We have a case of déjà vu: as part of the latest Agent Strategy HMRC are visiting firms to see what it is really like in practice. Hold on, hasn't that been tried already? Read on and see if you can spot the difference.

In 2008 HMRC director’s general of business tax – Melanie Dawes visited West Country firm A C Mole and Sons to “see what it is like for us - and experience the practical effects of HMRC's Change Programme as we do…” Paul Aplin, a partner in the firm and chairman of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) Tax Faculty enthused on his blog “I think that it completely changed the way she viewed our issues.”

Roll on three years, we now learn that HMRC’s director general of personal tax – Stephen Banyard, has just returned from a visit to... West Country firm A C Mole and Sons, speaking to staff and receiving feedback. Paul Aplin, a partner in the firm but now ex-chairman of the ICAEW Tax Faculty reports, “I think he went away with a better understanding of the problems we encounter.”

So, assuming that Mr Banyard has not taken a leaf out of his boss’ book (Dave Hartnett, “the most wined and dined mandarin of Whitehall”) and was not really taking the opportunity for a day out of London sampling local cuisine, we must conclude that the visit was really useful. Sad to say that judging by the effect that Ms Dawes previous visit seems to have had it is unlikely to create any noticeable changes for tax agents. We all agree that service levels and standards have spiralled into a lamentable decline in the past three years.

Probably the most embarrassing thing for both HMRC and the ICAEW is that three years ago after the Dawes' visit, Paul had also managed to tete a tete with HMRC's Chairman Mike Clasper. ”When I met Mike Clasper, last week I told him what it was like at the coalface - the wasted time dealing with piles of incorrect PAYE coding notices and the frustration and embarrassment caused by incorrect penalty notices…We spoke one to one - no officials present - for almost an hour and a half and I felt that I received a fair hearing…”

Not that any of what happened three years ago appears to have had any effect on service standards or agent relationships.

The acid test is probably whether members of the Parliament's Treasury Select Committee (TSC) who are investigating the rolling saga of the combination of HMRC’s Permanent Secretary’s blunders with large business, together with HMRC's value for money and falling service standards will take heed and give Mr Clasper a prod. Why on earth do a one to one with the ICAEW's top tax man and do nothing?

It is of course too late to ask Melanie Dawes, she has now jumped ship to the Cabinet Office following a previous grilling by the TSC in September. Mike Norgrave has just been appointed to take her place, obviously, he cannot be held accountable.

 

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