Overview: Lesley Strathie – Mind the tax gap

Lesley Strathie, HMRC

Lesley Strathie, HMRC

Lesley Strathie is chief executive of
HM Revenue and
and suddenly she’s under pressure to deliver on spending around £1bn
on closing the tax gap by about £2.4bn.

What’s happened?

It’s not a job you take on because of the adulation you will receive. Lesley
Strathie was appointed as CEO of HMRC last year. She has been in the job all of
five months and has now published the taxman’s business plan for the next year.

The former chief executive of Jobcentre Plus is aiming to close the tax gap
by £2.4bn. Very useful indeed to the exchequer in these difficult times, when
tax revenue is disappearing about as fast as ice cream on a hot day.

When you look at Strathie’s recent career history ‘frying pans’ come to mind.
As CEO of JobCentre Plus, she would have been in charge of dealing with
thousands that are now losing their jobs ­ it’s a department under strain.
Likewise at HMRC, where she will have to serve Treasury masters demanding that
she help shore up public finances by squeezing every penny owed by the tax
paying public.

Closing the tax gap must be a contender for ‘top priority’ on Strathie’s to
do list right now, but the business plan does outline five other key objectives.
They are: improving the ‘customer’ experience of dealing with HMRC; boosting the
taxman’s professionalism; creating a nice place for people to work; and using
computers and software to improve the taxman’s efficiency.

Even a casual observer wouldn’t hesitate in listing the problems that will
come with those objectives. In the same order, tax payers hate paying up and tax
advisers don’t like being called customers. The professionalism is challenged by
a vast round of job cuts as is HMRC’s claim to being a nice place to work.

Lastly, HMRC has something of a track record of taking its eye off the ball
(spectacularly so when you think of the great lost CD debacle of 2008 that
prompted the former chair Paul Gray to go) when it comes to IT.

Ironically, Strathie says in the plan that some success will be measured by
asking the ‘customers’. (Can’t imagine what they’ll say.)

But, to be fair, HMRC has to give itself objectives. It would be whistling in
the dark if it didn’t. And Strathie recognises the extent of the challenge.

In the foreword to the plan she writes: ‘In effect, we need to do much more
with less as we respond to the current economic climate and the needs of our
customers.’ In Whitehall speak that could be interpreted as: ‘It’s never going
to work, but we’ll give it a go.’ Though that might be a harsh interpretation.

Trouble is a ‘more for less’ mantra soon becomes wearing for staff and
customers alike, who either become exhausted or frustrated at the added demands
on their time along with an all too predictable tail-off in service levels.

What will happen?

Strathie will need a disaster contingency plan. Her department is vast
(though it used to be bigger) which means a process, an individual, is bound to
go wrong ­ painfully and publicly ­ at some point.

But there is an upside. Traditionally, no one would want you to succeed as
head of HMRC. After all, no one wants to pay taxes. But this time around, when
the government needs all the money it can get its hands on, Strathie could
emerge the hero ­ if her staff don’t buckle under the strain first.

Whatever happens, the business plan suggests we can expect an aggressive new
world from the tax man and Strathie. A recent consultation has already suggested
the taxman might like powers to fine tax advisers and even define what
constitutes a tax adviser. Strathie’s term in office is already being felt.

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