From the New Testament on, tax collectors have had a bad reputation. The reason is obvious – no-one, no matter how law-abiding, particularly enjoys contact with those whose job it is to carve out the annual pound of flesh, so they attract unfair resentment.
But among the ranks of the tax collectors, HMRC’s reputation is unusually bad – and unusually deserved. That’s because they are a prominent example of low competence and poor service. You might be one of the 17.8 million callers each year who hang on the phone (at your own expense) only to never get an answer. You might be one of the 25 million child benefit recipients whose personal data was lost in the post when they put all your information on discs and sent them without so much as paying for recorded delivery. Or perhaps you’re one of the five million people who found out last year that even their ‘final’ tax return calculations were subject to errors and corrections. Again.
Those are some pretty big tips on what is the gigantic iceberg of HMRC’s failings. It cannot be blamed for the fact that the tax system it administrates is so complex – that is the fault of a tinkering, whimsical Parliament – but it can be blamed for its attitude that serious errors which disrupt the lives of taxpayers are simply to be expected and accepted as an inevitability of life in Britain.
Given that record, how happy should we be that this error-prone organisation is getting new powers which will allow it to directly remove money from the bank accounts of those it deems to owe tax?
The political case is simple – it’s popular and right to hammer tax evaders. But the practicalities and principles involved are worrying, as the Law Society and the Institute of Chartered Accountants have pointed out. HMRC is an organisation renowned for miscalculations, poor data management and disregard for the inconvenience suffered by those who are the victims of its mistakes. It’s hard to think of an outfit less suited to being appointed judge, jury and executioner.