Sorry is the hardest word to say

I find it hard to understand why modern society lays so much emphasis on demanding apologies. What usually happens is something goes wrong. The person or people at fault either apologise right away or do not apologise. If they apologise that is not usually the end of the matter; there are still many newspapers to sell and much airtime to b filled for advertising. If they do not apologise there are usually howls and choruses demanding an apology.

Eventually the person involved issues an apology – either over fulsome or mealy mouthed and in both cases notoriously insincere.

A few days ago Mr Hartnett, head of the UK’s tax assessors and collectors (H M Revenue and Customs) said that there was nothing to apologise about the problem which has affected 5.7 million taxpayers who pay tax on income which their employers ort pension funds are obliged by law to deduct. Mr Hartnett said that he was not sure that there was anything for which he should apologise.

Perhaps Mr Hartnett thinks that getting the tax affairs of 5.7 million people (that is at least a quarter of those paying tax which is deducted from income before it reaches the taxpayer) wrong is a perfectly acceptable and normal state of affairs for HM Revenue and Customs.

I need not dwell on the hardship worries and bad consequences that such a magnificent mistake creates for those affected. This mistake can cause hardship not only if you have to pay tax unexpectedly, but also if you have overpaid tax for several years, even though you eventually get the overpayment back.

I will not dwell on what happened after Mr Hartnett’s comments reached the public domain. Apologies were demanded by all sorts of people – journalists, pundits, Members of Parliament and members of the public.

Finally Mr Hartnett caved in to the demands for an apology. He said:-

I apologise if my remarks came across as insensitive. I am working flat out with my colleagues to ensure everyone’s tax is correct and the new computer system will help us do this. It was this new system that revealed the extent and size of reconciliations required and will help us be more accurate in future but we do not underestimate the distress caused to taxpayers and once again I apologise.”

If you only get an apology after you demand one, the apology is usually insincere and insincere apologies are worthless. can cause hardship not only if you have to pay tax unexpectedly. If you are one of the millions adversely affected by the taxman’s failing do you feel a tiny fraction better after reading Mr Hartnett’s apology? I doubt it.

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