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HMRC internal manual

Debt Management and Banking Manual

Customer contact: Outdoor calls: Customers’ Human Rights

Invading your customer’s privacy

As an officer of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs you have the right to demand payment of duties from a customer at their private or business address. The prime purpose of the vast majority of calls is to collect debts or returns.

Article 1 Protocol 1 of the Human Rights Act (see DMBM513100 onwards) makes it clear that the state can control property to secure payment of taxes or other contributions. Normally, therefore, provided you respect a customer’s human rights under Article 8 you should not have any problems. You should remember though that you do not have unfettered right of access to a customer’s premises without their consent.

For example, an invasion of privacy could be justifiably claimed if during a call made at a private residence (including one used for business purposes) you

  • look through the windows
  • walk, uninvited, around to the rear of the property.

Unless invited by the customer you should not normally

  • enter a customer’s premises
  • enter a fenced and/or gated area other than to gain access to the main entry point of the residence
  • call at an entry point other than one intended for the use of callers.

In the final analysis how you conduct yourself is a matter of judgement. You should always ask yourself whether you would consider it an invasion of privacy if what you propose to do, was done to you. If the answer is “yes” it probably is!

Some examples

Recording effects

Recording distrainable effects during a call is a by-product of calling to collect a debt and does not breach your customers’ human rights. You should remember, though, that except during actual distraint you should not move around a customer’s property without their permission. In practice, where you record effects during a visit to collect a debt you may only observe and record effects seen in the parts of the property to which you are invited.

Assessing ability to pay

Establishing a customer’s ability to pay is a proper ‘aim’ within the terms of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Observing a customer’s outward trappings of wealth during a call made in pursuit of debt and or returns for example an expensive car, does not in itself breach HRA. Similarly, if your customer turns up at your office dressed in an expensive suit and expensive accessories, these may be noted legitimately.

On the other hand, waiting for someone to leave home to check if they are wearing an expensive suit or getting someone to ask them in the street for the time to check if they are wearing an expensive watch would be intrusive and questions of proportionality would arise. Such actions would be hard to justify as being necessary or proportionate.

Tracing and enquiry activities

Tracing customers in pursuit of debt or returns is a necessary and acceptable activity provided that the current guidance and confidentiality procedures are followed. Where you find that a customer has left the address that you have called at

  • remain discreet and do not disclose the purpose of your visit
  • remember that if necessary and appropriate, it is in order to disclose that you represent HMRC.