Loughlin Hickey, delivering the Tax Faculty's 2005 Hardman lecture, spoke about the trust gap that exists between Revenue & Customs and the profession. Few would dispute that the gap has widened over the last few years. It was perhaps at its narrowest around the time that self-assessment was introduced, a time when we still worked with Revenue staff we knew personally, where there was common respect and a desire to reach pragmatic solutions. But cost pressures have changed all that. Experienced personnel have been encouraged to retire and we now have to deal with call centre staff who frequently lack technical knowledge; the personal touch has largely disappeared. The trust gap is the inevitable consequence.
Last September, the heads of 35 tax authorities met in Seoul under the auspices of the Forum for Tax Administration (an arm of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and agreed a number of initiatives.
One is a project (allotted to the Revenue) looking at the role of tax intermediaries in relation to non-compliance and the promotion of unacceptable tax minimisation arrangements. A few months earlier, Lord Carter had suggested accreditation of e-filing agents, which was seen by some commentators as a potential back door route to regulation. So is the Revenue's solution to the trust gap going to be regulation of the tax profession?
It would be foolish to discount the possibility but my sense is that, while it still appeals to some within the Revenue, it is not currently the preferred route. Revenue chairman Paul Gray has hosted some very free and open discussions with the professional bodies. I believe that he is genuine in wanting to improve matters as, I believe, is Revenue director general Dave Hartnett, who came along to a number of Tax Faculty roadshows last year to listen to concerns. In response, he set up an Agents and Advisers Steering Group to bring together representatives from the professional bodies and senior Revenue staff to find practical ways to improve the relationship. I think that it is beginning to make a difference. The 'interventions' project, for example, rightly attracted criticism for the way it was introduced, but the Revenue listened to us and pulled the second stage. At present it is conducting workshops with us to design an alternative approach - and if there is an acceptable way of settling straightforward issues without a formal enquiry, that is to everyone's benefit. By talking we have also achieved some significant wins on the e-filing agenda.
While these are encouraging signs, they are mostly taking place at a high level. To narrow the trust gap, we need something that everyone can see happening, which is why I welcome the Revenue's recent commitment to allocate resource to reinvigorating the local Working Together groups.
It would be naive to think that we can recreate the world of a decade ago, as cost pressures on the Revenue will, if anything, increase. But by talking - at all levels - we can at least try to steer things in a sensible direction. The Tax Faculty will continue to pursue the issues both behind the scenes and publicly, but why not make your own voice heard, either by getting involved with the faculty or your local WT group? Nothing will happen overnight and there will be backward as well as forward steps, but one thing is certain: only by engaging can we expect to influence thinking at the Revenue and at the moment, I believe they are listening.
Paul Aplin is a tax partner at A C Mole & Sons and becomes chairman of the ICAEW's Tax Faculty this month.