Hundreds of HMRC customers wrongly sent APNs ‘are collateral damage’

The taxman will shrug off the humiliation of voiding more Accelerated Payment Notices than he sends, even if such a withdrawal-issuing ratio is in deficit for the second tax year in a row.

Delivering this verdict, WTT Consulting said that despite “confusion” and “anxiety” for recipients of wrongly issued APNs, the notices remain an effective use of HMRC’s time.

The tax dispute advisory was speaking after official data showed that HMRC issued 220 APNs in 2019, but withdrew 370 for being issued in error. Yet the notices still look worth it.

'Drop in the ocean'

“A sense of proportion is required here, as HMRC has issued over 80,000 APNs which probably equates to over £1bn of money available to HMG,” says WTT’s Graham Webber.

“Even if 10% of those APNs are withdrawn, the value left available to HMG is significant. Against that background, 370 withdrawn APNs in the past 12 months is a drop in the ocean.”

Obtained by law firm RPC under freedom of information rules, the data show that 2019/20 is not the first time that the pile of APNs recalled, outweigh the pile which HMRC dispatched.  

'Trigger happy'

“The high proportion of APNs that have been withdrawn suggests HMRC has been a little trigger happy when issuing APNs,” said the firm’s head of tax disputes Adam Craggs.

Alluding to 2018/19 when 1,320 APNs were issued but 2,540 recalled, he added: “[If you’ve been] wrongfully issued with an APN…consider pursuing repayment from HMRC.”

Many APNs have been thrown out and declared void because legal challenges by taxpayers proved that the necessary statutory pre-conditions for HMRC issuing them were not satisfied.

'Very frightening'

Under the APN regime, HMRC can demand payment in full for a tax sum which officials claim is owed and, despite no right of appeal for taxpayers, it must be paid within 90 days.

Even one of the Revenue’s former inspectors is sympathetic. “Being on the receiving end of an APN with the short timescale to pay up must be a very frightening experience,” she says.

“As a result, you would expect HMRC to take great care before issuing these notices. [Looking at the figures however, this] does not seem to be the case -- sadly.”

'Collateral damage'

But at HMRC dispute advisory WTT Consulting, the suggestion from its tax director, Mr Webber, is that quite the opposite emotion is probably in play at the tax office.

“Except where the sums are large or there is suspected serious abuse or a particular sector is subject to a targeted campaign, such as contractors [have been], the ‘broad-brush’ approach to compliance [which APNs deliver] is sufficient to satisfy those who oversee them.”

Mr Webber also told ContractorUK: “The fact that it creates confusion and cost and considerable anxiety for individuals on the wrong end of false or inappropriate APNs, we guess is seen as ‘collateral damage’ by HMRC’s strategists.

“In short, unless you are worthy of individual attention from HMRC, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy [of APNs] works most of the time, for most people [from the Revenue’s perspective].”

'High yield'

Since APNs were introduced in 2014, approximately 10% of the total 81,540 APNs issued have been withdrawn by HMRC, for reasons extending to wrong amounts or wrong tax year.

However, in contrast to the number of APNs being withdrawn, the number issued has decreased sharply, down from a high of 36,000 in 2015/16 to just 220 in 2019/20. 

The ex-inspector suggested the Revenue may be reserving its use of the notices for customers “identified” by the department’s analytical tools as potential “high yield” individuals.

'Mistakes'

Regardless of their monetary value to HMRC, all taxpayers ought to be treated equally, and more fairly, according to the Loan Charge Action Group. In a statement, LCAG said:

“These figures clearly show the way that HMRC misuses Accelerated Payment Notices and continues to make mistakes while aggressively pursuing people, causing huge distress and anxiety to those involved.”

Steve Packham, LCAG’s founder, called APNs “an affront to natural justice,” arguing that they operate on the basis that “people are guilty” with no “basic right to appeal.” 

'Perverse'

“It’s time that MPs woke up to the way HMRC are out of control,” he said, “and it’s time they called for reform of HMRC and also abolished APNs, to give people the right to defend themselves and dispute tax bills, something that every citizen should have the right to do.”  

Mr Packham added: “No one would suggest that people in criminal trials should be presumed guilty.

"Yet it is deemed acceptable for people who haven’t broken the law but HMRC thinks haven’t paid the right amount of tax. This is perverse, dangerous and must be challenged and changed.”

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Written by Simon Moore

Simon writes impartial news and engaging features for the contractor industry, covering, IR35, the loan charge and general tax and legislation.
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