Staff members of the tax authority exercise powers delegated to them by the authority, whose role it is to administer taxation legislation. The powers they exercise, and the responsibilities they bear, are substantial. Like other categories of tax professionals, they need to be accountable for their actions and their activities properly regulated.
We are conscious of arguments that if standards and regulatory arrangements are to be applied to tax professionals, they should apply irrespective of whether the professionals in question are in the public or the private sector. While we understand these views, the circumstances of public and private sector employment are in major respects fundamentally different, and it simply is not the case that a single set of standards or regulatory arrangements can be made to govern both.
Tax authorities are accountable to governments and legislatures. This accountability takes various forms, which may include government Audit Offices, Ombudsmen and scrutiny by Parliament, not only through the parliamentary questions process but also through parliamentary committees.
At an individual level, tax officers will be subject to the requirements of the legislation under which they are employed, and frequently legislation relating to the accountability to Ombudsmen, as well as privacy legislation and legislation concerned with the rights to information, none of which are applied to private sector tax professionals. They will also usually be subject to strict secrecy requirements.
In many cases, this legislation and associated regulations establish for individual officers a regulatory framework which is comparable with the private sector. In addition, there will be ethical codes and guidelines on official conduct which make it clear that tax officers are expected to achieve and maintain a high standard of conduct and work performance.
Such codes should ensure that individual officers understand that they have an obligation to:
- perform their official duties in a fair and unbiased way;
- observe Acts, regulations, determinations, awards, instructions and lawful directions that relate to their official duties;
- provide service and advice on entitlements and departmental processes to members of the public in a professional way;
- treat colleagues and members of the public with courtesy and sensitivity to their rights, duties and aspirations;
- behave at all times in a manner that maintains or enhances the reputation of the tax authority in question.
Necessarily, these obligations require in turn that tax authorities as responsible employers provide the necessary training to ensure that their officers can act in accordance with these standards, and carry out ongoing monitoring and ethical support to ensure that those standards are maintained.
We do not doubt that in most cases, tax authorities do this to a high level. Our survey results state this. Nevertheless, as tax laws change and become even more complex, this becomes an even greater challenge. The increasing level of cooperation between tax authorities should lead to a widening of the skills base.