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Taxing Taxpayers’ Patience

The Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) has entered the faddish world of ‘nudge’ theory with a report  showing that the labeling of a benefit has an impact on its use. Calling the Winter Fuel Allowance just that results in 40 per cent of it being spent on fuel. Just giving pensioners anpayment would lead to about 3 per cent being spent on heating with more spent on food. This matters because pensioners are prone to cut back on food. So effective labeling could influence good decision-making.

‘Nudge’ theory was flavour of the day about a couple of years ago and government commissioned a report and review of literature. This was led by Matt Tee, then the Permanent Secretary, Government Communications. He has gone as part of the austerity cuts but there is a legacy in the form of the Behavioural Insight Unit at the Cabinet Office.

According to IFS Director Paul Johnson, nudge theory is being tested and one of the departments gently pushing the citizen to action is the Inland Revenue, or HMRC as we ought to call it.

Let me reassure you, this is not leading to a traditional rant about the level of taxes in the UK; HMRC is a necessary evil. If Greece collected some taxes maybe it wouldn’t be in the mess it is today.

No. Mr Johnson pointed out that if you are late with your tax payments HMRC will now write pointing out that ‘most people pay on time’. Being late is bad for the country.

I have had one of these letters and I can tell you it is not nudge theory when after the soft words you are reminded about the continuing penalty you are incurring with every passing second. That is nudging with a cattle prod.

One of my colleagues in this office has experience of HMRC nudging by threatening bailiffs within minutes of a delayed payment. So let’s stop all this nonsense about HMRC being a thoughtful, jollying along outfit. It isn’t. It is the iron fist in an iron glove.

If HMRC wants to be seen as responsive to the taxpayer it could decide to reply to letters. That would be a good thing. It has ignored two of mine recently. I considering asking my MP, the redoubtable Col Bob Stewart, to indulge in some nudge tactics of his own.

I believe he was very effective nudging people with a machine pistol and a full magazine. Lock and Load, Bob. Lock and Load.

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