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Oh no you didn’t!

November 12, 2015

I find the Sheffield Theatres website appallingly difficult to use: one of those annoying merchants who won’t sell you anything unless you have an “account” but won’t open you an account because it tells you there’s already one connected to your email address but won’t for love nor money let you log into it.  I wanted to buy some panto tickets and wound up sending a complaining email instead…

… and they responded by emailing back, then telephoning me and walking me through the transaction,  and explaining that their website will be completely revamped in January.

And that’s what customer service looks like!

HMRC’s customer service, on the other hand…

HMRC’s customer service, and particularly their call handling, is criticised in the latest PAC report.  As Meg Hillier, the chair, said:

“It beggars belief that, having made disappointing progress on tax evasion and avoidance, the taxman also seems incapable of running a satisfactory service for people trying to pay their fair share.”

I’m interested in how the call handling figures are put together: according to the latest quarterly figures I can find, HMRC answered 67.1% of calls although the Guardian reports there’s a March 2015 figure of 68.3%.

But look at the response.  There are 3000 more staff handling calls, or, more precisely:

In the summer, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) recruited 3,000 additional staff into customer facing teams. The recruitment process included bringing people in on contracts to work in the evenings and at weekends, thus building capacity to handle calls outside of normal working hours. (David Gauke, PQ)

So is that 3000 new people recruited into HMRC?  3000 full time jobs?  3000 FTEs (“full time equivalent”) posts i.e. it might be more bodies working fewer hours but adding up to 3000 x 37 hours a week?  Or was there some internal “recruitment” of staff from existing jobs within HMRC into “customer-facing teams”?  I can find some anecdotal mention of there having been “1600” jobs advertised, but that is from a website of students complaining about the slow pace of the recruitment process (reply 19 here).  It seems from a twitter conversation that it was likely new bodies – 2000 full time and 1000 fixed term appointments – but it’s a sad indictment of the current state of public discourse that the text of David Gauke’s answer sounds like weasel words rather than an actual attempt to answer the question asked.

Why do I think that?  And why should you care?

Well, Jolyon Maugham starts from the same PAC report (in his Waiting for Godot tax blog) and lays out a compelling case leading to the  startling conclusion that

HMRC set out to mislead you as to its success in tackling offshore tax evasion. Not lying – because the document does not explicitly state that those are charging decisions in relation to offshore evasion – but an attempt to mislead.

When something goes wrong – like the Sheffield Theatres website – or looks as if it might have gone wrong  (because in the end it turned out that it was just my having logged into the site with Facebook instead of with my email address that was causing the problem) the way to deal with it is to deal with it.  If HMRC have recruited 3000 new customer service staff but found their resource insufficient to prosecute offshore evasion then they should say so.  And we should be able to trust what they say means what it sounds like, without the need for careful parsing and double checking.  No-one expects them to be able to do everything.

But if they imply they have prosecuted numbers of tax evaders in the hundreds we should be able to resist the urge to say “oh no you didn’t” (it was eleven, and the hundreds of prosecutions included all kinds of other offences).  If we stop trusting the integrity of the tax authorities, we’re in a whole new space.

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