HMRC accused of 'airbrushing' Loan Charge scandal amid calls for inquiry

Campaigners and MPs are calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the Loan Charge scandal – accusing HMRC of "airbrushing" its approach to a harsh tax crackdown linked to several suicides.

The Loan Charge Action Group (LCAG) has hit out at the Treasury Committee after it wrote to the tax office requesting information on its approach to contractor loan schemes.

These were widely - but wrongly - promoted by employers as HMRC compliant in the early 2000s, and tens of thousands of workers who signed up for them are now facing life-ruining bills for tax on their salaries which their employer should have paid.

Campaigners said the Treasury Committee letter was "little more than a tick box exercise triggered by all of the recent coverage of the Loan Charge" and an inquiry which hears from victims and tax experts is needed.

Steve Packham, spokesperson for the LCAG, told Sky News: "It is frustrating that instead of holding a full select committee inquiry to hear evidence from those facing the Loan Charge and tax sector professionals, the Treasury select committee has merely written to HMRC."

He also accused HMRC of "misleading and partial responses".

Mr Packham argued the committee of MPs was guilty of a "failure of parliamentary scrutiny in the same way the Post Office were not properly challenged for too long" - in reference to the Horizon IT scandal.

"What is needed is a full select committee inquiry and we urge committee members to announce one and call a variety of witnesses, including those whose lives have been ruined by HMRC's approach," he added.

Sky News has previously reported on how tens of thousands of people across the country are facing crippling tax demands from HMRC in a campaign that has been linked to 10 suicides.

What is the Loan Charge?

It all comes back to a 2016 piece of legislation that made individuals responsible for tax which their employers should have paid - the "Loan Charge".

HMRC has been criticised by MPs and tax experts for not policing the contractor sector at the time of the schemes.

Employees were paid their salaries in loans - and it was widely marketed as HMRC compliant.

Some people facing the Loan Charge, including nurses, cleaners and teachers, have said they had no choice but to be paid this way when they accepted their jobs, while others insist they were trying to do the right thing and streamline their tax affairs following the introduction of complex self-employment rules.

No scheme promoters prosecuted

In his letter to the treasury committee, Jim Harra, the director of HMRC, confirmed that there have been no prosecutions of individuals "for the promotion and/or operation" of what it now calls Disguised Remuneration (DR) schemes - noting that "promotion or operation of mass-marketed tax avoidance schemes is not by itself a criminal offence".

He said HMRC did not have figures on how many people had joined the schemes "unwittingly" but "the motives of those engaging in tax avoidance schemes do not affect whether tax is due".

Mr Harra's letter also revealed that the median settlement for individuals is £19,000, though noted about 40,000 people have still not settled. Approximately 50,000 people are estimated to be affected in total.

He denied accusations the department operates without scrutiny, saying it is "simply not the case that HMRC is unaccountable" and "we act under the general direction of ministers".

Taking a firm line on recent criticism of "sinister" new tactics, he said: "We do not accept claims that we have been deliberately heavy-handed. We certainly do not intentionally write to taxpayers on specific days, such as their birthday, to increase the impact of our interventions.

"We do not play with people's emotions. We recognise that there is a human story behind each one of these cases and we take our Charter responsibilities very seriously."

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HMRC 'airbrushing the whole mess'

Chair of the Treasury Committee, Conservative MP Harriett Baldwin, said: "Many of my colleagues have raised concerns about the implementation and management of the Loan Charge by HMRC. As a Committee, we believed it was important that we got answers both for our fellow MPs and their constituents.

"I hope the information contained in Mr Harra's response makes a useful contribution to the public debate."

However, fellow Conservative MP Greg Smith, co-chair of the Loan Charge APPG, said while it is "welcome" the committee is raising the Loan Charge "as well as writing to HMRC, it needs to also hear from victims and tax professionals who can show that so much of what HMRC says is simply not an accurate picture of the Loan Charge Scandal".

He said: "As usual, HMRC are airbrushing the whole mess and giving the false impression that they acted at the time and warned users, when the reality is that they failed to police the contracting sector and failed to warn contractors and then invented the Loan Charge so they go back retrospectively, but targeting only the workers, not those who operated the schemes.

"With 10 confirmed suicides and 13 attempted suicides, as well as countless lives already ruined, the Treasury Select Committee should also seek evidence from other parties, to get a more realistic picture of the whole Loan Charge Scandal."

He warned: "Without a change of approach from HMRC, we are very fearful of the consequences and we hope the Select Committee will join us in properly holding HMRC to account, before more lives are ruined".

Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email in the UK.