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HMRC internal manual

Compliance Handbook

Charging Penalties: establishing penalty behaviour: how to ask questions: questioning skills

Effective information gathering requires effective questioning and listening skills and techniques. These are most important when you are talking directly to the person but the general principles also apply when you are writing to them.

There are three different ways of asking questions, each will result in a different type of answer. You should ask questions in the way that is most likely to provide you with the specific information you need.

Open questions

Open questions will provide you with the most information and avoid yes or no answers. The following are examples of open questions.

  • Who did you ask for advice about the correct VAT treatment?
  • What did you ask?
  • What advice were you given?
  • Where do you record expenses?
  • When did you issue the invoice?
  • Which accounting software do you use?
  • How long have you been doing this?

Closed questions

Closed questions encourage yes or no answers. The following are examples of closed questions.

  • Could the inaccuracy have happened this way?
  • Did you know the return was inaccurate?
  • If you had checked the return more carefully would you have found the error?
  • Is this the only deliberate inaccuracy?
  • Have you created a false invoice?
  • Isn’t it true that you deliberately over claimed input tax?

Leading in questions

Leading in questions can sometimes be used when a person may feel pressurised and are likely to become uncooperative. It takes slightly longer to ask a leading in question but it may get better results.

For example, as an alternative to, “have you created a false invoice?” (closed), or “who created the VAT invoice?” (open), you could try “one thing we need to discuss is why there is a VAT invoice for this transaction. Before this, I wonder if you can give me a clearer picture of what you do with invoices for purchases without any input tax?”. You could then go on to ask about the whereabouts of the genuine invoice and how this was replaced by the VAT invoice.

Swapping question types

Once you have planned what questions you intend to ask it is relatively easy to swap the way you ask them. You may need to do this to follow up an answer or to take account of the person’s reaction to an earlier question.



  • Is this the only deliberate inaccuracy?
  • Did you ask your agent for advice?
  • Do you employ a bookkeeper?


  • How many deliberate inaccuracies did you make?
  • Who did you ask for advice?
  • Who maintains your books and records?