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Please Pick up the Phone

25th May 2016
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It will come as no surprise that the National Audit Office is once again berating HM Revenue and Customs for poor performance.

This has become an annual event, as regular as the Queen's address to the nation on Christmas Day and the departure of ostensibly successful football managers to be replaced by other ostensibly successful football managers, albeit typically only for a few months.

It was little comfort to hear a spokesman for the NAO announcing that, following HMRC's disastrous failures to answer telephones and service their "customers" in 2014/15, there has been a massive improvement leading to a situation in which they are now picked up after a mere five minutes. If any established accountancy practice had provided customer service at these levels, it would have closed down decades ago.

Why then have successive Chancellors of the Exchequer cut, cut, cut HMRC's valuable resources to the point where staff and customers have lost faith in the service?

The cynical might suggest that they are in league with those that have had an easy ride paying virtually no UK corporation tax and often very little VAT for years. News from France suggests that Google might be asked to pay ten times as much in back taxes there as they did in the UK, suggesting that we have scored another own goal. Not good news for the Euros (football or referendum).

In the battle against tax avoidance and evasion, our feeble efforts could be regarded as the equivalent to Leicester City playing in a major European final against Barcelona and taking the field with only eight men, four of whom have been drafted in for the youth team for their debuts.

In the footballing context, this is clearly laughable. In the real world of raising finances for the United Kingdom government, it has become the norm.

Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a senior officer of HMRC talking about the IT-driven future of the Department. It would be absolutely unfair to repeat anything that was said in a private context but I trust that he will forgive me for quoting a single oft-repeated word –"resourcing". Enough said.

The improvement in telephone answering was achieved by recruiting an additional 2,500 workers, presumably at short notice.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that while the phones might be answered incredibly quickly (in HMRC's terms) the quality of the service received has to be terrible, since the new recruits can hardly know as much about tax as those of us who have spent decades studying the discipline.

If you can ever get to speak to them, all of these failures inevitably leave experienced Inspectors, who still take pride in their jobs, despairing.

This article might sound familiar with its request that George Osborne or, if necessary his lucky successor, finally show the kind of leadership that has made Claudio Ranieri household name, beef up HMRC's resources in human terms as well as IT.

By doing so, he could make serious inroads into the tax gap rather than merely scratching at the surface and whining about avoidance by multinationals, abusive avoidance by scammers and evasion by those whose lawyers are based in Panama and bank accounts in British sponsored tax havens.

I would love to believe that change is just around the corner but sadly, my friends the flying pigs seem to be out in force again today.

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