While the government spent billions helping people through the pandemic the UK’s tax authority HMRC was using debt collection agencies to chase people on low-incomes, threatening to take money directly from their bank accounts and remove their property.
Using programmatic analysis of open source data, Freedom of Information requests and investigative reporting we built up a picture of the heavy handed treatment many UK citizens were experiencing.
The investigation exposed the 800 letters accusing people of deliberately not repaying debts and also revealed that HMRC had employed “field force collectors” to visit people struggling with tax debts at business premises.
The collection of stories were read by hundreds of thousands of subscribers online, ran on the front page of the printed edition and was picked up by other news outlets. But the impact went beyond informing readers of the damaging behaviour of the tax authorities.
When we first contacted HMRC with our findings they apologised, saying the content of the letters sent “was a mistake and does not reflect our current approach to debt collection”.
A month later the tax authority confirmed it would stop using debt collectors and threatening repossessions during the pandemic. It also suspended the use of field force collectors until the end of the national lockdown.
MPs on the Public Accounts Committee criticised HMRC for failing to support people whose livelihoods had been shattered by the pandemic.
We used the programming language R to clean and analyse open source data on spending by HMRC to ascertain how much it had spent on debt collection agencies. Using a script we were able to rerun the analysis as more data was published each month, keeping track of spending throughout the investigation.
We used Freedom of Information requests to identify the number of complaints to HMRC regarding debt collection agencies as well as details of the millions of cases HMRC was sending to debt collectors and the number of field force officer visits.
What was the hardest part of this project?
One difficult element was ascertaining which metric in the open data we needed to analyse. While the UK government publishes a lot of data it does not always make it easy to understand exactly what each metric means and the names of variables are often obscure. To confirm we were using the correct metric we contacted another company that had previously published similar research.
What can others learn from this project?
Open data and Freedom of Information requests are a good combination, allowing us to build up a solid picture of how much was being spent and on and the full scale of HMRC’s use of debt collectors.
As this was a long-term investigation taking place over several months the ease with which R enables you to run scripts was useful. It meant we could quickly track how much was being spent without having to rerun the analysis from scratch every time new data was released.
To bring the numbers underpinning the investigation to life we also spoke to people affected by the problem. This included a woman with cancer who had been shielding throughout the pandemic and was frightened when she received a letter saying a debt collector may turn up at her home and a care home worker who was told her possessions could be sold.