The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a charter as ‘a formal statement of the rights of a country's people, or of an organization or a particular social group, that is agreed by or demanded from a ruler or government: a charter of rights’.
A charter governing what standards of behaviour and values taxpayers have a right to expect from HMRC (or the predecessor, Inland Revenue) has been part of the UK tax landscape since the early 1990s, when John Major’s government first established charters as ‘a central theme of government policy’ with the Citizen’s Charter. At that time, the Inland Revenue’s ‘Your Charter’ was the first such document promulgated by a tax authority. Thirty years later, the HMRC Charter is given more public prominence than its predecessors and has its parallel in the devolved tax administrations of Scotland and Wales.
The Finance Act 2009 introduced a requirement for the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs to prepare a Charter which must include ‘standards of behaviour and values to which [HMRC] will aspire when dealing with people in the exercise of their functions’. That legal obligation is now enshrined in section 16A of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act (CRCA) 2005.
The Commissioners are also required to review and publish revisions or revised versions of the Charter when they think appropriate, and to report at least once a year on how HMRC has demonstrated the standards of behaviour and values included in the Charter.
The terms of the Charter
The Charter was revised in 2015 and again in 2020. The current version contains three main headings:
- ‘Working with you to get tax right’.
- ‘Our standards’.
- ‘Mutual respect’.
Under ‘Our standards’, there are seven sub-headings:
- ‘Getting things right’.
- ‘Making things easy’.
- ‘Being responsive’.
- ‘Treating you fairly’.
- ‘Being aware of your personal situation’.
- ‘Recognising that someone can represent you’.
- ‘Keeping your data secure’.
The two previous versions of the Charter, in 2009 and 2015, set out not only standards of behaviour for HMRC to follow, but also what HMRC expected of taxpayers; for example (in the 2015 version), to be honest, to respect HMRC staff, to work with HMRC to get things right, keep accurate records, take care to avoid mistakes, and so forth. The current version focuses more on what HMRC will do for taxpayers (or ‘customers’), but does make it clear that taxpayers are expected to give ‘full, accurate and timely answers’ when asked for information, and to treat HMRC staff with respect.
Can taxpayers ‘enforce’ the Charter against HMRC?
In a word, no. Although the requirement to maintain a Charter is created by statute, the standards set out in it are not legally binding on HMRC. They are, after all, as the CRCA 2005 states, standards to which HMRC will aspire in its dealings with taxpayers. Nor, if a taxpayer fails to give a ‘full, accurate and timely answer’ to a request by HMRC for information, can HMRC use the Charter to force the taxpayer to give a proper answer (although it can do so using other legal tools at its disposal such as enquiries, audits, discovery assessments, etc).
Similarly, a taxpayer aggrieved by an alleged breach of the Charter standards by HMRC cannot take HMRC to the tribunal for redress. However, they can lodge a formal complaint which could ultimately come before the Adjudicator. The current version of the Charter helpfully contains a section entitled: ‘If you are not happy with a decision or the service you have received’. This explains the difference between a complaint about poor service and an appeal against a tax decision, with links to descriptions of the procedure to follow in each case. When complaining about an alleged breach of the Charter, one is advised to ‘make sure you mention the Charter in your complaint and explain which aspects of the Charter you feel HMRC has not met’.
‘Being aware of your personal situation’
An innovation in the 2020 version of the Charter is HMRC’s undertaking that:
‘We’ll listen to your worries and answer any questions clearly and concisely. We’ll be mindful of your wider personal situation, and will give you if you need it.’
The reference to extra support is to the service that was set up after the enquiry centres were closed down, so that people with particular needs – who have hearing or vision impairment or certain other disabilities, are in financial hardship, are experiencing mental ill health, domestic abuse or hospitalisation, or need information in another language – can receive the appropriate help and support from HMRC. Extra support teams are located around the UK and can provide home visits as well as specialist telephone advice.
Monitoring HMRC’s performance under the Charter
The online text of the Charter also links to datasets which measure HMRC’s performance under the various Charter standards. The centrepiece is an annual survey of how well individuals, small businesses and agents think HMRC has performed under each heading, the latest published survey being from 2019. For example, in that year 63% of individuals thought that HMRC ‘got transactions right’, against 77% of small businesses and 57% of agents. That pattern – in which small businesses appear to have the most confidence in HMRC’s observance of the Charter standards, and agents the least – has been a regular feature of these annual surveys.
Other performance data include:
- HMRC’s success rate on appeals to the First-tier Tribunal
- customer service measures, such as satisfaction with HMRC’s digital service, average phone answering times, speed of dealing with i-forms, and post turn-around times
- information about time-to-pay arrangements and on centrally-managed security incidents affecting personal data.
On complaints, as a sample, HMRC received 5,445 tier 1 complaints in November 2020, of which 28.6% were fully upheld and 16.5% partially upheld.
The Customer Experience Committee helps the Commissioners to compile their annual report on HMRC performance under the Charter, periodically review its content and generally help HMRC deliver on their strategic objectives. The Committee consists of a mix of non-executive HMRC Board members and independent advisers currently drawn from industry and banking. Members of the tax professional bodies sit on the Charter Stakeholder Group, which, along with the Adjudicator, contributes to the Charter annual report and meets regularly with HMRC.
Anyone can give HMRC feedback on its observance of the Charter standards by emailing HMRCCharter@hmrc.gov.uk
In general, the new-look Charter is an improvement on the 2015 version. It focuses more keenly on the standards that HMRC is expected to uphold, while limiting ‘customer obligations’ to the essential two – in summary, telling the truth and treating HMRC staff with respect – as against the cumbersome nine in the previous Charter. It places much more emphasis on feedback, and the new standard, ‘Being aware of your personal situation’, which links to the Extra Support Service is a welcome addition. A well-placed source tells me that there seems to be more of a drive to embed the new Charter across HMRC than there was previously, and feedback is generally well received. Taxpayers and professional advisers can play their part by giving such feedback and making use of the specific terms of the Charter should they find it necessary to lodge any complaints.