Sorry seems to be the hardest word for HMRC

Revenue chief Dave Hartnett finally finds it in his heart to apologise to taxpayers. Well, sort of.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
Dave Hartnett, the ‘charisma-free boffin’ (Janet Street-Porter’s words, not ours) in charge of HMRC, finally apologised on Saturday evening to the 1.4m taxpayers who have been told their tax bills are due to rocket (after a PAYE error meant they didn’t pay enough this year). Call us over-sensitive, but given that during an interview on the Today programme that morning, Hartnett had said: ‘I’m not sure I see a need to apologise’, it all feels a bit 'too little, too late'. And despite the fact George Osborne has publicly pledged his support for Hartnett, we don't think we're the only ones...
 
It’s probably an understatement to say that Hartnett misjudged the public mood before making his comments on the Today programme on Saturday. He may be right that issuing demands for extra tax to some taxpayers at the end of the year 'isn’t extraordinary’. But the sheer scale of the error - some people are facing having to pay back more than £2,000 (along with 3% interest) over three months - has caused widespread outrage. And unless Hartnett has been hiding in the proverbial cave for the last week or so, it’s been a pretty hard one to miss.
 
Nevertheless, the deed was done, and Saturday night saw him making the inevitable apology (we wouldn't be surprised if there was a stern call from Downing Street in between times). 'I am deeply sorry that some people are facing an unexpected tax bill,' he bleated. 'I apologise if my remarks came across as insensitive.' Which we'd argue is not much of an apology, in the circumstances. You'll note that he wasn't apologising for the original cock-up, or the way it's been handled generally - just the consequences of it. And he didn't actually apologise for being insensitive - he's just sorry if any of us (were dim enough to) have taken it that way.

Still, while George Osborne may have sought to draw a line under the whole affair by giving his backing to Hartnett, he is said to be privately ‘incandescent’. Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, has been even less forthcoming: during an interview with Sky News on Sunday, Alexander avoided voicing his support, instead saying simply that ‘the important thing going forward is to ensure that HMRC… works day and night to ensure that these problems are dealt with’. Hmm.
 
With a salary of £160,000, Hartnett is apparently the best-paid civil servant in Whitehall. How long he'll continue to be so, after the events of the last week, is anyone’s guess.

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