Talking but not listening

I’ve been looking back this week, as my husband has retired, and reflecting on how my experience of working with government departments has changed over the last 15 years. During that time I’ve worked with a number of representative bodies and on various government committees. Now at the end of my career, my committee work is concentrated on my role as vice chair of the Employment Tax and NI committee at the Institute of Chartered Accountants and through the British Computer Society payroll specialist group.

There have been lots of ups and downs in the relationship between representative bodies and government departments. The ups are usually due to very committed civil servants who understand the role of employers and payroll agents, whilst the downs are usually a result of the political cycle and resource pressures. What isn’t in doubt though, is that when the relationship between rep bodies and the policymakers is going well, we get better laws, better compliance and protected workers.

I’m concerned that at the moment we’ve been in a down cycle for a very long time, with no prospect of improvements on the horizon. When Lord Carter undertook his review of payroll services back in the early 2000s, a protocol was agreed with HMRC that software developers would have an 18-month lead time in order to provide compliant and tested software. Fast forward 20 years and here we are with little more than 18 days between the budget and the start of the new tax year!

Of course because the payroll software industry is commercial, they will throw all their time and energy into attempting to meet that 6th April deadline, but this comes with huge risk. Because the software industry, employers and agents keep delivering, the assumption is that the 18-month protocol it is simply unnecessary, so later and later policy decisions become the norm. We will almost certainly have a retrospective Finance Act this year, bringing in some of the most sweeping changes to employment status and payment practices in the private sector for decades. But why is it that there are numerous operational issues outstanding in respect to IR35  when this has already been in place in the public sector for three years? How can a policy be said to be a success when there is no clarity on how to implement the rules three years after implementation?

We see the same lack of momentum in respect to RTI. The much-delayed post-implementation review of the 2013 reforms to PAYE was eventually published at the end of 2018 with a promise of an implementation action plan by the end of March 2019. This never emerged and despite calls from independent high-profile bodies such as the National Audit Office and the Office of Tax Simplification, nothing has been published or consulted upon.

I write this blog with huge sadness, because there is such willingness for those of us on the industry side to give up time (and money if you’re self-employed like me!) to work with policymakers across government as they deliver new initiatives for Ministers, but either we’re not consulted at all or arguably even worse, spend time in meetings and formulating responses which are completely ignored, only to find that once a policy has been implemented there are all sorts of legal challenges and operational problems that could have been avoided. So please start listening rather than just talking, we are on the cusp of a very different UK economy and we ought to be using all the talents at our disposal, not just paying lip service to the consultation process.