Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and Auditor General, issued a report last week on the 2015-16 accounts of HMRC.
“HMRC is running a complex and challenging set of change programmes, and aiming to maintain service to taxpayers at the same time. On the one hand, it needs to keep its nerve and commitment to its goals even if there are occasional setbacks along the way; on the other, it needs to ensure that it does not make the taxpayer underwrite the risk of failure through service breakdowns.”Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 14 July 2016
Tax revenues and spending in 2015-16
HMRC raised £536.8 billion of tax revenues this year, an increase of £19.1 billion (3.7%) on 2014-15 and paid out £40 billion in benefits and credits (approximately one-fifth of the government’s total benefit expenditure). The annual cost of running HMRC was £3.2 billion in 2015-16 (£3.1 billion in 2014-15).
Transforming tax administration
HMRC has begun to implement its plans to transform how it administers tax. Its vision is to have “the most digitally advanced tax system in the world”. By 2021, it expects to employ 16% fewer staff, substantially rationalise its estate and automate more of its processes.
HMRC’s approach looks credible and proportionate to the scale of the risks involved, and it has worked closely with the Treasury and Cabinet Office to develop and refine its plans. It is too early to evaluate how well its approach is working but one of the most critical tests will be how management responds when things do not go as expected. NAO have identified two areas of risk:
- Optimism bias in key assumptions – in the last Parliament, HMRC was over-optimistic about how much change it could deliver all at once, and how fast it could reduce demand for telephone contact in particular. This resulted in a collapse of its service to personal taxpayers in 2014-15 and the first half of 2015-16. HMRC has since recovered the quality of its service to personal taxpayers by recruiting more staff and has adjusted its future resource plans in the light of this experience.
- Understanding the costs and benefits to taxpayers – HMRC has yet to estimate the costs for individual taxpayers or businesses of making the transition to online services or to quantify the benefits they can expect. Over the next year, it plans to develop a fuller picture of what it will cost taxpayers to use the new systems. Most business customers will be required to update HMRC quarterly rather than annually about their tax affairs, and some may need to purchase new software that works with the new systems. Some businesses are sceptical of HMRC’s evaluations of the costs and benefits of previous changes to the tax system.
Tax does have to be taxing.
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