Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Hartnett, HMRC and Hutber's Law

A non-resident's outlook
My sort of tax practice involves quite a lot of technical issues. It is not necessarily because I look for trouble, but because I specialise in certain more complicated areas of tax and people come to me because they are in trouble. That doesn't necessarily mean they are in trouble with HMRC (The Revenue), though they may be. It is quite often because they are having trouble dealing with HMRC because they cannot find anyone in HMRC who understands their problem, let alone is able to help them find a solution.

Recently I had an issue with a non-resident client whose pension suddenly started to be taxed because HMRC did not understand it was not taxable by reason of there being a Double Taxation Agreement in place. Some innocent in HMRC had issued a PAYE Code and decided that the client, who had no taxable income in UK should fill in a tax return. Persuading HMRC to leave the client alone took a lot of time, telephone calls and a tax return completed showing no taxable income. It really was the only way.

Last week, I had an issue with another client whom I believed to be non-resident by both past and current evolving standards. I wanted to telephone the HMRC Centre for Non-Residents as it is now called, which is in Liverpool. I could not find the number on HMRC's website. I called the general agent's number and was told that the only way for a non-resident or his or her agent to discuss that person's affairs was to call the public's HMRC call centre number.

Even then (this is hard to believe even for an old hack like me) apparently the Centre for Non-Residents does not take telephone calls. One has to ask to be referred to a technical officer who will call back and may be able to help.

Actually a technical officer did call me back, so this cost me only time (but time is money) as my telephone calls are all inclusive in the business package. However, to get through in the first place I had to go through an automated button pushing system, the first with three options and the second with six, so I had been on the line a while before I spoke to my first human. Suppose I has been a non-resident UK taxpayer by design or HMRC's default, calling from Tuvalu or Patagonia. How much would it have cost hanging on? Would a technical officer have phoned back anyway?

It is very difficult to pick up the telephone and be put through to anyone at HMRC who knows about tax rules. It would be almost impossible for a lay person to get through to the right tax official. Yet HMRC and Dave Hartnett like to call taxpayers “customers”.

Back in the Seventies, the late Patrick Hutber, City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, stated his law “improvement means deterioration” referring to changes in services which large corporates said streamlined their services. One of those was not letting bank customers have back their cancelled cheques, still a source of irritation to me. Yet HMRC won't let their technical staff be contacted by the public. Indeed they now have only two addresses where one might write about a new issue which has cropped up and therefore there is no way of tracking where your letter might be until or unless you get a reply. That is no way to treat customers.

If Patrick Hutber were alive today he might, after re-stating his law, refer to an older one in the language of my aforementioned client who wrongly had tax deducted from her pension “Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose)”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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