Issues emerging with HMRC web guidance
Donald Drysdale says the migration of HMRC information and guidance online has had its problems.
Guidance for taxpayers
The GOV.UK website was launched by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2012 to replace the individual websites of government departments and certain other public bodies. The concept behind it is that users should be able to access all government information and services in one place.
Since then, HMRC has been migrating its web-based guidance and tools from the HMRC website to GOV.UK. In doing so, it has tried to make tax information and guidance more accessible to taxpayers by explaining complex tax law and related administrative provisions in elementary terms.
This process has found favour with many unrepresented taxpayers, many of whom believe that they are getting all the guidance they need from GOV.UK. However, most tax specialists are concerned about the ‘dumbing down’ of the guidance, and feel that HMRC is misleading taxpayers by over-simplifying their explanations.
Guidance for tax agents and advisers
HMRC has announced its intention to transfer most of its website material for tax agents and advisers unchanged, except that its style will be modified to conform to GOV.UK formats. It has also said it will create a specialist browse area for tax agents - bringing together the content that agents need.
As part of the migration process, GDS and HMRC have been developing the format for HMRC manuals on GOV.UK. These manuals contain internal guidance prepared for HMRC staff, and redacted versions of them are published for the benefit of taxpayers and their advisers in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The process of transferring material from the HMRC website to GOV.UK hasn’t always gone smoothly. HMRC has now advised that some users may have been experiencing problems when accessing HMRC manuals on GOV.UK.
It has recently transferred four of the manuals from the HMRC website to GOV.UK and some errors have arisen, including missing hyperlinks, and incorrect formatting of indented text, bullet lists and quotes (particularly when there is a combination of these styles). It has successfully implemented a fix for the missing hyperlinks, and is working hard to resolve the formatting problems.
The HMRC manuals affected by these problems and links to the latest versions on GOV.UK are:
- Employment Income Manual
- Employee Tax Advantaged Share Scheme User Manual
- Pensions Tax Manual
- Scottish Taxpayer Technical Guidance
Because of the issues that have arisen, there may be a delay in other HMRC manuals going live on GOV.UK. In the meantime, the previous versions of affected manuals will remain available on the HMRC website.
Relying on HMRC guidance
Users of HMRC’s website will already be familiar with the fact that many of the website pages are undated, leading to confusion about when particular guidance is or was valid. Furthermore, superseded versions of guidance are generally not available on the site. Thus if a taxpayer or practitioner relies on web-based guidance which is then updated, there may be no residual evidence of the guidance on which they relied. It appears that similar dangers exist for users of GOV.UK.
When placing any material reliance on HMRC guidance, it is good practice to retain an electronic or hard copy of the material in question, clearly dated, so that this can be produced later as evidence of what was relied upon.
Where HMRC’s statements or guidance mislead a taxpayer to their detriment, they may have a ‘legitimate expectation’ that HMRC will treat them in a certain way and is protected by the courts on the basis that the principles of fairness, proportionality, predictability and certainty should not be disregarded. See the separate article on Legitimate expectation and reliance on HMRC guidance.
Article supplied by Taxing Words Ltd