We’re sorry for you HMRC, but employers are struggling too

I read with interest this article in the Guardian at the weekend. I do have sympathy with an embattled tax authority trying to deliver huge headcount cuts, move to 13 tax offices from 170, digitise every service possible and deliver a new post-Brexit customs world. But I’d also like to reflect on what their pressures feel like from the other end of the telescope.

The author of the article, Vicky Johnson, says she has 30 years’ service with HMRC and its to her credit that she has remained with HMRC, when many thousands have either taken voluntary redundancy or jumped ship, but she is in the minority now and it shows. Pity the employer or small business owner who rings the employer helpline having tried to find guidance online. It’s likely that their query is complex otherwise they wouldn’t have rung, but sadly the helpline staff will probably be very new in post and working to scripted answers, as technical experts like Vicky need to be focused on back office policy development and compliance work.

I too have spent 30 years working with HMRC as a payroll manager, lobbyist and now employment tax lecturer and the last few years have been some of the most challenging of my career too. The loss of technical experts in HMRC has been very noticeable. Legislation is late and has wrinkles in it (three so far in the optional remuneration arrangement changes alone that came in last April). That is clearly a result of too few policy makers who aren’t in post long enough to assimilate the knowledge they need before they move on to a new project.

One of the solutions you would think would be to use stakeholders who have hundreds of years of ‘corporate memory’ between them to help develop good law and timely guidance, but that seems not to be seen as a worthwhile. Stakeholder meetings have become more infrequent and often feel like they are held after policy has been decided rather than working together to get the best outcome, accepting that no one likes paying tax but it’s part of our moral duty as citizens and that contract also means making the collection of it fair with the least cost and admin burden possible.

So, I salute Vicky and those who are trying to ensure that we leave the EU with systems and laws that support the future – whatever that future is. But in the meantime, there is the small matter of business as usual for 40m taxpayers and their employers and we’re struggling to deliver that. We’d really like to work with HMRC to keep UK plc functioning up to and beyond March 2019 if only they’d ask!