Closing the enquiry centres part one

March 20, 2013

All right then, let’s have a look at the consultation on HMRC’s closure of its enquiry centres.  It’s here, on the GOV.UK website and please note it closes on 24 May.

But don’t rush – the decision to close the enquiry centres has already been taken.  The consultation isn’t about whether to close the enquiry centres but about what kind of “service” will replace them.  You think I’m exaggerating? Because the introduction says:

No final decision will be made until we have consulted on and piloted the new service, and fully assessed the findings of the consultation and the pilot.

But look at the summary of consultation questions, on page 16 – there isn’t one question where respondents are asked whether closing the enquiry centres is a reasonable idea unless you think you can sneak it into question 2:

What do you think are the main benefits and disadvantages of the proposed new approach?

So let’s start.

Why we are changing

1.1 Some HMRC customers need extra help to get their taxes and entitlements right. We want to provide this extra help in a way that suits them.

All right.  Look at the weasel word “extra”.  SOME customers need EXTRA help.  What about the rest of us, who just need, you know, help?  Not “extra” help, over and above: just “some” help?

Now, I know my way around a tax return.  But just about every year that I’ve had to complete a tax return I’ve hit some kind of snag, somewhere that I’ve wondered which box does this go into, does that mean the net or gross figure…   Do I need “extra” help, or just “help”?

People have been complaining for years about being called “customers” instead of “taxpayers” and this consultation makes it clear to me why.  Because taxpayers are citizens and citizens have rights; customers are sources of revenue who have customer service, tailored to their value to the organisation.  And a low paying customer like you or me will get a lesser service than a high value customer like a multinational.  We don’t get a customer relationship manager or a customer coordinator: we get the “pay up and piss off” service.

Moving on.

1.2 Most customers with simple queries choose to visit our website for help…

Do they?  Do they really?  The weasel word this time is “choose”.  Do they make a “choice” to visit the HMRC website, or are they driven to it because the enquiry centre is only open between 9.30 and 1.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and there’s nowhere to phone up and check that out before you actually get there, and it takes five minutes to answer the phone and that’s after you’ve navigated through two minutes of recorded messages and telephone trees…

Again, let’s move on to 1.3

For many people, visiting an Enquiry Centre is not, and has never been, a convenient option. Because of this, some customers have struggled to get the support they need from us.

Let’s play “spot the weasel”, shall we?  Anyone?

Yes, that’s right, it’s “and has never been”.  Because at least in direct taxes, in the days of the old Inland Revenue, we used to have a network of tax offices in the communities in which they served, with an enquiry counter where people could come in and drop off their tax returns and ask their questions.  And, because of the structure of the organisation, there were other people in the building with specialist expertise who could answer trickier questions and access specialist advice.  The reason enquiry centres aren’t a convenient option now is purely down to the actions of the organisation since the merger.  So it may be true, but it isn’t a law of nature – it’s a political decision.

Moving on…

1.4 Even for customers living close-by, the use of Enquiry Centres has fallen sharply in recent years…

In our Hexham office, which received just 601 visits last year, the average cost of an appointment is £185.

I had to google Hexham (it’s in Northumberland – looks a really nice place for a visit actually) but it didn’t take me long to work out why they only had 601 visits last year: if you look at the helpfully inaccessible spreadsheet here you’ll see that the Hexham enquiry office is open for exactly four hours a week, between 9.30 and 1.30 on Friday mornings.

And there I’m going to stop for today and try to calm down a bit.  Although the Budget’s starting in a few minutes, so maybe it’s time to break out the emergency bottle of Talisker…


  1. […] HMRC enquiry centres (the consultation closes on 24th May and I’ve already blogged about it here, here and here.  Oh, and here.  Not to mention here.) I should also check out what other tax […]

  2. […] Closing the enquiry centres: part one […]

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