Covertax and vulnerable people

In addition to our vulnerable customers’ policy Covertax also has a Disability and Employment policy.

This policy has some useful definitions as well as a link to the Equality Act 2010. HMRC is not exempt from this Act of parliament, but from our work with vulnerable people, we know that any training given by HMRC on it can only be rudimentary, and certainly many inspectors and officers seem to be unaware of it – I cannot say that they deliberately ignore it as it does appear to be ignorance. Nevertheless, it seems that HMRC may on occasions cross the line in terms of the Equality Act 2010.

One instance where in our view HMRC consistently fails to undertake their responsibilities to adapt to the needs of vulnerable customers is in respect of Information Notices. It now appears to be normal practice to issue Information Notices at the first instance as opposed to following initial enquiries where a taxpayer has failed to co-operate. Penalties tend to be issued without trying to understand the facts. In one case the Information Notice pack was issued to a dyslexic person. The pack, as you may know, is dense and difficult for any taxpayer to cope with, let alone for a person who is dyslexic. Perhaps worse was that an Information Notice was given to a person who had encountered a life altering event in his brain. Following the issue of the pack, and penalties, HMRC established that the vulnerable person had issues, but did not even bother to check out the impact of those issues. Indeed, HMRC claimed that he should be “better”, something that five minutes on Google would have established is impossible. As it was, the practical impact for the purposes of an Information Notice was not dissimilar to the customer with dyslexia – the dense pack was just too much to cope with. HMRC did respond to an initial complaint made by the vulnerable customer and laid the blame at the customer’s feet on the basis that if he had read the pack sent to him, he would have known that he could have sought support. Yes, really.

Our response to that attitude is twofold. The first is that HMRC should carry out initial enquiries to determine the facts, including whether the customer is vulnerable. Secondly, HMRC should then ensure with ALL customers that what they ask for is proportionate and, in the words of the Notice, reasonable. The Equality Act 2010 does not mean that vulnerable customers should be treated differently. What it does say is that, in this case HMRC, should adapt to meet the needs of the vulnerable person. Our view in the case of Information Notices is that changes to procedure are necessary for ALL taxpayers and not just vulnerable customers – there is absolutely no need to amend any law to achieve this result.

We act for vulnerable customers, our policy is published, and all staff at Covertax have had enhanced DBS checks. On that point, we have not met a single inspector or officer who deals with vulnerable customers and who has been DBS checked.