15 March 2022
The mid-1970s marked the end of a decade of profound change in the UK tax system. Capital gains tax had replaced various forms of income tax on gains. Surtax had been replaced by higher rates of income tax. Estate duty had given way to capital transfer tax. VAT, as an EU tax, was new on the scene and was administered by HM Customs and Excise. Benefits in kind were being taxed more systematically than ever before. Companies were paying the relatively new corporation tax instead of income tax. And district inspectors in tax offices up and down the country, for decades appointed as the local representatives of the Board of Inland Revenue with “independent command”, were seeing their powers eroded as tax districts were organised into groups and regions.
Those local tax offices bore little resemblance to HMRC’s 21st century regional centres. Within the district, every individual taxpayer, PAYE scheme and company was allocated to a particular tax officer or inspector. While highly labour-intensive, this helped the department deliver a level of personal service which has disappeared. These busy offices were full of paper. Computers would not appear on the scene for several years so, without expert filing clerks, the whole system would have fallen apart.
Career, as somebody once observed, is a verb as well as a noun: in 1982, having discovered that I enjoyed taxes but not so much the Civil Service, I joined the accounting profession.
If the world of taxes was changing in 1976, developments since then have been revolutionary. Matching the sophistication of the UK economy, UK tax law has grown massively and has become so complex that many individuals and most companies cannot comply with its requirements without professional advisors. Simplification of the existing tax law is as important as introducing new tax law to deal with new situations.
HMRC now has more powers than ever. Many of these target tax evasion and avoidance, whether individual or corporate, national or global. Globalisation has raised its own problems for tax authorities around the world, culminating in new OECD initiatives.
HMRC strives to be a modern, digitally advanced organisation so it’s disappointing that, over the years, a range of scandals along with increasing remoteness, poor telephone service and errors have undermined both public trust and the morale of HMRC’s own employees. HMRC is one of the most digitally advanced tax authorities in the world, so the challenge now is to use digital services and smart data to rebuild the morale of its own people, to restore public trust and to be seen as fair and just in all its dealings. The way HMRC chooses to use its IT infrastructure will be crucial.