What extra help will HMRC provide?

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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.

Phone tree

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.

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16th Apr 2019 11:33

As you have suggested, it all starts with the labyrinthine automated telephone system and the difficulty speaking to HMRC.

I know that when I, as an agent, am forced to call one of their helpless lines for which there is no ADL, I am invariably swearing at the damned robot when the person answers, and so the call does not get off to the best start.

HMRC, and in fact Government, are a complete joke these days, seeing themselves as enforcers against the people, rather than servants of the people.

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to SteLacca
19th Apr 2019 09:44

Spam the hash key to bypass the automated menu and be put into the queue quicker.

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16th Apr 2019 12:06

...and don’t get me started on treating abandoned calls as a success (because the recorded messages and internet must have answered the query) rather than a failure (because in real life the person is beating their phone on the table while yelling “just... give me... a human being...to...talk to!”)

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16th Apr 2019 13:31

I telephoned the CT helpline today. It took nearly 12 minutes to deal with a simple correction to the record of 3 clients. Most of that was being on hold, with the person I eventually spoke to actually proving fairly efficient.

This was still faster than a colleague calling into another HMRC line. They started 5 minutes before me, and only got to speak to someone 3 minutes after I was done.

For added insanity after selecting 6 on the first menu (the "anything else" option) I found that option 5 on the second was that I was ringing about "something other than corporation tax". Given this is on the CT helpline, who are they expecting to use this option?

HMRC are no longer fit for purpose. This N(A?)S team are a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, and not a particulary good sticking plaster either.

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16th Apr 2019 14:13

Just a small point, but the "NES" team is "Needs Enhanced Support" (which will now work with the acronym!)

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to Russell51
16th Apr 2019 16:34

That makes sense. I did wonder if it should actually be NAS (hence my query in my response).

Also does it show my age that I immediately thought Nintendo Entertainment System when I saw that acronym?

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to stepurhan
17th Apr 2019 08:06

I'm sure that kind of NES team would be having a lot more fun!

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to Russell51
18th Apr 2019 11:26

Ouch! Sorry, I missed that. Thanks for pointing it out.

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to Russell51
23rd Apr 2019 09:15

I've amended the text.

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17th Apr 2019 13:25

May I suggest that Ms Bradley gives up her career in journalism and applies for a position with her former employer, preferably as Director of Operations or similar. Many will appreciate her painful sacrifice and acknowledge a martyr.

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23rd Apr 2019 17:39

Deleted as correction made

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23rd Apr 2019 19:26

Does this mean that the NES team will no longer go out to visit vulnerable clients who need face to face support? Not that previous interaction with NES team (in 2015) was much use as the officer that visited a relative was from a VAT background and not equipped to deal with the clearly outlined personal and partnership tax issues for which the visit was requested. Only one of the two year's tax repayments were forthcoming as the tax officer did not understand that there had been losses from the partnership (sole source of income) in 3 consecutive years. Relative gave up as tax officer did not answer their follow up letter or reply to calls to the "personal" mobile phone number.

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