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One minute with... Sarah Woodall

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What’s keeping you busy at work?

HMRC investigation cases. HMRC is very active in diverse areas of investigation at the moment and much of my work is in this specialist field, including alleged avoidance and fraud cases, sometimes in support of accountants (not only taxpayers).

If you could make one change to tax, what would it be?

I would create a new third-party entity and a new obligation or practice for HMRC to work collaboratively, where taxpayers wish to do so. In my experience, HMRC is often unreceptive to feedback or ideas from taxpayers and advisers, particularly when cases may not be going its way. I believe there is a greater appetite within the profession to work collaboratively to support HMRC (and the UK’s public purse) than HMRC knows.

I would create an obligation in enquiry cases for HMRC to invite feedback and engage with it, monitored by the third-party entity to ensure the feedback is not ignored and that where there is an appetite for collaboration and cooperation externally, HMRC’s people are obliged to engage.

That same entity could manage third-party disclosures of information to HMRC, which have not been managed well in many cases I have seen (and often not in accordance with HMRC’s own guidance).

A recent House of Lords report suggests that taxpayers are sometimes treated unfairly by HMRC. What’s your view?

As an organisation, HMRC is only ever after the right amount of tax. However, as with any very large organisation, it does occasionally make mistakes. I have seen recent examples of unfair treatment that have surprised and concerned me. For example, taxpayers who are unable to speak English were interviewed twice by HMRC, after which notes of dialogue were entered onto HMRC’s systems and fraud alleged, when clearly the interview had been a monologue (the taxpayers having no understanding of English whatsoever). A taxpayer who had paid all of the monies due to HMRC in accordance with HMRC’s helpline’s advice was accused of a criminal offence and interviewed under caution at very short notice just before Christmas, with the associated emotional pressures on him, as well as time lost to his business. In another case, an HMRC officer who for months had mistakenly refused to speak to the acting agent was later tasked with evaluating the taxpayer’s cooperation with his investigation, despite the fact that the officer’s own cooperation had not been of the standard that should reasonably have been expected.

I have had a number of cases where my clients have felt suicidal whilst under investigation by HMRC, yet HMRC, in full knowledge of this, continued to make mistakes. Hopefully, positive change in HMRC will result from the House of Lords’ report. The third-party entity described above could help to make this happen.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

Tax is endlessly fascinating. I wish I had anticipated how public opinion would shift to respect those who seek to work to stamp out tax fraud and tax avoidance, and support taxpayers who have made mistakes in the past to sort things out. It’s an area of work everyone should be proud to be engaged in.

It is not appropriate or helpful for working women to carry guilt. Although I have worked full time for 30 years, I have three sons and I am incredibly proud of them and the men they are growing to become. I don’t think it’s necessary to feel guilty or make choices between career and family. And I don’t think it’s appropriate to be judged negatively in the workplace for choosing both career and family. With hard work, it is possible to do both really well, and I would encourage anyone who is finding this tricky to seek out the support of friends and peers or even a mentor. 

Issue: 1426
Categories: One minute with