HL Deb 02 July 1992 vol 538 cc869-71

3.1 p.m.

Lord Erroll of Hale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why income tax payers are now to be called customers by the Inland Revenue.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the use of the term "customer" emphasises the fact that the Inland Revenue performs a service on behalf of the community and that members of the community are entitled to he treated with the respect due from a service organisation to its customers.

Lord Erroll of Hale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Are taxpayers—I mean customers—now free to go bargain hunting among different tax offices?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the service that the Inland Revenue is now giving there may be no need.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, if we do not like the Inland Revenue can we take our custom elsewhere?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord has no reason to dislike the Inland Revenue.

Lord Peston

My Lords, this matter is serious. I am sorry that it is being dealt with frivolously. It is especially serious as, since about 2nd July, most of us have been sending off letters enclosing cheques. We hold the Inland Revenue in the highest esteem. I have looked at the Taxpayer's Charter which corresponds with what the Minister has said; but who dreamed up the introduction of the word "customer" here? Wearing my education hat, as a matter of the English language, it is a misuse of the word. Who in the Inland Revenue thought that that was a good idea, especially as I am sure that the Minister, when he attacks me on matters of public expenditure, will slip naturally into the use of "taxpayers" and not "customers"? I am intrigued as to whether someone who is paid £50,000 a year or more dreamt up this terminology.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as the noble Lord holds the Inland Revenue in the highest esteem, I am sure that the Inland Revenue will hold him in high esteem and will consider him to be a good customer. It is probably an appropriate word.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, as one who once had ministerial responsibility for the Inland Revenue, and has great respect for it, I am not sure that the change and the idea of inventing a new word is not unfortunate, as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, implied. As a railway passenger I do not much like being called a customer, but at least there is an element of voluntariness for most people about being a railway passenger. There is none about being an income tax payer. It is a misuse of the English language.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords. I can understand how the noble Lord feels about this matter, but the Inland Revenue is providing a service and the noble Lord will be pleased to be a customer.

Lord Renton

My Lords, if the voluntary principle is to be applied, what will happen if we deprive the Inland Revenue of our custom altogether?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think that I shall leave it to my noble friend to try to see.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the customer always be right? If he is not satisfied with the service, will he be able to withhold payment?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, of course the customer can appeal, as the noble Lord is doubtless aware. That is a customer's right. If his appeal is upheld, he will be able to withhold payment.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is there not a danger that, if he ceases to be a customer of the Inland Revenue, he may become a customer of Her Majesty's prisons?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, both organisations, which we hold in high esteem, will treat him as a customer.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, following the views that have been expressed this afternoon, perhaps we should examine the attitude of the House more seriously. Would it not be reasonable and fair for the Minister to examine this issue with his right honourable friend and convey to those responsible the feelings of the House?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will read with great alacrity what has been said today.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend remember that during the time of the Roman Empire they privatised the Inland Revenue?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, no, I do not remember, but I have read about it.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the word "customer" is to be used in this connection, we shall have to distinguish between compulsory customers and voluntary customers? It will create a great many problems if we have to make the compulsory customer different from the voluntary customer. It may also present legal problems.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is wrong on that point.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, will my noble friend arrange to have hung in every Inland Revenue office a sign similar to one I once saw in a shop on Broadway in New York saying "We love our customers, they pay the wages"?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I take note of what my noble friend says.

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