Last week, HMRC's accounts came under the spotlight with surprising consequences. They announced their best ever performance. Are they delusional or am I?
The National Audit Office's report on HMRC's accounts for 2013-14 contains a few surprises. As we identified last Friday, the Revenue somehow mislaid a couple of billion pounds worth of supposed tax recoveries.
This is the kind of mistake that could happen to anybody but strangely, appears to affect government departments rather more than the man in the street, who tends to get concerned when he drops a 50p piece, let alone the odd billion.
However, the quote that engendered this column came at the end of the article.
HMRC said that last year was its best-ever performance. "We ... secured £23.9bn in additional compliance revenues and achieved our best-ever customer service levels (my italics), while also making £235m of efficiency savings."
Is your columnist the only tax adviser who had not realised that they are enjoying interactions with an organisation achieving "our best-ever customer service levels".
Apparently not since various colleagues spend all of their time whining about HMRC's inability to provide even the kind of service levels expected from the worst of breed, telecoms companies or IT service providers, though many other organisations are almost equally unresponsive.
This was a reminder of the kind of issues identified in the original Hanging on the Telephone article two years ago this week.
Up to a couple of decades ago, the Inland Revenue's ethos was to collect tax at a very local level using Inspectors in individual tax districts who had names and telephone numbers. Admittedly, they would not give out e-mail addresses but then neither do their successors today.
This meant that taxpayers and their advisers had the opportunity to build up a relationship and rapport with the taxman (or woman) and vice versa.
This is a very personal service of the kind that one might have expected in the local library (pre-automation) or bank when staff were still recruited to provide a service rather than sell, sell, sell.
The evidence that gives the lie to HMRC's contention quoted above is overwhelming and based on long collective experience.
As always, it is necessary to emphasise that those few experienced officers still left in the Revenue are generally both hard-working and very good at their jobs. They are also almost universally unhappy, talking about retirement or cutting back on the number of days that they work each week.
Having written in the past about the inability to get through on the phone (let alone the Internet), while acknowledging the efficacy of the Agents' Helpline, this year has seen a further deterioration in an already inadequate service.
Without publicising the change, it appears that the Agents' Helpline has bitten the dust. Instead, all calls go to the employer helpline where there is one of those joyous telephone loops that requires one to answer bland automated questions for the remainder of eternity without ever getting through to a human being in the majority of cases.
A frustrated colleague has had to endure the following tedious experiences.
- I called HMRC on at least five separate occasions (trying different days and times) and was told either that the queue time was more than 16 minutes (my call was still not answered after nearly 20 minutes) or that there was not sufficient resource to deal with my call, that I should consult HMRC’s website and call back another time (I was then cut off – this happened twice).
- This is after you have already been on the phone for at least 2 minutes listening to information about RTI and the employer’s NIC allowance before then going through the new voice automated system.
- The voice automated system doesn’t always seem to help to put you through to the right person – i.e., when asked the reason for my call, I asked to speak to someone about P11Ds and was then put through to someone who didn’t deal with P11Ds and had to go on hold again.
This is very unhelpful and potentially counter-productive. One can imagine that some particularly frustrated agent might recommend that their clients utilise tax avoidance techniques on the basis that HMRC does not deserve to collect the money since it goes to so much trouble to avoid doing so.
This would clearly be unreasonable, unethical and unworthy but could well be a fact of life. In view of the staff shortages and general cuts in the service (“£235m of efficiency savings”), it might take generations for anyone in the Department to discover that this was happening.
When will George Osborne or David Gauke see sense? Indeed, perhaps it might fall to Ed Balls to refinance and reinvigorate HM Revenue and Customs and turn it into an efficient tax collection arm. Someone needs to understand that it is necessary to provide a good service to customers in order to function efficiently.
Such a policy could maximise revenues and give a massive additional financial boost to an economy that is still ailing despite the initial signs that the green shoots of recovery might finally be just beneath the ground.
Until then, tax advisers will continue to bang their heads against brick walls while holding telephones to their ears and pushing those interminable numbers.