Tax inspectors given new 'get tough' powers

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The Independent Online

Government plans to give thousands of tax officers powers to make arrests, execute search warrants and even take fingerprints could lead to taxpayers being intimidated and threatened, leading accountants warn.

The plan follows a review of HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the department set up last year after the amalgamation of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise. HMRC staff have since complained that while Customs investigators have tough investigatory and arrest powers to deal with drug smuggling, the pornography trade and other serious offences, Revenue officers are much more dependent on the police.

Clive Gawthorpe, a partner at the accountants Hacker Young, said that while it might seem logical for all HMRC staff to be given the same powers, many taxpayers would feel intimidated.

"This is a shift away from the checks and balances provided in the past by police officers, so there is potential for abuse of power," Mr Gawthorpe said. "A major concern is that HMRC will threaten people with these powers, in a much more heavy-handed manner than it has until now been able to adopt."

Steve Simmonite, a partner at the accountants Grant Thornton, added: "These powers have never before been needed by Revenue staff; this is being suggested just so the whole of HMRC has the same powers."

Mr Simmonite claimed tax officials had already become more aggressive since last year's merger. "There's no doubt that the Revenue arm of HMRC is now much more bullish," he said.

However, a spokesman for HMRC said the proposals were still being discussed and that safeguards would protect taxpayers. "The powers covered [by the review] can only be used in criminal investigations - they cannot be used in more routine work or where fraud is dealt with by civil means," he said.

"There is no question of the powers being used to shock or intimidate suspects or innocent taxpayers."

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