It’s a rare topic that brings together the Institute of Chartered Accountants and Liberty, but plans to give HMRC the power to seize money from the bank accounts without a court order have achieved it.
The two organisations are joined by The Law Society, the Building Societies Association, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Association of Chartered and Certified Accountants, the British Bankers Association, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group and the Money Advice Trust in warning the Chancellor that:
‘If the new powers are implemented as planned there will be no judicial oversight before HMRC partially freezes accounts and seizes funds. Allowing people to appeal after the event is far too late in the day and could mean they are no longer able to afford the necessary legal assistance…These planned measures are a power too far for an error-prone HMRC and will damage public trust in the tax system.’
They’re correct – it’s a bad idea in practice but also principle, as noted here a few weeks ago.
Anyone who has ever even heard of HMRC knows that they are serially incapable of using their existing powers properly. The organisation is synonymous with the nation’s biggest ever loss of private data, and has made over- and under-charging errors affecting millions of people in the last few years alone. Odds are that when that lost Amazonian tribe made first contact the other day, within five minutes they were joking that HMRC had been in charge of their map-reading.
If this outfit can’t even calculate tax bills or store discs properly, just imagine what will happen when they can go steaming in to take cash direct from your bank account. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The reason I pick out the unusual alliance between professional bodies and ideological civil libertarians is that past experience suggests it is a painful opposition for the government to fight.
Ministers proposing a restriction on freedom tend to do so on the assumption that the people will back them on grounds of security – that whichever new powers they seek to grant will stop law-breakers of one sort or another. That, they reason, will trump principled defences of freedom. The difficulty comes when opponents make a successful security argument against the idea.
With ID cards, a strong majority in favour was reversed by civil libertarians deploying arguments about the safety of data, the potential for fraud and so on. Far from guaranteeing security, the project came to be seen as a threat to it.
This is why the new attack on HMRC money-grabbing powers is worth watching. The government cannot swat away the nation’s accountants as reckless radicals – they are making a serious case about the safety of the proposal. The more people consider the possibility of innocent taxpayers having their money wrongly taken, instead of panglossian promises of always nailing the guilty, opinion will start to harden.