Tax watchdog Bernard Ngoepe demands more independence

The Office of the Tax Ombud should become completely independent from SARS, according to Tax Ombud Bernard Ngoepe. The retired judge announced his demands in a keynote speech during the Tax Indaba at the Sandton Convention Centre on 7 September 2015.

"We need to rectify this anomalous situation urgently and shall be making more noise about this."

The Tax Ombud should enjoy full legal status and structural and institutional independence," Ngoepe argued. "There is a serious imbalance at the moment as we have no direct control of funds and all appointments must be agreed upon with the SARS Commissioner. This is a worry because we are the SARS watchdog. We need to rectify this anomalous situation urgently and shall be making more noise about this."

Established in 2013, the Office of the Tax Ombud occupies an important role, reviewing and addressing complaints from taxpayers with regard to their dealings with SARS. Ngoepe, however, admitted that there is a need for more public awareness around his office. "We have spent a lot of money on mass communication campaigns . Our focus going forward will be on strengthening organisational systems and recruiting capable people to deal with the ever-increasing number of complaints. We want to ensure a sound working relationship with SARS and have been working on a memorandum of understanding to this effect," he said. In the long term, the Tax Ombud plans to explore the possibility of expanding, by decentralising operations to provincial offices. It also wants to improve its response time to complaints.

"There is a need for appropriate avenues for fair and expedient resolution."

Ngoepe made a very strong case for the Tax Ombud during the Indaba. "SARS has internal channels, including access to courts of laws, but we see ourselves as something that has been missing from complaint resolution process. We follow informal and cost-effective processes and provide information, facilitating access and identifying systemic and emerging issues that may impact taxpayers negatively. Disputes do arise from time to time, some serious, and there is a need for appropriate avenues for fair and expedient resolution."

The Tax Ombud presents an annual report - accessible to the public - with its recommendations to Parliament. The Minister of Finance must take cognisance of the report and present it, in turn, to the National Assembly. Ngoepe said his office had experience growing pains common to new organisations, including lack of staff, and had sent delegations to the UK, USA, Australia and Canada to perform benchmarking tests.

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