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One minute with… Jim Harra

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What’s keeping you busy at work?

Over the last 16 months, I have focused on ensuring that HMRC understands the impact of the pandemic on our customers and gives them the support they need – whether by adjusting the way we administer tax or by paying grants for furloughed workers and the self-employed. With the end of these financial support schemes now in sight, HMRC colleagues are increasingly deploying back onto our usual work, and we are seeing service levels improve as a result. Within the department, colleagues who have been working at home are gradually starting to return to the office, and I am currently focused on making the introduction of mixed home/office working a success – not least because recruitment and the opening of new HMRC regional centres during the pandemic means that around 27,000 colleagues are going into offices they have never used before. So, there’s plenty going on.

You’ve come up through the ranks at HMRC. How has the department changed over the years?

First of all, its scope has grown enormously, with the merger of Inland Revenue, Contributions Agency, Family Credit, Child Benefit Office and Customs & Excise creating the HMRC we have today. Then there is digitisation: when I began working in the old Inland Revenue, we were just starting to computerise PAYE, now the vast majority of our customers’ transactions with us are online. That radically reduces the routine operational work that colleagues in HMRC need to do and frees them up to spend more time helping customers and tackling non-compliance. Our use of data has also been transformed over that time, particularly for managing compliance risks. What has stayed constant is our core values of integrity, professionalism, respect and innovation.

What lessons have you learnt during your time as chief exec?

When I became chief executive in October 2019, the first big challenge facing HMRC was Brexit, which was soon dwarfed by the challenge of dealing with the pandemic. I quickly learned that the department had the capability and the flexibility to transform fast to become a resilience agency, supporting the UK’s economy, while at the same time keeping the tax system going and planning for the future; for example, in the middle of the pandemic, we published our ten year strategy for building a trusted, modern tax administration. And I learned that at the centre of all that, the department’s core values are the key to guiding us to do the right thing for our customers and colleagues.

What’s the most problematic area of tax for HMRC today?

HMRC has been very successful in reducing the tax compliance gap to a record low level. But the fight against tax evasion and avoidance never ends, and we constantly need to adapt in response to ever-shifting threats. In particular, while we have made big advances in tackling tax avoidance by the affluent and big businesses, and in driving mainstream tax advisory firms and banks out of the tax avoidance market, a small number of hardcore promoters remain, focused increasingly on employment taxes, and caring little about meeting professional standards when dealing with HMRC or their clients. A large number of workers get caught up in their schemes, some deliberately and knowingly, others naively and unthinkingly. Choking off the supply of these avoidance schemes, warning workers off using them, and putting right the tax affairs of those who have done so, is a big challenge for us.

Hand on heart, isn’t it time for the tax profession to be regulated?

Most tax advisers do a good job helping their clients to meet their obligations and receive their entitlements, and many are members of a tax professional body that regulates their professional standards. But there are advisers and other actors out there who abuse the tax system, and often their clients too. It is in all our interests to prevent these people from operating as they do. I’m sure your readers will be aware that we’ve consulted on raising standards in the tax advice market this year, and we’re considering the feedback which we have received at the moment. We’ll continue to work with the industry on this as it is a mutual area of concern and interest, and I hope that we’ll be able to share more in the coming months.

If you were given a free hand and could make one change to tax law or practice, what would it be?

I think I had better reserve my policy advice for the Chancellor! Actually, I think I might introduce a £100 penalty for every lie told about HMRC in the press or social media – it would certainly be a revenue raiser! Seriously though, I passionately believe that the department needs to be accountable and scrutinised. After all, we touch the lives of millions, we have a lot of powers that we need to use responsibly, and I know we don’t always get things right – but when commentators and politicians trot out baseless, tired old tropes about sweetheart deals etc., it harms public trust in tax administration.

And finally, you might not know this about me but...

I am hopeless at getting dressed. When I was getting ready to appear on the Martin Lewis Money Show last year to promote awareness of the coronavirus support schemes, colleagues who were supposed to be briefing me on the subject ended up spending most of their time talking me out of wearing unsuitable shirts! 

Issue: 1545
Categories: One minute with