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Spotlight | AccountingWEB | HMRC chief 'disappointed' over helpline u-turn
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HMRC chief disappointed over helpline U-turn

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Grilled on HMRC’s helpline U-turn, chief executive Jim Harra has expressed disappointment that the proposed changes weren’t implemented and told the Treasury Committee he ‘wasn’t surprised’ that stakeholders didn’t welcome the move.

24th Apr 2024
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HMRC has been accused of scrabbling to see what it could rescue from “the mess that’s been created” on the back of its decision to perform a remarkable U-turn on proposals to make permanent changes to its helplines.

Last month the department announced that its self assessment phoneline would close between April and September every year, while permanent cuts were also being made to both the PAYE and VAT helplines.

Caroline Miskin, ICAEW senior technical manager of digital taxation, called HMRC’s proposed permanent move to answer calls to its VAT helpline on just five business days a month “disappointing”, while Chartered Institute of Taxation president Gary Ashford said that the organisation was “deeply dismayed”.

In announcing the U-turn the next day, HMRC head, Jim Harra said that while “making best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers and get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity”, the pace of this change “needs to match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online”.

Not surprised by the backlash

Sitting alongside deputy chief executive Angela McDonald and lead non-executive Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Harra has told the Treasury Committee he “wasn’t surprised that stakeholders didn’t welcome the changes”.

“I was disappointed that, despite the work we’d done the previous year, there was so much concern and doubt about whether [helpline closures] would work and whether we’d be able to support customers effectively during it, because I believe the evidence demonstrates it can,” he said.

He added that the department “did not give enough time” when the original evaluation was published to “actually take our stakeholders through it” and “explain the evidence”.

However, Harra also outlined his belief that “some of the speed of the stakeholder reaction” indicates that they “did not have the time to digest the evaluation that we had published”.

“So we have to reflect not only on the pace we want to move, but how effective we are at engaging and informing.”

Nothing tactical

In response to committee chair Harriett Baldwin mulling whether or not Harra was “doing this to make the case for more resources”, he stressed: “There’s nothing tactical involved in this at all from my point of view; in fact, I’m very disappointed that we’ve not been able to take what I regard as a modernising step. I fully believe in our strategy.”

He doubled down, saying: “I think there’s little doubt that if we’d been able to proceed, the evidence from last year’s trial indicates that we would have been able to help more vulnerable and digitally excluded customers because the route through to an adviser for them would not have been blocked by other callers whose calls could’ve been effectively dealt with online.”

Unclear answer

When quizzed on whether the helpline plans have now been cancelled or might instead be “snuck back in” at a later date, the answer seemed unclear.

“They are cancelled,” he began. “I’m not saying we will not return to this because it’s part of implementing our strategy and we do think it was effective last year, but we’re not just pausing to try again. We’ve stopped those changes, will reflect with stakeholders and replan the implementation of our strategy.

“That may or may not include this type of measure in the future.”

It was then put to him by MP Angela Eagle that HMRC’s plans were “knocked off” by the adverse reaction and “now you’re scrabbling round to see what you can rescue from the mess that’s been created”.

Harra admitted that the department will “now have to replan”.

Immediate reaction

On the U-turn, Harra said there’d been an “immediate reaction” from a range of stakeholders who’d expressed concerns that proceedings were moving too fast and that they did not have the assurances they needed.

He added that HMRC was aware that those consulted on the proposals “would’ve preferred us not to proceed with it”.

However, the CEO believed that the work had been done to demonstrate that they could be safely implemented ahead of what he called a “strength of feeling which was not what we had been expecting” as part of the backlash.

“It was a genuine concern, not just a political reaction.”

Diminishing resources

Harra repeatedly came back to HMRC’s lack of resources, which he called “diminishing” in the wake of a growing customer base.

He said the key pressure point is across the department’s helplines, where the service is “well below the standard we want to give them”, and added that while HMRC doesn’t have the funding for what he called the “alternative plan” – which is to deploy more helpline resources – discussions are ongoing with ministers.

However, while the conversations had been “positive and constructive”, there was no suggestion that any promises had been made, despite the pressure on cost savings growing.

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Replies (43)

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By FactChecker
24th Apr 2024 18:52

He doubled down, saying: “I think there’s little doubt that if we’d been able to proceed, the evidence from last year’s trial indicates that we would have been able to help more vulnerable and digitally excluded customers because the route through to an adviser for them would not have been blocked by other callers whose calls could’ve been effectively dealt with online.”

Wondered how long it would take Jim 'Horror' Harra to attempt the standard HMRC technique of blaming it all on us (or to be specific, everyone bar him)!

BUT WHY is he still allowed to make pronouncements such as:
“making best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers and get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity”?

There is not and has never been any attempt to quantify those kinds of assertions through metrics (even if the deliberately woolly wording was tightened ... 'boosting productivity' in particular - whose productivity? and measured against what criteria)?
The laughable TIINs that are grudgingly wheeled out from time to time are *so* appallingly unrelated to the real world - and they are the premier league winners in HMRC's cupboard of 'understanding economics' trophies.

The Harra version of statistics and how to interpret them for public soundbites is no better than those from the Post Office over the last 20 years. It's become near impossible to distinguish between incompetence and deliberate misdirection ... but if only 1% of taxpayers are mistreated due to HMRC failed systems (and if only it was that few across PAYE/SA/CGT/VAT and so on) then that's a LOT of lives that are at a minimum severely disrupted (often with major familial knock-ons) and can lead to unnecessary bankruptcy and (fortunately only occasionally) death.

Sounds horribly familiar?
The common features are an unquestioning belief that systems trump people and that, ultimately, people don't matter when they're reduced to statistics.

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By Open all hours
24th Apr 2024 19:24

Talk about stealing a wage. This guy is unreal. Clear your desk Jim.

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Replying to Open all hours:
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By AS44NG
30th Apr 2024 14:45

He is waiting for that Knighthood methinks.

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By paulwakefield1
25th Apr 2024 08:18

"He added that HMRC was aware that those consulted on the proposals “would’ve preferred us not to proceed with it”."

So a standard government consultation then - lip service only and plough on anyway.

“So we have to reflect not only on the pace we want to move, but how effective we are at engaging and informing.”

And in other miracles, I have just had a pair of red kites fly past the window closely followed by a couple of very healthy looking pigs.

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Tornado
By Tornado
25th Apr 2024 09:48

Jim is a master at fancy talk but apparently does not actually know what he is talking about.

He sounds a little like my young grandchildren who seem to know a lot but are not quite yet aware of all the facts.

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Replying to Tornado:
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By Rob Swan
29th Apr 2024 11:22

It seems 'mastering fancy talk and not actually knowing what you're talking about' is - and has been for some time now - the most effective way to progress your Civil Service career. It also seems that above a certain level, anything more 'genuine' is a definite bar to promotion. Talk is cheap, 'action' is expensive, so talk wins!!

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By agknight
25th Apr 2024 10:31

Jim Harra believes in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas. He probably also believes his knighthood is on the way and is probably right on that one!

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Replying to agknight:
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By Tom+Cross
25th Apr 2024 15:08

I'm sure it's a racing certainty that he'll be given a knighthood. Personally, I can't wait, as it usually signals the imminent departure, of the said individual. Remember, Dame Lin Homer. Also a massive 'success' at HMRC. They all leave their mark. And it's often one you struggle to forget.
The doors behind you Jim. Please close it, as you leave.

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Replying to Tom+Cross:
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By OrmeGoat
26th Apr 2024 09:54

Tom+Cross wrote:

Remember, Dame Lin Homer.

Please don't remind me. The name says it all.

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Replying to Tom+Cross:
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By djtax
26th Apr 2024 11:52

The problem is not getting rid of Harra - it is who comes next? Angela MacDonald perhaps? Would she be any better.....??? Having heard both of them speak (and noting that she usually joins him at the Select Committee hearings etc) I worry whether we would see any improvement with her at the helm.

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By R J C
25th Apr 2024 11:15

I know it's different to the Royal Mail behaviour, but organisations like HMRC don't seem to learns lessons from other large organisation's mistakes. There's little to no integrity and accountability with senior decision makers who appear to know and understand very little for what they're responsible. Sadly, it all comes from the very top! Isn't that right Jim?

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By Deez Nuts
25th Apr 2024 13:22

If the online alternative works so well why does Jim think we aren't already using it?

Does he really think we enjoy sitting on hold for hours on the off chance we get through to a competent staffer?

Make the online tools better and the phonelines will naturally quieten down.

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By johnthegood
25th Apr 2024 14:54

meanwhile the rest of the world has been successfully communicating via email for many years....

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By MalcomB
25th Apr 2024 15:00

Good Afternoon.

When the original proposals were announced to close the Helplines I started a Petition to prevent the HMRC from doing so. A number of you supported that petition but others were unable to until the Petition had been approved. It has now received approval and has been published on the Parliament.UK website. If anyone wants to support it, it can be found at:https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/659220

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VAT
By Jason Croke
25th Apr 2024 15:59

Just how many vulnerable and digitally excluded taxpayers are there?

Must be a minority surely?

But his plan was to cut everyone else off at the legs so that IT resistant taxpayers can continue to get personalised one to one service.

If that's the case, then all of my clients will magically become "vulnerable or digitally excluded"...what utter nonsense from Harra....he really thinks his IT systems are that good? Deluded.

The issue isn't the online point of access, it is that HMRC screw up nearly everything they push out, make wrong decisions or take ages to respond and this forces people to call HMRC.

My point is, the expectation that HMRC responses are honest and legally correct is now long lost, most of what HMRC churn out is wrong, often fictional and their online system is not designed around dealing with this sort of thing, as the online design is based around HMRC actually doing stuff right and on time.

Helplines and IT are the least of Harras problems, start with integrity and professionalism and build from there.

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By Jabba the Hut
25th Apr 2024 16:09

"Clearly the level of outrage about the decision had shaken HMRC, with Harra stressing to MPs that the tax office had done plenty of internal research before taking the decision."

"Harra added that HMRC ‘had talked to tax professionals, frankly they would prefer us not to make these changes and to be resourced to do things as we have always done’."

So they did lots of internal research went ahead as all the feedback was positive, ignoring the fact that all the feedback from external sources, those having to deal with the changes, were negative, you couldn't make it up.

The big problem is, if may be more efficient to do things online, but only if those who need to use the digital services have perfect knowledge of how to use them. I would hazard may professionals struggle, were are accountants not IT people after all. When you get the general public, that ability is far less.

But who are stakeholders FFS, does he mean tax payers!

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By AdamJones82
25th Apr 2024 21:58

O’hara I’ve got PLENTY of appetite to use digital services. HMRCs though are useless

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By JamesDS
26th Apr 2024 09:34

If only they'd u-turn on few more of their dumb decisions.

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By listerramjet
26th Apr 2024 09:40

Civil service should not be airing its dirty laundry in public. He alludes to a fair point - tax laws are too complex, necessitating significant resource to manage. In which sense reducing access to said source is somewhat stupid. Although I fail to see why HMRC should provide this. If nothing else they are conflicted!!! Why not subcontract with professional third parties.

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By michael2022A
26th Apr 2024 09:41

There are simple issues that the Chief Executive does not seem to understand. Firstly you cannot call taxpayers customers, as a customer who receives poor service you should be entitled to use someone else whereas HMRC is a monopoly.
Secondly, all accountants/agents and taxpayers would happily not spend over 15 minutes on hold (minimum) calling HMRC to resolve an issue if we could do this online.

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By johnward
26th Apr 2024 09:48

If online was a good set up nobody would waste there time calling up.

Need to implement online log ins similar to the Irish Revenue, one log in and have access to everything. Tax offsets happen automatically for CIS/RCT against other taxes.

One tax number for everything.

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By OrmeGoat
26th Apr 2024 09:51

Proof,if it was needed, that Harra should resign immediately.

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By monksview
26th Apr 2024 09:51

To be honest it feels like he's already all but closed the helplines. Its been getting progressively worse in recent years but in the past few months I have found the whole thing depressing. If I ever can actually get in the queue on their phone lines, the wait is often up to an hour now. sometimes getting cut off when it extends to that long. Even when trying before 9am. And when advising clients to call them, I used to be able to tell them between 8am and 8pm or Saturday mornings. I can see that's now restricted to 8am to 6pm weekdays only.

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Replying to monksview:
VAT
By Jason Croke
26th Apr 2024 10:22

monksview wrote:

To be honest it feels like he's already all but closed the helplines. Its been getting progressively worse in recent years but in the past few months I have found the whole thing depressing. If I ever can actually get in the queue on their phone lines, the wait is often up to an hour now. sometimes getting cut off when it extends to that long. Even when trying before 9am. And when advising clients to call them, I used to be able to tell them between 8am and 8pm or Saturday mornings. I can see that's now restricted to 8am to 6pm weekdays only.


The helplines are mostly staffed by unintelligent robots who don't know their own internal processes and systems, let alone know anything abot the tax you are calling them about.

Call debt mgmt about an erroneous debt showing on the VAT account, they can't help as they only deal with paying debt even if it is an error, get put through to someone else who says they will correct their error now, a week later its still showing on the account, rinse repeat. Debt mgmt chasing client and sending debt collectors for a fictitious debt, debt mgmt not interested in resolving, other people you speak to promise to fix then don't.

And I'm a professional who knows what he's doing, so dial that down to an average taxpayer and they'd end up paying debts they don't owe because they can't speak to anyone to resolve or they end up with debt collectors on their door and taking your TV away.

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By Jason Croke
26th Apr 2024 10:13

I did an online VAT deregistration for client, all up to date with returns, no debts, never a late return.

Went online, clicked the "cancel reg" button, answered the questions, submit, the menu option for "cancel reg" changes to "pending".

2 days later I go back to check, instead of seeing "pending" or "dereg confirmed" I see that the original submission was not processed as the option for me to deregister was still there. Status had changed from pending back to "cancel reg?".

So I submit the dereg again.

Note that at no stage do I or the client get any sort of message or email to inform that the original dereg was rejected, nor was a reason given online as to why rejected.

Client gets a later 10 days after my first dereg attempt. Letter says according to HMRC records they cannot allow the dereg. That's it, no explanation as to the issue, no right of appeal offered either. My client has ceased to trade but were they still trading they could have stopped charging VAT based on my submission only to discover 10 days later they are still registered!

Calls to client to reassure, calls to HMRC helpline who could not tell me the basis of rejection.

Client receives another letter 10 days after my second dereg attempt and HMRC have deregistered the client, happy days! But nothing changed between my first and second attempt, my answers on the form were the same, so why did my first dereg attempt fail? Who knows?

But a simple 15 minute online click job ends up being a couple of hours, a pointless call to HMRC helpline that could have been dealt with if that letter had been on the clients or agents message/gateway.

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By JCresswellTax
26th Apr 2024 10:28

Would love to know how much this [***] earns for being completely out of touch and clueless.

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Replying to JCresswellTax:
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By Not Anonymous
26th Apr 2024 10:44

JCresswellTax wrote:

Would love to know how much this [***] earns for being completely out of touch and clueless.

There is only one Harra listed

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/64ca69066ae44e000d11b414/...

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Replying to Not Anonymous:
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By FactChecker
26th Apr 2024 12:49

If you delete the last 7 characters (i.e. 'preview') from that URL, you can download a csv file and play with all the data to your heart's content.

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By Pykett
26th Apr 2024 10:43

The HMRC is clearly not fit for purpose. They need to train the helpline staff better, so they actually understand the tax that they are trying to assist tax payers with, and teach them to show empathy. I don't want to be talking to a webot if I have a query, I want to talk to a human who knows what they are doing.

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By stanbu
26th Apr 2024 11:09

"He doubled down, saying: “I think there’s little doubt that if we’d been able to proceed, the evidence from last year’s trial indicates that we would have been able to help more vulnerable and digitally excluded customers because the route through to an adviser for them would not have been blocked by other callers whose calls could’ve been effectively dealt with online.”"

How does this help, instead of being blocked by other taxpayers with a hope that they will eventually speak to someone, there is no line to block and they never get through

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By moneymanager
26th Apr 2024 11:50

'Civil SERVANT', some don't understand what that means.

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By dwgw
26th Apr 2024 12:42

No problem with the strategy, it just wasn't communicated effectively - OK, Jim, in other words, you were right but the "stakeholders" (yuck) didn't understand the message and the "growing customer base" (what!?) will miss out.

He needs to remove his head from a place where the sun never shines.

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By sammerchant
26th Apr 2024 13:40

Sorry, Mr Harra. Your feeble explanation is far from what the professionals perceive the real reason to be: to make life easier for you and your minions. I would suggest that you start by giving the Agents as much leeway (answering calls, replying to letters, responding to inquiries, dealing with 'computer problems' etc) as you wish to be afforded to HMRC. What is sauce for the goose SHOULD BE sauce for the gander. Only when HMRC and the Agents are treated as equals will you get the full support and assistance of those who feel very hard done by at present.

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By Mr J Andrews
26th Apr 2024 14:09

''I fully believe in our strategy.” Harra just spouts meaningless verbal diarrhoea.
The analogy to Captain Edward Smith grows with every article about this shocking incumbent.
Full steam ahead Harra. How much longer to reaching maximum pension entitlement ?

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By trecar
26th Apr 2024 16:36

I was going to ask where Herra learnt his management skills and then after consideration thought no, it's obvious, he makes it up as he goes along. Does he have any idea who the stakeholders are? His response suggests that as far as he is concerned it is just the public and their advisors, and what they think doesn't matter as his internal evidence shows that he is correct. It must have surprised him when he suddenly realised that the Treasury Committee is also a stakeholder and they weren't impressed with his responses. It looks as though the only people he is trying to impress are Treasury Ministers and their cronies and given their incompetence it is a surprise that he actually thinks he is onto a winner. Still, as others have said he'll get his gong and continue to think how wonderful he is.

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By Yossarian
27th Apr 2024 11:57

I would be more than happy never to have to telephone HMRC ever again. The problem is for that to be a reality HMRC would have to get their digital systems to a point where they both include all of necessary features, and actually work properly. I'm not confident in either of those objectives being met in my lifetime.

One solution surely would be for HMRC to offer a secure email facility through Personal/Business Tax accounts and Agent accounts, answered by an actual named HMRC officer? Other countries' tax agencies and many UK financial institutions seem to be able to manage this, so why not HMRC?

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Replying to Yossarian:
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By sammerchant
04th May 2024 12:45

I suspect because that would increase their "workload"!

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By ruth.julian
27th Apr 2024 20:39

Client sold a residential property in April. No CGT form for 2024/25 either in SA online or forms. Rang HMRC orderline. Asked for 2024/25 SA108. The agent had no idea what Client was asking for and insisted he needed 2023/24 and it would take 10 working days to reach him. Could not tell Client if he could just change dates on the form. To his credit he did eventually put Client through to SA Helpline and got through to someone who did understand, consulted with CGT team, gave Client the answer, and read back note put on Client's file that a paper return with amended dates would be submitted. If the SA Helpline had not been operational, who in HMRC would have dealt with this dilemma? Not the needs extra support team nor Mr Harra...

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By PAULLEWISFCCA
29th Apr 2024 09:14

for some reason HMRC keep demanding an ever greater share of other peoples earnings - at some point the slaves down tools

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Replying to PAULLEWISFCCA:
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By paulwakefield1
29th Apr 2024 09:26

Think you may find that's called the "Government". HMRC just implement the law (albeit sometimes badly).

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Replying to paulwakefield1:
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By PAULLEWISFCCA
29th Apr 2024 10:53

same thing

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By justsotax
29th Apr 2024 11:44

A common theme across many heads of business in recent months (whether public or private) seems their inability to comprehend how their business works....or doesn't. Whether post, water or software specialists, it is frightening how out of touch these senior people are with the business they oversee.....and as usual it is the average punter who has to pick up the pieces or suffer the consequences......

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Replying to justsotax:
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By Rob Swan
29th Apr 2024 16:10

It's the "Monkey Tree" problem:
Those higher up the tree look down, see lots of happy smiling faces looking up at them and - generally, because they're too lazy to check - assume everything is just fine and dandy. Those lower down the tree look up and just see.....
...... a bunch of A$5#0les.

Very common problem these days!

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