Tax watchdog to investigate ATO small business communications amid JobKeeper integrity probes

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ATO commissioner of taxation Chris Jordan. Source: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas.

A new tax watchdog investigation is set to examine how well the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) communicates with small businesses about their rights to complain, review and appeal its decisions.

Inspector-general of taxation and taxation ombudsman (IGTO) Karen Payne has asked business owners to come forward with their experiences of ATO communication efforts, specifically how effectively the tax office informs people about their rights across its numerous programs and responsibilities.

The investigation comes against the backdrop of an unprecedented busy period for the ATO, amid end of financial year (EOFY) 2020 and the ongoing administration of the $70 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy program.

With audits forthcoming on hundreds of thousands of JobKeeper enrollment forms, the IGTO investigation will seek to establish how written communications of ATO decisions inform taxpayers about the avenues of appeal and complaint available to them.

“The communication of taxpayers’ rights is an important feature of procedural fairness and is consistent with the Taxpayers’ Charter,” the IGTO said in a statement.

“These rights and the community’s awareness of them is important for maintaining confidence in the fairness of the tax administration system.”

Terms of reference for the investigation, published on Tuesday, are as follows:

  • Whether ATO written communications to taxpayers appropriately provide complete information on formal and informal review rights; and
  • The adequacy of such information that is provided to taxpayers and their representatives.

The IGTO will undertake a staged process, initially casting its eye over debt decisions involving vulnerable individual and small business taxpayers.

Tax office communications about access to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the the Small Business Taxation Division will also be examined.

Michael Croker, tax leader at Chartered Accountants ANZ, said the review was timely given how many COVID-19-related stimulus programs the tax office is administrating.

“Inevitably, COVID-19 relief has created winners and losers and the ATO is conveying tough messages about eligibility,” Croker said in a statement.

“The ATO’s Integrity Unit is also now out and about contacting some businesses and individuals questioning whether they were entitled in the first place.”

The tax office published a statement to its website earlier this month detailing its intention to audit businesses that may have defrauded taxpayers through coronavirus related programs.

“In a stressful COVID-19 environment it’s so important that those contacted by the ATO know their rights. Getting it wrong can destroy livelihoods,” Croker said.

Submissions will close on September 30, several days after the JobKeeper program officially expires.

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