Wendy Bradley examines the new HMRC support for customers who need extra help briefing and asks whether this is the right approach.
I have some problems with the concept of "extra" help for the taxpayer (or “customer” as HMRC insists on labelling them). When I first worked for the Inland Revenue, in days of yore, the public could come to a tax office and talk to a member of staff, who would answer their query. The individual staff member could take advice from more senior and specialist staff as was required.
Currently, HMRC uses an interactive telephone filtering system which has a long and complex "tree" of options, most of which suggest that – I paraphrase – the caller stops bothering them and looks at the website instead. When the caller eventually reaches a member of staff, that person can generally only answer queries which fit their scripts.
At this point, there is the possibility that the contact centre worker will decide the caller needs "extra" help, and will pass them: "to a specialist team who are able to resolve many tax and tax credits queries in a single call, taking advice from experts across HMRC, so the customer doesn’t have to speak to more than one person."
HMRC see this as an efficient allocation of resources, redirecting people to sources they can access for themselves, rather than using scarce HMRC staff time that could be better spent elsewhere. Taxpayers may view it as adding an entirely unnecessary and vexatious layer of technology and officialese between the individual and the organisation when often all that is required is a simple piece of human reassurance.
What is extra help?
Clearly, the clock is not going to be turned back to face-to-face chats, so what does HMRC have to offer to those of us who might need "extra" help? Aside from the NES (Needs Enhanced Support) team, which is the name of the "specialist team", the issue briefing outlines:
- Help from others
- Support in a tax investigation
- Support with debt
- Ongoing work to support those who need extra help
Help from others
This is simply a signpost to the Citizens Advice Bureau or to the mental health charity Mind.
As far as I can ascertain, neither of these organisations receives funding from HMRC to take over the work that tax authority no longer sees as within its remit but nevertheless, the organisations seem sanguine about doing it. Vicki Nash, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mind, said: “It’s positive that HMRC recognises the link between money and mental health and signposts to organisations like Mind, who can help.”
Support during a tax investigation
This consists of little more than signposting taxpayers to other organisations, principally Citizens Advice and the Tax Aid charity, and a reminder of the Charter. There is the fascinating suggestion that HMRC will "make sure that customers who need extra help, or who are unrepresented, are supported in developing their position."
Having just read the anonymised FTT case: Appellant v HMRC (TC05564), which established that mental health issues can constitute "reasonable excuse", I'm afraid I am not persuaded that HMRC will provide the right sort of support for those with mental health issues. Next time HMRC updates their issue briefing I'd like to see some examples of this element in action.
Support with debt
The section in the issue briefing on HMRC's support for taxpayers with tax debts makes the rather circular argument that as 90% of the "time to pay" arrangements it makes with debtors are paid on time, that demonstrates that they are "responsive to people's needs".
However, it is the extraordinary claim that "where we recognise that a customer needs additional help, we will move them out of our usual debt collection process and pass them to our dedicated Needs Extra Support (NES) team" that concerns me.
What if the HMRC officer dealing with that particular taxpayer on that particular day doesn't happen to recognise the taxpayer's need for help? What kind of training do HMRC staff receive in recognising taxpayers' additional needs, and how does that process work in practice? It seems extraordinary to me that HMRC acts as judge, jury and executioner in its own processes and we must be judged as worthy to receive a little human consideration.
I would certainly advise any friend or relative struggling to deal with HMRC to ask whether they were being considered for help from the NES team and, if not, why not?
Support for those who need extra help
The final section of the briefing is titled: "ongoing work to support customers who need extra help", which seems to hinge on a new Customer Experience Committee.
However, it is not obvious who represents real taxpayers on this committee. From the description of "independent customer experience members from a wide range of industries and sectors, who share their learning and best practice" it sounds to me as if HMRC is taking its advice from the kind of people who invent telephone trees and devise policies for signposting customers to voluntary organisations, rather than those at the sharp end of their policies. This includes a small business owner in my circle of friends, who has been struggling to persuade HMRC that sending in bailiffs to collect an amount already paid by standing order is rather inappropriate.
He now reports receiving an apology from HMRC saying: "these letters were issued in error as a result of a breakdown in communication between the systems we use." Quite.
About Wendy Bradley
Wendy Bradley is a retired tax inspector, now working as a freelance journalist.