Stop 'heartless and cruel' weekend calls over the loan charge, MPs tell HMRC

Sir Ed Davey has been a long-standing critic of the loan chargeSir Ed Davey has been a long-standing critic of the loan charge
Sir Ed Davey has been a long-standing critic of the loan charge
One of the largest all party parliamentary groups has accused HMRC of "heartless and cruel" behaviour after receiving "numerous reports" of HMRC staff contacting people facing the loan charge over three consecutive weekends.

The All Party Parliamentary Loan Charge Group (APPG) has written to Jim Harra, the chief executive and permanent secretary of HM Revenue and Customs, calling on HMRC staff not to "harass" people facing the loan charge at the weekend when the taxpayer cannot contact their adviser.

In response, HMRC has said this activity is part of its ongoing efforts to ensure customers have received letters setting out their settlement opportunity. HMRC said it does not ask customers to agree to settle on the calls.

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The APPG's letter, which is signed by the group's co-chairs, Sir Ed Davey, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ruth Cadbury MP and Sir Mike Penning MP, says: "The Loan Charge APPG has received numerous reports on Twitter and via email, including recordings, of HMRC staff phoning them during the weekends of 30th/31st May, 6 th /7th June and 13th/14th June.

"We have also been informed that these calls are coming from withheld phone numbers. This is absolutely unacceptable and must immediately stop.

The letter continues: "The public health crisis and the associated economic impact has placed many people in serious financial peril which the Government’s support schemes, welcome as they are, has not eliminated. For SME company owners/managers, contractors and self-employed people, the support has not been universal and will, in coming months, cease.

"This leaves them facing uncertain future earnings prospects even if they have been lucky enough to escape any personal or family direct impact from the coronavirus.

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"For HMRC to be intruding on people’s weekends with phone calls about the loan charge, some of whom have informed the APPG that they are not supposed to be contacted at all, is heartless and cruel.

"We are dismayed that there appears to be a campaign to interrupt people’s brief period of relaxation to pressure them to respond to HMRC’s settlement offers with the veiled threat of the loan charge.

"We realise that HMRC may now be running behind in dealing with settlements, having diverted staff to work on the essential financial assistance schemes established to deal with the crisis, and you will be aware that HMRC have only a few months left to deal with, potentially, thousands of complex settlement cases.

"We would expect you to adopt a sensible solution to this conundrum, which is not to harass people to reply to HMRC quickly but to request that the government give you more time by removing this artificial deadline of the loan charge."

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The letter continues: "Regardless of this, it is absolutely vital that HMRC respect the right of taxpayers to appoint an adviser to deal with their tax affairs and not to harass them on a weekend when the taxpayer cannot contact their adviser.

"We have previously raised the fact that HMRC appear to time correspondence to land on doormats on a Friday evening to maximise the stress and worry – a policy that HMRC have denied exists."

In a letter of reply, Mary Aiston, the director for Counter Avoidance at HMRC, said: "We are writing to taxpayers who still have the opportunity to settle their use of disguised remuneration and, as a result, not have to pay the loan charge.

"We think it is important to provide them with the necessary details to enable them to make an informed choice about whether to settle, ahead of filing their 2018-19 self assessment returns which are due by 30 September 2020.

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Ms Aiston added: "If we did not write to these taxpayers now, there is a risk they would miss that opportunity to settle and would have to pay the loan charge. Our letters do not seek payment and they encourage customers to tell us if they have any health or personal circumstances that may make it difficult for them to deal with us, so that we can help.

"Many customers who have contacted us about the letters have found them helpful and want to settle their use of disguised remuneration, including agreeing payment terms that work for them.

"Our experience is that many customers find resolving matters in this way puts their mind at rest, particularly in these circumstances where it means they will not have to pay the loan charge.

"Where customers do not respond to our letters we are following up with phone calls to check they have received our letter and to offer help and support.

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"We make calls and take calls from customers seven days a week to maximise the possibility of engaging with customers to help them. This is part of HMRC’s standard operating practice. Many customers are not able to answer their personal phone during normal working hours.

"Colleagues who are making these calls have clear guidance that stresses the purpose of the call is to offer help and support.

"On these calls, we do not ask customers to commit to settle. That means customers will still have their usual access to their tax advisors prior to agreeing a settlement regardless of the time we do these follow up calls.

"As part of our commitment to assisting customers we think it is important to follow up settlement letters to check that customers have received them and have the support they need to understand their options.

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Ms Aiston continues: "I hope you will feel able to encourage your constituents affected by the Loan Charge to engage with us and take up the opportunity to explore how they could settle their liabilities.

"They can call us on 03000 599110 or email: [email protected].

Ms Aiston letter added: "The loan charge helpline opening hours are Monday to Friday 8.30 am to 4.30 pm, excluding bank holidays."

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