Thoughts on the H. M. R. C. research report

I give below some of my thoughts on the H. M. R. C. – commissioned research report on Customer Experiences of Tax Credits Over-payments. Firstly, I should like to put my thoughts on the report into context. I have recently successfully settled, on behalf of clients of mine (I am a semi-retired accountant), a dispute with H. M. R. C., Tax Credits Office, which has dragged on for over 5 years. I feel that the research report dealt directly with my clients’ experience, and that therefore, consequently, I have a valid reason to comment on its substance and findings. The report is no. 113, in H. M. R. C.’s numbering, and is dated December 2010, towards the middle of the period during which I was dealing with my clients’ dispute. The report was commissioned by H. M. R. C. from Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, and was published in February, 2011. The report is Crown Copyright, and any quotes from, or references to, it are for the benefit of those reading this article, for their information and education, and, as such, I consider to be sufficient justification for using data derived from said report. That’s the formalities and legalities out of the way, or at least I hope so! In the report’s Summary of Findings it states that Ipsos MORI conducted 170 face-to-face interviews over a period from April, 2009 to January, 2010. Again, I stress that this period is included in the time span of my own efforts on behalf of my clients. Under the sub-heading in the Summary, of Customers’ Experiences of Overpayments, the report mentions at 1 of the bullet points under (ii), that there were some risk factors, that were key reasons for over-payments occurring, including children moving in and out of households. This was generally the chief reason for my clients’ over-payment. Under (vi) of the same section, it states:- “The term “overpayment” created ambiguities;some perceived the term to mean that H. M. R. C. has made an error in calculation”. This makes an assumption, that H. M. R. C. had not, and did not, make errors in their calculations. This was 1 of the foundation points of my clients’ complaint against Tax Credits Office, namely that       T. C. O. refused at any time, until forced to admit this when the matter went to the Adjudicator’s Office, that they had, or indeed could have, made an error. It also appears to be the case that such an assumption lay behind the commissioning of this report. It is inevitable that in such a case, the results of the report are going to be skewed, if there is incorrect thinking in its original conception. Under (vii) of the same section, it states:- “The media strongly influenced some participants views of overpayments…as it communicated a strong message that it may have been H. M. R. C.’s fault.” See (vi) above; of course not! Under (viii) of the same section, it states:- (Customers) “also had additional expectations of H. M. R. C., assuming that it would check their claim…When these additional expectations were not met, they contributed to customers feeling that H. M. R. C. were to blame for an overpayment.” What ridiculous expectations! Why on earth would anybody assume that  H. M. R. C. would check anything that the public submitted to it? It begs the obvious question, “How can you run a government department if you do not check anything?” Under section IV, sub-section (viii), it states:- “Customers who responded to Debt Management telephone calls…felt…pressurised”. This “pressure” can take the form of a demand for an immediate repayment of the total amount due (in my clients’ case, over £5,000.00), with no mention of the possibility of any repayment plan or instalments. Under sub-section (xii) of the same section, it states:- “Many participants were unaware that they could repay in instalments. Not all participants were offered this option at the beginning,and often reported feeling frightened at the thought of having to pay off a large sum at once.” I could not have put it better myself. Under sub-section (xv) of the same section, it states:- “Knowledge of the availability of the appeals and disputes process was not widespread. Those who had experienced an appeal or dispute felt that they would like to see more explanation of the process and greater transparency during it.” I could not agree more. After all, if people are not aware that they can appeal against a demand for immediate repayment, they are more likely to pay up and shut up. Very convenient for those collecting the money! In the introduction to the main body of the report, section 1.4, I note that the sample for all the groups interviewed was provided by H. M. R. C. Is it being too cynical to express surprise that no H. M. R. C. error cases were include in the sample? Further on in the same section it states:- “Those who had had an overpayment removed through the appeal process were not included in the sample.” Again, it is likely, is it not, that those successful appeals were successful on the basis that H. M. R. C. had made an error? In volume/chapter 3 of the report, in the section detailing the duties of both H. M. R. C. and claimants in regards to Tax Credits claims, the onus appears to be on the claimant to act when the Tax Credits Office has failed to, on receipt of a change of circumstances notification. This appears to be pushing the burden of responsibility on to the claimant unreasonably. It should be necessary to tell the Tax Credits Office once only of a change of circumstances, and if they fail to act upon such timely notification, then that is squarely their responsibility and not the claimants. The excuse of “you did not tell us enough times” just will not wash! I cannot think of any other circumstance in normal life where this bizarre rule would apply. Imagine reporting a crime to the police; how many murders need to reported more than once? Customers should also phone the helpline; my client attempted to do just this, as this was the preferred method of contact, according to the Tax Credits Office themselves. He failed to do this; despite telephoning over a 9-month period, he failed to get through a single time. Just how much time are people supposed to waste getting through to a government department, to point out that department’s error, when they have a business to run? With reference to the additional expectations detailed in volume 3, is it unreasonable to expect a department to use information within that very department to check and verify claims? For example, statements of employed income should be very easy to check via the returns made under the P. A. Y. E. system. Where such a means of internal audit is available, is it not irresponsible for a department not to use them? Another additional expectation is that H. M. R. C.’s calculations should be accurate. What is so unreasonable about that? If we cannot expect the Inland Revenue to get its own figures right, what hope is there for the rest of us? Yet another additional expectation is that H. M. R. C. should detect errors and inform claimants accordingly. Whilst H. M. R. C. are not under any obligation to detect errors, it would be reasonable to hope that any errors which they stumbled across during their checking would be advised to claimants. At section 3.4.1 of the report, it states:- “They (customers) therefore did not see the importance of checking and challenging the figures presented to them by H. M. R. C.” (My bold.). What is being referred to here is Tax Credits Office’s own figures. Surely, if there was a case of the boot being on the other foot, this is it. It would appear to be the claimant’s duty to check T. C. O.’s own figures, not the department paying out public money’s responsibility to ensure that such money is being spent wisely Many of the participants in the interviews whose comments are quoted in the report expressed the view that up until being notified of an overpayment they had trusted the government to be providing them with accurate figures. Again, is this not what we should be expecting from our government departments, or is it every man for himself? As an aside, it will be interesting to see if this attitude prevails once the universal credit is up and running, as this will involve even more departments of government than before. I can vouch from my own experience generally with clients that they do perceive the taxman to be usually right (whether they are or not), and that decisions made by H. M. R. C. are perceived to be authoritative. Regarding participants’ comments on the subject of accuracy of processes, this was exactly the situation that arose in relation to my clients. “Many participants felt that they had notified H. M. R. C. of changes in circumstance, but that these changes had not been recorded and processed”. I cannot for the life of me see how this can possibly be held to be the claimant’s error. The decision reached by the Adjudicator’s Office in my clients’ favour would appear to bear this out. If there is anybody out there who is in a similar position, please do not be put off by a situation of this kind. Check out the appeals procedure and do not be fobbed off with the standard answers. Query everything and do not take “no” for an answer. Persistence pays! I realize that there may be people who are not in a position to either need or afford an accountant, but it is precisely these people who have probably been dealt a rough hand by H. M. R. C. Under section 3.4.3, “As most customers think H. M. R. C. systems are integrated with others in government, they felt that H. M. R. C. was better equipped than they were personally to detect errors in tax credits claims.” Whilst I agree that perception is understandable, if incorrect, as pointed out above, where the information to check for errors is available within the same department it should be possible to make these sort of cross-checks to avoid potential over-payments. Participants “were more likely to believe that the overpayment was a “mistake”, especially if they had pursued queries with H. M. R. C., for example by using the telephone helpline.” This statement is followed by a comment that a participant had queried the amount of an award, only to be told that everything was fine as long as his application was correct. The lesson here is that even when you are told that your award is correct, by somebody who apparently should know, you cannot afford to believe them. The helpline is not a truth-telling oracle, but merely an advisory service, and if they are wrong then it is your fault! Again, the lack of logic is mind-boggling. To take another analogy, if your doctor (who people trust almost as much as the taxman) mis-diagnoses your condition, then that is your fault, as he is only a medical advisor and you obviously have given him incorrect information. In figure 3b, under section 3.5, it states that customers struggle because they think that H. M. R. C. recorded a change of circumstance too late. What about the case where H. M. R. C. do record changes too late (9 months too late in my clients’ case)? It appears that in the official mind this is still the customer’s fault. The old saying “The customer is always right” seems to have been subverted by H. M. R. C. to mean the opposite. In section 3.5.2, “Reporting within the 30 day deadline”, some customers felt very strongly that the timing of this requirement was unreasonable. It is even more unreasonable when H. M. R. C. can take 9 months to make a change that was notified to them in good time, and then claim that it is still your fault because “you did not tell us enough times”! There is a quote under section 3.6.2, “Using H. M. R. C. printed guidance” from a claimant, who also happened to be an accountant, who stated that even he only understood 75% of what he was reading. I sympathise, but what of the vast majority of claimants who are not accountants? How are they supposed to decipher the written material? In connection with the telephone call from Debt Management, Chapter 10.3, my clients felt that the manner of the call was bullying and intimidating, and was designed to be so. No offer to pay by instalments was made, and my clients only offered themselves to pay a certain sum regularly, to, as they put it, “get them off our backs”. It did not affect their general contention that the overpayment was not genuine, and again, this was borne out by the Adjudicator’s Office’s decision in their favour. They were certainly not offered the opportunity to appeal. This appears to show that there was/is a wide range of approach by Debt Management, and that your chances of getting a sympathetic ear are very much the luck of the draw. In Volume 4, section 12.5, “Those who were good financial managers were often well-informed about how tax credits and overpayments functioned. This resulted in them feeling justified in resisting paying back the overpayment.” My clients definitely came into this category. (Note from blogger:- For some reason WordPress has started putting my text in bold despite the B symbol not being switched on. Needless to say it has now stopped! ) “Customers in this group perceived themselves to have had bad experiences of H. M. R. C. debt recovery interventions,which they felt to be unsympathetic,and even bullying. One participant reported that he felt “hounded” by the Debt Management telephone calls and the number of letters he had received in a very short space of time.The customer did not feel at fault because he strongly believed the error to be H. M. R. C’s, and he also had a good knowledge of how tax credits worked. He understood the specific origin of the error which had led to the overpayment, and held       H. M. R. C. responsible.” This was not my client, but his feelings are almost identical to those expressed to me by my client. Volume 5 Conclusion and Recommendations:- “Where changes of circumstances were concerned, customers would like more evidence that their change had been registered correctly.” This alone would have possibly prevented my clients’ complaint from arising at all. Volume 5, section 14.3, Recommendations on the tax credits communications:-” Customers had a very high awareness of reporting changes of circumstances, in some cases over-reporting changes.” This is seen by H. M. R. C. as under-reporting changes from their point of view; changes were obviously not over-reported enough times. Finally, I would suggest that everybody who is interested in looking further into this subject to go to the report, using the information I have already given. If you are in a situation to which the report may be relevant, or if you are acting for somebody in a similar situation, I hope that you can find the relevant parts of the report to the situation that you are dealing with. I wrote this in the hope that other  people in an alleged “over-payment” situation can gain comfort from the fact that there is a way out of the situation. However, I would counsel a warning for the unwary. It has taken me over 5 years to find a satisfactory solution to my clients’ situation. Please be aware that fighting a decision by H. M. R. C. is not going to be an easy job by any means. It will also take much longer than you think. In my clients’ case, we involved the local M. P. who did his best to lend support etc., and the case eventually went to the Adjudicator’s Office, who basically found in our favour. Actually realising that decision to my clients’ benefit took a further 2 plus years. Again, please be advised that when you have received a decision from the Adjudicator’s Office in your favour, if    H. M. R. C. do not act in accordance with that decision, there is not much that you can do except make a nuisance of yourself until they finally implement the decision, just to get rid of you. I asked the local M. P. to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, which he did, asking if the Adjudicator’s Office could be given more powers to actually enforce decisions that they make, and the gist of the reply from G. O. was that “it is not envisaged that there will be any changes to the Adjudicator’s Office’s powers in the foreseeable future.” You have been warned. Good luck, and remember, never give up – -if you do they’ve got you. Thank-you for your time and attention.

To view the complete file in relation to which my critique was written, please go to (File 1) and (File 2)