Let's help MPs ask HMRC the right questions

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With MPs pursuring an inquiry into HMRC's workings, Simon Sweetman launches his own performance review.

The Treasury subcommittee has decided to look at HMRC’s performance as an organisation and whether it is delivering its key aims. I suppose it could simply say “no” and leave it at that, but it will probably want to ask a few more questions.

These will include:

  • What the implications are of HMRC’s spending review settlement
  • Whether HMRC is able to deliver the government’s aims on tax compliance
  • Whether PAYE reform is necessary; and
  • What HMRC’s priorities should be for the future.

It would appear that the subcommittee has been goaded into action by the (largely misleading) press coverage of the PAYE end of year reconciliations now being carried out. It is to be hoped that they will try to go a little deeper than the Daily Mail and its Millions more hit by PAYE shambles theme.

The implications of the spending review settlement – a 10% or 15% further reduction in staff – demands hefty processing savings: closing contact centres on Sundays might just be the start of that. It also means more and more reliance on technology to do the job : we shall see how the PAYE business pans out, but very much doubt whether “real time information”, which will presumably need people to process it, will go ahead. It is hard to see that there is much to be gained by trying to reform PAYE before we see how the new system performs once the backlog has cleared.

How about the government’s aims on

tax compliance

? HMRC might need to start by trying to find out what they are, since at the moment there is a lot of talk about tax evasion (yes, we’re against that) and tax avoidance (we ought to say we’re against that) but there doesn’t seem to be a strategy: the current aim seems to be to collect what you can without worrying too much about principles, as in the

potential Swiss deal

, which looks as it will collect something like the right tax on the interest but keep Switzerland a safe haven for hot capital.


Which leaves us HMRC’s priorities for the future. Um… collect tax? Try not to annoy people?


The MPs on the subcommittee will ask questions: but what matters is that they ask the right questions, or just the ones that the media is needling them to ask ?

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About Simon Sweetman


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06th Nov 2010 10:35


They first need to get the basics right.

1) Open incoming post when it's received - not EIGHT WEEKS later.

2) Allow agents to speak to tax offices not useless call centres.

3) Return as much as possible to local offices - how ridiculous is it that (as we recently discovered) a return sent to one office was logged as "received" at that office, then sent to another office 150 miles away to be "captured".

4) Sort out so called "security checks" on repayments where repayments "disappear" for months and no one can be contacted about it.  (Would HMRC wait months while we "security checked" tax demands?

5) CLOSE call centres - people have been known to lose their will to live waiting for calls to be answered, and when they are answered you find yourself speaking to someone better qualified for the role of village idiot.

6) Start showing some RESPECT for agents and tax payers and realise that the HMRC work for "us" and their wages are paid by "us" - their job description does not include a requirement to be unpleasant and downright offensive towards taxpayers & their representatives.


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08th Nov 2010 12:28

We should all contribute

According to Taxation magazine the MPs also want views on:

"The departments performance as an organisation and its success in reaching key aims" and notes that submissions may be made by email to: [email protected] by 17 November.

There is a real opportunity here for everyone to send an email to the committee noting the current difficulties involved in dealing with HMRC and how these are likely to get worse if departmental numbers and budgets are cut further. For example I shall be emailing noting that: 

1. That the call centre structure introduced many years ago does not work very well because:

 (a) the centres are not staffed at the correct level (resulting in calls not being answered or answered only after lengthy delays) and

(b) the staff who work there are not given the right level of training or supervision to do the job properly - which often results in taxpayers or their agents having to contact the department perhaps twice or three times to get even very simple things done or changed. This results not only in frustration for the taxpayer or agent but must mean that HMRC are duplicating very large volumes of work unecessarily.

2. The difficulties caused by the delays in HMRC dealing with correspondence at all levels and how this leads to inefficiency and duplication of effort as papers and replies are chased. 

3. The difficulties and inefficiencies caused by staff outside of call centres who deal with technical issues not being adequately trained and there being no system of peer review of correspondence before it leaves HMRC offices and how this results in duplication of effort and inefficiency where HMRC make statements and take positions that are obviously wrong (and could be seen to be so if the HMRC officers involved were aware of their own departments guidance on the issues).    

I propose to illustrate these points with specific examples. I believe that if thousands of us were to deliver the same messages then the fact that there is something fundamentaly wrong with how the department is structured and is staffed might just get across to MPs and HMRC senior management.    

I would suggest that it is not the responsibility of those making comments to point out how the system might be improved but simply to point out the deficiencies and confusion within the current system and how poorly taxpayers and thier agents are served by it. 

I would also suggest that it is pointless asking for a reversion to the model we enjoyed, pre call centre, of traditional tax districts staffed by caseworkers who had knowledge of the  taxpayers and agents they were dealing with. When those comments were made during the course of the last parliamentary review a few weeks ago -  the reply was that a reversion to that model is is simply not going to happen. 

Michael Blake

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08th Nov 2010 12:38

0845 SCAM


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08th Nov 2010 12:43

Improvements from outside

The govt. always seems keen to "learn lessons" from (e.g.) the US and Sweden when it suits it - does any other country have it right when it comes to tax assessment and collection, or if not completely right, then better.

My concern is that micro-reforms in one area are probably possible and slightly effective.

However the "root and branch" reforms that Govt likes to talk about in other areas would be too destructive and paralysing for up to a decade.

So we need a system-level analysis to help find some 80-20 type of improvements where looking at the big picture can indicate some relatively small changes to give a good return in either effectiveness (same cost, better outcome) or efficiency (same outcome, lower cost).

For example in thoroughly examining the workflows all through the system and removing roadblocks, duplication, waste etc.

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08th Nov 2010 13:21

Well Said Sir
0845 SCAM



Posted by spurs1952 on Mon, 08/11/2010 - 12:38

What's wrong with proper telephone numbers?


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08th Nov 2010 15:13


This prefix allows HMRC to route calls to whichever call centre has capacity, which cannot be done with normal geographic numbers. So although you hate it, it is actually likely to be better with 0845 numbers than without. Until there is a suitable method of call handling using other numbers, this won't change.

BUT I've said it before and I still believe it is true. I would happily pay 0981 prices for a prompt answer by someone who (a) has the expertise to deal with my question, and (b) has the authority to make a decision which is binding on HMRC. Generally I'm not too disappointed by my dealings with call centres, but that is because I rarely need to use them.

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08th Nov 2010 23:22


 I would happily pay 0981 prices for a prompt answer by someone who (a) has the expertise to deal with my question, and (b) has the authority to make a decision which is binding on HMRC. Posted by RebeccaBenneyworth on Mon, 08/11/2010 - 15:13


That's the whole problem though Rebecca - no one in HMRC will take responsibility for anything. It's easier to nail a jelly to the wall whilst knitting fog than it is to get an answer out of HMRC.



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09th Nov 2010 08:48


C_D's last comment hits the nail on the head, HMRC need to take ownership of the work.

OK perhaps we can't go back to the caseworker model of 15 years ago, but surely something workable can be created. At present it's not only 0845 calls that are rerouted round the country, so is post. I recently responded to an Inspector in an new enquiry case. the letter had her reference on. 3 months after i sent it (and incidentally after the case had been cleared up via phone and email - the client seriously ill was the reason they did this and well done  that inspector i say) i got a call from someone asking whee the letter needed to be sent. when i said to the adresss and reference on it, she still insisted on wanting to know if it belonged to "Capital Gains Group".

Perhaps they need to create some jobs scanning post on day of delivery, it can then be picked up electronically anywhere in the country instead of being physically delivered. it could also be matched with other scanned post, so everything was worked at once instead of the mish mash the current system provides.

I also think it's time HMRC accepted emails at least from agents, surely its not beyond someone's wit to build this into the online service for security if necessary.

The Call Centres are too hit and miss, even the agent line. A colleague was recently refused access to the PAYE helpline because she failed security, on the basis HMRC had an out of date office address. when she called back she was told that wasn't the case (as indeed it shouldn't have been given everything works off the agent code and we had received codes and psot for that client to the correct address). colelction insist on asking security questions when they've called you, what they think an agent can do about non-payment I'm not sure.



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09th Nov 2010 18:52

Security questions; helpdesk-style ticketing system; scanning an

I can think of a simple scheme that would avoid security questions for situations where you had online access - logging into the correct section of HMRC online with valid credentials could give a limited-time pass code in two parts - one part lets HMRC validate the agent, the other part lets agent validate HMRC, so you can both see the other party is pukka.

Yes, and as above, going to another section of the site under your login would let you send email to a targetted department, who would be given the full context of the sender when opening the message.

Better still - how about having a Helpdesk-like ticketing system - you could have a number of open "tickets" with HMRC on different subjects or clients. The whole thread of each dialogue would be visible for reference.

On to post scanning, where the sender would be supplied with a barcode or an OCR formatted serial number to add to the letter  (maybe an image file that could be inserted in the document) - when the scanner reads the barcode or formatted serial number, it then tags the scanned image with your reference, and maybe even sends you a confirmation email. It could be tied into the ticketing system above.

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10th Nov 2010 11:26


We have just had one of those sureal telephone conversations with HMRC regarding a query raised on a CIS repayment which we promptly answered in August by fax and post , and despite chasing the revenue now cannot find the fax or the post and queried why we would reply to the address their letter came from, as apparently all correspondence must now be delivered to cumbernauld. what !

This is not an isolated case, we often find that by the time HMRC open the post 2 or 3 months later the office to which the letter was addressed has moved. This would make an excellent comedy sketch for the fast show.

This is not good enough ! HMRC are failing everyone.

phoning HMRC is an arduous test of your sanity all to be performed whilst preventing steam from ones ears and profanity from ones cake hole.

In the meantime serious amounts of tax exasion go seemingly unnoticed.

In Summary

the service level is appalling, they are not producing the required revenue, not encouraging compliance, and definately not dealing with tax evasion.


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10th Nov 2010 12:05

help ! what are key aims ?

" HMRC's performance as an organisation and whether it is delivering its key aims;"

What are key aims ?

Where can I find the spending review settlement ?

What are the governments aims on tax compliance ? Where can I see ?


was about to start submission to [email protected]

word doc by email, not more than 3000 words , deadline 12 noon on wednesday 17 November 2010.


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10th Nov 2010 13:22

Yeah right, didn't they do well !

HMRC’s DSOs for the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 period are:

DSO 1 - Improve the extent to which individuals and businesses pay the tax due and receive the credits and payments to which they are entitledDSO 2 - Improve customers’ experiences of HMRC and improve the UK business environmentDSO 3 - Reduce the risk of the illicit import and export of material which might harm the UK’s physical and social well-being

The DSOs are designed to support the strategic direction of the department which will put customers at the heart of everything we do, by understanding their needs and responding to their behaviours and expectations. Over the next three years we intend to build on the work we already do to support people and businesses, helping them to pay what they owe and receive what they are due. We intend to make it as easy as possible for our customers to get it right whilst protecting society by dealing firmly with anyone who intentionally avoids their responsibilities.

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11th Nov 2010 16:21

That implies there are "non-key" aims ...

Or else they would all just be "aims". Or "targets" - but that's a dirty word at the moment.

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