As HMRC agrees to provide the Adjudicator's Office with a secure email address for customer complaints, Wendy Bradley recalls how email used to be available and wonders whether a bigger stick for the Adjudicator might be useful.
HMRC was formed 14 years ago from the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. People with memories of working for either organisation become fewer year-by-year, and from the outsider's perspective, it looks as if HMRC is reinventing the wheel.
When I saw the Treasury Committee had welcomed HMRC's commitment to give the Adjudicator's Office a secure email address I was puzzled. I remembered an email address for the Revenue Adjudicator's Office back in the days of the original adjudicator, Barbara Mills.
Somewhere along the line from gtnet via GSI to gov.uk the Adjudicator's Office (AO) lost their ability to receive complaints by email. How did the mail address disappear, and was there no push back at the time?
Whatever the history, as I have pointed out before, it is hard to reconcile HMRC's ambition to be the leading digital tax authority, with its refusal to fund its complaints ombudsman to have a working email address.
The Treasury Committee have looked at the work of the AO and wrote to Jim Harra expressing themselves "astonished" to learn that the public cannot communicate with the AO by email.
Jim Harra's response on 16 April 2019, agrees that the public should be allowed to contact the AO by email "or through another form of secure digital channel" by the autumn.
I suspect this "other digital channel" is code for another wearisome process to make you jump through identification hoops into the walled garden of the HMRC systems rather than the introduction of a straightforward "email your complaint to this address" function.
This rather reminds me of the old Inland Revenue's reluctance to install fax machines (when fax machines were cutting edge).
It is easy to see why the Treasury Committee are congratulating themselves on this minor but important success. But why on earth did the AO have to go through this humiliating and awkward process to obtain what, surely, is a normal part of any twenty-first century business operation?
The AO’s evidence to the Treasury Committee makes for depressing reading. In answer to a question about whether the Adjudicator should, like the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, report to the Treasury Committee rather than to HMRC, the current Adjudicator (Helen Megarry) said:
"I do not currently have any sticks. The only influence we have over the department is that of the department respecting our service and the expertise we bring to complaint handling. As I said earlier, the parameters of my authority are set by the department from within the department’s legal entity. There is nothing outside the department in terms of my accountability or my reporting line."
In other words, the HMRC's independent complaints adjudicator has no authority outside of the department itself, and no "stick" with which to enforce compliance by HMRC with its recommendations.
Compare this with the evidence Dame Barbara Mills gave to the same committee back in 2003:
"As far as our independence is concerned, I find myself to be extremely independent. I have always led a pretty independent life and I certainly do now. We are sometimes criticised because we are financed under a slightly complicated arrangement, which I will certainly explain if you would like me to, but principally by the Inland Revenue with contributions from the other three departments.
“People say, "How can you be independent if you are financed by a department?" My answer to that is we uphold about a third of the complaints against the departments. I think the departments think we are pretty independent. I certainly feel independent and I would not do this job if I did not think I were."
Is the difference in tone down to difference in personalities, or has there been a sea-change over the years in the relationship between the department and its Adjudicator?
Should the Adjudicator perhaps be given a bigger stick – or a stick of some size at all – so we can find out?
About Wendy Bradley
Wendy Bradley is a retired tax inspector, now working as a freelance journalist.