Is HMRC fit for purpose?
AccountingWEB's regular columnist takes a look at HMRC's failure to answer four million calls, as highlighted in its annual report.
I doubt that very many people reading this column would answer the question in its title with a resounding “yes”. Even beleaguered employees of HMRC are frequently heard harking back to the good old days when they were able to do their jobs properly.
The latest blow comes with the revelation in its annual report that last year the department failed to answer four million telephone calls. If that sounds bad, it is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition, 14% of calls took over 10 minutes to answer and then anyone lucky enough to get through was subjected to an additional four minutes of Muzak and messaging before they could speak to a real live person.
I don’t want to be unkind, but judging by my own experiences over the years what we are now talking about are large numbers of phone calls never being answered, those that are answered leading to a frustrating 14 minute wait and, the coup de grace, when you finally hit a human being, speaking to somebody who does not have the training to answer your question (if you can even remember it after the wait).
Without wishing to pile on the criticism, last September that 14% figure rose to 20%, presumably as wannabe taxpayers attempted to call through prior to completing their paper tax returns.
We all know the reason for these astonishing failures. At the behest of succeeding governments, HMRC has cut its staffing to the bone, created low morale which causes its own problems and leads to an even worse service. The excuse from the powers that be appears to rest on the proposition that telephone calls are no longer necessary in a technological world. Unfortunately, the 43 million people who call through every year do not seem to have realised this fact.
That last statistic tells its own story, given that there could not conceivably be 43 million people needing tax advice. It strongly suggests that many gluttons for punishment are making multiple calls, presumably because they can’t get through in the first place or get lousy advice.
It says it all that an HMRC spokesman is boasting about the fact that phone call handling has got much better in that the average response time is now below five minutes. This might be a sign of old age, but I can remember ringing a local tax office and having the phone answered immediately by an individual. That is proper “customer” service. If we run our practices like this, we would not have practices to run.
I fear that the consequences could be far more damaging than a bit of bad press. There has to be a strong possibility that many of the potential taxpayers who do not get through either actively or passively give up. This means that potentially in millions of cases, tax that people were willing to pay goes begging.
I don’t know about you, but I pay my taxes relatively willingly in the knowledge that I am obliged to comply with the law but also by doing so I am helping to provide services that the country needs. However, I also do so on the basis that there is a level playing field and everybody else is also paying the taxes that they should.
If it becomes apparent that the tax system is failing, which might be indicated by this kind of inability to get the basics right, I wonder whether we could get to a situation where tax avoidance and tax evasion become even more prevalent? That might then begin to create a vicious circle where tax revenues reduce, leading the government to cut HMRC costs further leading to tax revenues reducing.