Tiger’s Roar furore as HMRC ignores questions over loan charge scandal – Greg Wright

THE new Prime Minister will face the in-tray from hell, with Brexit dominating vast swathes of their time and resources.

HMRC is coming under growing pressure to halt its controversial loan charge policy.

But amid the sound and fury surrounding our exit from the EU, it’s important the new Prime Minister does not lose sight of burning issues closer to home.

The new incumbent can win friends across the political divide by ordering an immediate suspension and review of the loan charge, a controversial policy which has attracted cross-party opposition.

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HMRC chief executive Sir Jonathan Thompson is refusing to answer questions about the loan charge.

The loan charge was introduced in response to the Treasury’s concerns about “disguised remuneration schemes” which involved individuals being paid through loans, usually via an offshore trust in a low or no tax jurisdiction, which they did not have to repay.

According to the Treasury, the loan charge means people paying themselves through loans will have to contribute their “fair share” to pay for vital public services.

Pressure is growing on the new Prime Minister to review the loan charge policy.

Workers such as locum doctors and nurses have been hit with unexpected tax bills of up to tens of thousands of pounds dating back to 1999.

The All-Party Parliamentary Loan Charge Group (APPG) argues that the charge is retrospective and overrides taxpayer protections – claims rejected by the Treasury.

Members of the APPG have written to Sir Jonathan Thompson, the chief executive of HMRC, to express concerns about “the use of aggressive imagery and slogans with regard to the pursuit of people, including vulnerable people” by his department.

The MPs have been angered by Sir Jonathan’s failure to reply to a previous letter, sent on April 2, which expressed concern about HMRC’s behaviour in connection with the charge.

One of the concerns raised by the APPG relates to HMRC’s use of behavioural insights and so-called “nudge techniques”. The letter to Sir Jonathan states: “These have been used to push people into settling tax demands rather than exercise their rights to dispute them.”

The letter – signed by Lib 
Dem MP Sir Ed Davey, the chairman of the APPG – expresses concerns about the phrase ‘Make it Real’, the image of a threatening tiger roaring and the phrase Tiger’s Roar which have been used in internal HMRC material.

The issue was the subject of a recent Freedom of Information request which failed to provide “adequate answers as to why HMRC is using these phrases and this image”, according to the APPG letter.

The APPG is demanding that Sir Jonathan answers the following questions: Why was the tiger chosen and what is the message given by its use and to whom? What is meant by this phraseology? What do HMRC mean by ‘Make it Real’, how and for whom?

The letter added: “We also note that HMRC refused to provide internal emails about the DR (disguised remuneration) project, claiming it would take too long to compile, even though a search of ‘DR’ project on the HMRC email server could have retrieved this information very easily.”

An HMRC spokesman told The Yorkshire Post that the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team was set up in 2010 “to improve the effectiveness of communications”.

They went on: “For example, we send letters and texts to self assessment customers in December and January ahead of the January 31 deadline because it is approaching and they need to do their SA return. It wouldn’t be effective to do this in June or July, a full seven months before the deadline.

“Behavioural insights also help inform marketing campaigns because of audience insight, for example currently we are running our tax credits renewals campaign and we know that the audience primarily uses Facebook and Instagram so we’re doing more work on those channels.

“We also know what time of the day that they use social media (i.e. their behaviour) from the insight we have on the audience, so we post at those times of the day so that they see it rather than a time of the day when they wouldn’t. All we’re trying to do is provide clear, tailored communication so that taxpayers are aware of their obligations and the choices they face. It is never the intention to cause distress.”

But how many people are actually employed in the behavioural insights team? Who decided to use the tiger logo, which has so alarmed MPs? The HMRC spokesman did not provide an answer, adding: “I don’t understand why there is a need for an article because there is no story.”

The APPG would certainly challenge this statement. To quote the group’s closing words in its letter to HMRC: “In the light of the anxiety and stress faced by many thousands affected by the loan charge, do you think it is appropriate to have used a slogan ‘Make it Real’ and an image of a snarling tiger and the phrase ‘Tiger’s Roar’?”

All the questions asked by the MPs are perfectly reasonable and logical. They are right to push for full disclosure because taxation policy and procedures affect everyone. At the very least, the new Prime Minister can bolster support for their Government by ordering Sir Jonathan to deliver a frank and timely response to the MPs’ letters of concern.

Greg Wright is deputy business editor 
of The Yorkshire Post.