Crisis in the tax office: The cost of Covid 19 to HM Revenue and Customs

Chancellor to make a statement this week

Tax revenue down £70 billion while tens of billions spent saving jobs and the economy

Just before the first phase of Covid 19 peaked HM Revenue and Customs had a very good year. Tax revenues had peaked at £636.7 billion from more national insurance contributions, a record target of 95.3 per cent of tax due had been paid and £36.9 billion had been recovered from tax fraud and evasion. Then Covid hit.

Now as the Chancellor prepares his latest spending statement the latest annual report and accounts of HMRC and a National Audit Office report qualifying the accounts a very different picture is emerging. To give you an idea the Revenue lost £70 billion in tax revenue in five months.

The Covid-19 pandemic turned HMRC upside down and at least three planned targets will be missed this year. Just like the Department for Work and Pensions thousands of staff were moved to help handle the pandemic. But the pandemic also means a big loss of revenue , the cancellation of plans to combat firms who avoid tax by using the black market and an expected increase in money lost through fraud and error on working tax credit.|

On working tax credit it says: “As we no longer accept new claims to tax credits (with limited minor exceptions), our work to restrict error and
fraud now focuses on existing awards.. ..The continuing need to divert compliance staff to support other departmental pressures means we expect not to meet the 5% maximum target for 2019 to 2020.”

On collecting tax it says:” Due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the end of year HMRC debt balance for March 2020 is £2.5 billion higher
than forecast, coming in at £22.4 billion, significantly over the forecast of £19.9 billion… It is anticipated that the economic impact of COVID-19 will continue into financial year 2020 to 2021 as customers find it increasingly difficult to fulfil their tax obligations.”

black market tax avoidance

And on tackling black market tax avoidance – called conditionality in tax office jargon – it says:” Budget 2018 said that the government would consider legislating to introduce conditionality at Finance Bill 2019-20.
However Budget 2020, which was delayed from autumn 2019, announced that the legislation would be included in Finance Bill 2020-21. Internal milestones were adjusted to work towards that revised timetable.”

You have to turn to the report by the NAO to find out the real impact of Covid-19 on the tax offices. For a start offices were deserted. 80 per cent of the 50,000 staff worked from home and as a result the public faced long delays in getting through to HMRC because only 7000 had secure phones to handle queries.

People kept waiting on the phone

From March 2020 there was an increase in the time HMRC took to answer telephone calls, peaking at 14:59 minutes in May and improving to 9:15 minutes in June 2020.

Like DWP large numbers were switched to working on Covid-19 work.

“At the peak, in May 2020, of 58,592 full-time equivalent staff, 9,097 (16%) were reallocated to COVID-19-related roles. Of the two largest groups of staff, 25.2% of staff in the customer services group were allocated to COVID-19-related work in April 2020 and 17.3% of staff from customer compliance group were allocated to COVID-19 in May 2020.”

Numbers have since fallen but will probably have gone up again with the second wave. The key schemes were the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Self Employed scheme and “Eat to Help Out”. The Job Retention Scheme is thought to have been targeted by organised crime and billions of pounds may have been defrauded. See my article in Byline Times.

As a result “yield from its tax compliance activities is likely to
reduce in 2020-21. For comparison purposes, HMRC achieved a compliance yield of some £7.5 billion in the period April to June 2020, 51% less than the yield of £15.4 billion achieved in the same period in 2019-20.”

tax losses

The detail over tax losses is daunting. Some £70 billion between April and August this year -£38 billion alone from VAT. Some £13.5 billion from tax and national insurance; Another £10 billion from Corporation tax and over £4 billion from fuel duties as people stopped travelling.

Receipts recovered at the end of the first lockdown in July and August, particularly VAT by £10 billion.

HMRC: Pic credit: David Palmer

However a tables in both report also reveal how much HMRC is paying out and how much they don’t how much it will cost. The furlough scheme was £39bn up to September; Eat Out to Help Out cost them £522m for August, Payments to the self employed cost £13bn but they don’t yet know the real cost of a host of projects. Some £1.5m was set aside for putting up basic working tax credit by £1045 for the tax year but figures for the claims are not available. Another £200m was put aside for repaying employers contributions to statutory sick pay but we don’t know how much was spent.

At least eight other measures spending figures are not available – these include the concessions on stamp duty for homer buyers, deferring tax payments for the self employed, VAT reductions on food and accommodation, exempting personal protective clothing from VAT, and cutting import duties on essential medical equipment.

We do know that as of June £28 billion of VAT was deferred.

Finally the Department’s bad record of recovering payments on working tax credits led its annual accounts to be qualified by the auditor general.

Some £1.11 billion was overpaid or almost 5 per cent of all payments and it will get worse this year. But because staff disruption over Covid 19 we won’t know this year’s figure until next June. Covid-19 could currently slow the transfer of people from working tax credit beyond the current delayed deadline of 2024.

Only 10 people switched to universal credit

Just TEN people instead of an expected 2000 transferred to Universal Credit last year under a new pilot project. The project has now been halted. Covid 19 did encourage a number of people to voluntarily transfer after the rates were temporarily raised.

Meanwhile the huge expense of preparing for Brexit – temporarily stalled by Covid 19 for part of the year – is now estimated to have cost £516m in the last tax year and there are now 6,100 staff working on it. Altogether since the referendum it has cost not far short of £800m because they have to prepare for so many scenarios.

3 thoughts on “Crisis in the tax office: The cost of Covid 19 to HM Revenue and Customs

  1. Billions spent on covid and yet nothing to pay our pensions that we have been robbed of and are still being robbed of. and also the high Court which I found while googling the other day as ruled that people who were moved to serps and on final pension salaries maybe entitled to compensation because of equality in the early 80s and 90s yes most claiments will be women me being one of them when we are allowed to claim.you need to have a look at this David it is in the financial times and daily express Web sites.( interesting reading) and hopefully it could help us 50s women win our pensions back. we have been discriminated against without a measure of doubt. and still no help through this pandemic and over 60s are supposed to be in the vulnerable groups yet have to work till 66 yrs old. Will they ever be an end to the misery this government and previous ones have and are still putting us through ?????

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