a number of people, the compilation of my tax return is a complex exercise and I have to employ a professional adviser. Six years ago it sent me a refund cheque for £138,512.48 which, although a very pleasant surprise, was totally wrong. I subsequently learnt that to send a refund cheque of such magnitude required the approval of several people.
I wrote to the Chairman of Inland Revenue returning the cheque, and in my letter made a comment which proved to be extremely accurate. I said: “What concerns me in this issue is that if I, or indeed, any other taxpayer, had made a fraction of the errors which the Revenue has made, then I would be rapidly pursued and taken to task in no uncertain way for such an error.” David Hartnett, who has now taken over as acting chairman of HMRC, said: “I am very sorry that we have compounded our earlier errors by incorrectly sending you such a very large cheque.”
I made an error myself in a recent tax return. My “case owner” pointed out the omission to my adviser, so the likelihood of it not coming to HMRC’s attention was nil. I immediately apologised, paid the outstanding tax by return and acknowledged that I would be liable to an interest charge. I thought this would be an end to the matter, but I received a letter which inferred that my case owner thought that what I had said might be a pretty tall story, but if I confessed and agreed to pay a penalty as well as the outstanding tax and interest, the taxman might let me off lightly.
HMRC can make mistakes, no matter how large or crass. But we, the despised “customers” (do they still use that term?), are, in the words of Libby Purves, all “on the fiddle”.
I spent six years as a Permanent Secretary, and developed an enormous respect for the Civil Service, but for some reason the Inland Revenue, now HMRC, does not believe that it is the servant of the taxpayer, but rather its master. Perhaps, just perhaps, this most recent blunder will make it realise that the customer, too, should be permitted to make the occasional mistake. (HMRC has now accepted my explanation.)
Lord Levene of Portsoken
House of Lords
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