Citizen or Subject? HMRC’s compulsion to call everyone a ‘customer’ is misguided, and should worry you

HMRC is obsessed with the word customer.

Their annual report for the year ended March 2022 mentions the word more than four hundred times, describing (gleefully, we anthropomorphise) how the organisation is split into four core customer-focussed groups. In good keeping with the grave case of “customerphilia” from which it suffers, these four divisions are the aptly named:

  • Customer Strategy and Tax Design
  • Customer Services
  • Borders and Trade
  • Customer Compliance

If you feel at all nauseated by these, we empathise. We can only hope that it wasn’t by accident that Borders and Trade appear to have been spared the bleak stroke of the branding brush – Customer Borders and Trade has a more-than-slightly dystopian ring to it.

To be a Customer

The insidious implications of HMRC’s love for its customer become a little clearer when you look at what a customer is; someone who buys goods or services from another person or entity.

This definition should prove to be both sensical and inoffensive to those of us in the outside world and, what’s more, capture exactly what it is that’s at the heart of being a customer. Namely, being party to a two-way transaction. Two-way, because the customer pays the supplier, and the supplier supplies the customer. Money for money’s worth. Bidirectional exchange.

Now, of course, you do get something in return for your taxes. But not from HMRC. The transaction is one-way. When was the last time that you saw your NHS GP and, at the end of the consultation, asked her to complete a customer satisfaction survey rating the services that you’d provided her that day? If you did, it probably coincided with your referral to the psychiatrist.

Nonetheless, HMRC’s annual report boldly (literally boldly, and in about size 50 font) claims 82.0% customer satisfaction with phone, webchat, and digital services. Such good behaviour warrants a lolly on the way out of the doctor’s office, surely? Another job well done.

Who, and where, all these putatively satisfied customers are is an interesting question and one we’d like to investigate. There are some great people at HMRC, but not enough. We’ve spent too many hours on hold, had too many unfulfilling webchats, and seen too many digital services flip, flap and flop to believe that the 82.0% claim isn’t spurious.

HMRC, customer
Calendar page for August, Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), fol.78v[1], origin England

To be Free

The real problem with the word ‘customer’ is that it implies a freedom of choice.

Unless you’re a personal tax nomad, or a corporate one like Starbucks, this is a freedom that doesn’t exist for most. You are stuck with HMRC, and you will have your taxes extracted. Surrender yourself wilfully to this higher authority, and you will be freed of the notion that you don’t have a choice. Slavery is Freedom. Freedom is slavery.

To be a Subject

The 17th Century Finance Minister to King Louis XIV, a geezer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, famously said that “the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing”.

For its feather-plucking and hiss-suppressing potential, our system for taxing income at source is nothing short of incredible. Introducing… [feeble drumroll] Pay As You Earn, also known as PAYE.

Under PAYE, the taxes that HMRC’s dial-up potato divines to be owing are automatically deducted from your pay, ensuring that HMRC receives the tax before you can spend it and that it does so without you ever really feeling as though you’ve actively had to part with it – it hurts less because the money was never actually in your possession. Quite painless and rather neat, PAYE is incredibly easy money for the state.

In the UK, only about 20% of the population declares income via tax returns, paying their taxes accordingly. Excluding those not working and those not declaring their taxable income, the rest of us have our labour taxed solely under PAYE. Infer from this, that a fifth of the country might actively assess and pay their own taxes, and that most of the rest of us are passively having our taxes extracted.

This matters because passive taxpayers are, by definition, not actively involved in the financial empowerment of their state. To be deprived of democratic agency is to be subjugated, and the difference between paying one’s taxes conscientiously and consciously, and of having them passively extracted, is the exercise of democratic agency.

In a ‘representative’ democracy where many people don’t feel that their voice is heard, where elections feel to them a binary choice between the lesser of two evils, and where most don’t feel that they are represented, reducing people’s democratic agency is a sure way to increase the people’s feeling that they have been subjugated by ‘the system’.

When a state that they don’t agree with takes its citizen’s money, their state starts to feel more like the state, and their freedom starts to feel as though it exists only at the end of their tax code.

When the extraction department charged with taking subject’s money calls them ‘customers’ while it does so, it betrays a fundamental combination of dishonesty and ignorance. Whether wilful or born of organisational insufficiency, ignorance, we know, is strength.

To be a Citizen

HMRC is strong. We’ve seen first-hand how it uses this strength to bully small businesses and individuals by issuing them threats and employing scare-tactics (a campaign that we like to call “PAYE or else!”).

When it goes after the small fry with disproportionate vigour, HMRC is simply exploiting the informational asymmetries and resource asymmetries that it doesn’t enjoy over large firms who can afford whole floors of in-house lawyers, two to a cubicle. If you’ll allow the analogy, HMRC are raising the stakes in a forced game of poker, with a bluff that only the well-informed can afford to call. Arm yourself with the correct knowledge though, and you can call the bluff for what it is.

Citizenship begins with asking questions. Questions such as: PAYE or else what, exactly?

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ben crampin


Ben’s been here pretty much since the get-go and, as such, has been instrumental in growing the business into what it is today.
He’s passionate about, in his words, ‘helping people and businesses that are just constantly being taken advantage of’ by providing affordable advice and support with an eye to ‘levelling the playing field’.
Ben looks forward to the day when automation will, once and for all, fumigate the fear and confusion caused by oppressive bureaucracy and strongly believes that ‘technology holds the solutions to the problems we’re trying to solve’.
Furthermore, he can see that technology will, in time, provide the scalability required to help a theoretically limitless number of SMEs survive and thrive against the odds.
Ben doesn’t think much of government agencies and he doesn’t suffer fools; two points that aren’t always mutually exclusive.