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What amnesty?

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Much was made in the press at the end of May of the fact that HMRC was writing off penalties for late self-assessment tax returns. While some described it as an amnesty, the only penalties being cancelled were those where a return had been lodged late and where an appeal had been made on the grounds that the taxpayer had a reasonable excuse. The instruction to staff was simply to employ a very light touch in challenging such claims. While the amnesty headlines were misleading, several points struck me. 
Firstly, we have yet another example of staff being redeployed to deal with a pressing issue. The press reported that staff were redeployed from call centres to deal with the appeals. You might say that this was an example of agile deployment of resource (unless you were trying to get through on the phone). Alternatively you might say it suggested once again that HMRC now lacks sufficient resource to deliver basic services. 
Secondly, we have the question of the penalty regime itself. In its current consultation on penalties, HMRC seems to have accepted that the way that late filing penalties are levied needs to be changed. I agree. The old late filing penalty was much fairer than the current regime. Daily penalties can in my experience trigger rabbit in the headlights syndrome for some people (generally those who owe little or no tax): instead of making them want to stop the situation getting worse, the ever increasing penalty creates a problem they blank out. HMRC is very sensibly proposing a new regime designed to deliver its stated objective of securing returns rather than penalties in a more proportionate way. I wonder if acceptance of the fact that the current regime needs changing in part drove the view that the backlog needed clearing with a light touch.
Thirdly, there is the question of who should be asked to file a return. I hope HMRC will take the opportunity to reflect on the need to keep so many people within the self-assessment regime in the first place. As I noted in Tax Journal earlier this year (‘Rethinking penalties’, Tax Journal, 26 February 2015), the Office of Tax Simplification has reported that 16% of ITSA returns show nil liability and a further 8% show a liability of less than £50. That means that around 1.5m returns are being processed to collect not one penny of tax and a further three quarters of a million returns disclose relatively trivial amounts. Remove these cases from self-assessment and the scale of the late penalty processing problem shrinks significantly. 
An amnesty triggered by a desire to clear a backlog (arising through insufficiency of resource and an excess of penalty notices) would not be fair on those who took the trouble to file on time. A light touch approach to appeals, while taking the opportunity to rethink the penalty regime and removing unnecessary cases from self-assessment, would make considerable sense: that I think is the real story.