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The tax regime is subject to constant change and it is generally up to taxpayers to keep their knowledge up to date in a fluid landscape. However, as a case concerning tax charged on high-income recipients of Child Benefit showed, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is also under a duty to keep the public informed.
Until January 2013, Child Benefit was not means tested. However, the introduction in that month of the High Income Child Benefit Charge (HICBC) meant that those who earned more than £50,000 a year were subject to tax on Child Benefit that they or their partners received. Those who fell into that category who did not opt out of receiving Child Benefit were required to inform HMRC of their liability to HICBC.
HMRC carried out an awareness campaign prior to the introduction of HICBC. The measure was announced by the Chancellor in the 2012 Budget; it was debated in Parliament and adverts were placed widely in the media.
The taxpayer involved in the case earned more than the £50,000 threshold but did not declare his liability to pay HICBC. In 2019, he was informed by HMRC that he owed several thousand pounds in HICBC, which he swiftly paid. HMRC also imposed a late payment penalty of £509.20, which he challenged.
Upholding his appeal, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) noted that public information campaigns have their limitations. Even when a newspaper is delivered to one's door, one does not always have the time to read it. Many media articles concerning the introduction of HICBC were in any event misleading, displaying a misunderstanding of a novel measure that required parents to make a choice between a charge to tax or a disclaimer of Child Benefit.
The FTT accepted that the taxpayer, a scrupulous record-keeper, had not received an HMRC letter informing him of the introduction of HICBC, nor had he become aware of the new tax by way of the awareness campaign. His children having been born prior to the inception of HICBC, he did not receive information supplied to new applicants for Child Benefit.
As he was taxed entirely through the PAYE system, he had never been required to submit a self-assessment tax return. The information campaign was not targeted at employers, who could have been expected to inform employees of their obligations. HMRC was throughout aware of the taxpayer's earnings but had waited over six years before informing him of his HICBC liability. The penalty was overturned on the basis that he had a reasonable excuse for late payment of HICBC.