HMRC criticised over 'stretched' resources and helplines

The standard of service on HMRC helplines and 'stretched' resources remain major concerns for taxpayers, exacerbated by the additional pressure due to Brexit, according to the latest research into attitudes to the tax authority

Customer service via phone and online continues to be a serious concern for taxpayers, identified as one of HMRC’s main weaknesses, according to the latest HMRC stakeholder engagement research conducted by Populus, which surveyed over 300 respondents, including tax agents, corporates and MPs.

The research found that ‘most stakeholders had little experience of “frontline” HMRC advisers’, adding that ‘it was common for stakeholders to mention anecdotal stories of poor customer service experienced by constituents, members and/or clients’.

The bumpy introduction of Making Tax Digital for VAT was also criticised by some with stakeholders noting delays to the timeline and warning against the risk of HMRC losing momentum on the wider rollout, as Brexit pressures diverted resources. There was also criticism of the consultation process, which although HMRC goes through a three-month consultation period, does not always appear to listen to feedback. The research found that stakeholders were ‘slightly less likely to consider that HMRC acted on stakeholder views or communicated steps taken in response to feedback once the consultation period had come to an end. There continued to be a belief that HMRC could operate in a bureaucratic and slow manner’.

There were also concerns that HMRC was losing some its most experienced staff, due to a mix of retirement, staff demographic and the requirement to move resources around the organisation, leaving less experienced staff to handle complex frontline issues. As a result, some of these stakeholders added that ‘members of staff new in post sometimes appeared to require more training to provide a service of the same quality as their more experienced colleagues’.

Brexit remains a serious worry with a general consensus that the uncertainty about the end agreement was having have a serious impact on HMRC as resources were put under pressure and diverted to dealing with the UK’s departure from the EU.

Stakeholders said HMRC was broadly performing well within what they perceived to be a challenging climate, but highlighted uncertainty over EU Exit and perceptions of limited resources as particular challenges.

Brexit was considered ‘a sizeable risk to an already “stretched” HMRC, with stakeholders expecting that HMRC would play an important role in this process. It was felt that uncertainty regarding Brexit was a challenge in itself, but there was also an assumption that resources were being – and would be in future – reallocated to facilitate necessary changes and that this might have an adverse impact on HMRC’s customer service’.

While there was criticism of the quality of HMRC’s customer service, on more general issues stakeholders said that HMRC performed well against key performance indicators. Familiarity with HMRC remained high and consistent with previous years, while favourability towards HMRC and perceptions of HMRC’s performance as the UK’s tax authority improved year-on-year.

While stakeholders were more likely to speak highly of than to criticise HMRC, the research found, as in previous years, stakeholders were most likely to say they would be neutral – neither speaking highly nor criticising – and most also continued to view their relationship with HMRC as that of a ‘critical friend’, a description which did not come with negative connotations.

Most stakeholders had only a limited knowledge of HMRC’s senior management and leadership team, with respondents less likely to deal with the top management. Perceptions of HMRC’s leadership and management often also depended on stakeholders’ confidence in the HMRC staff they interacted and dealt with on a regular basis, with views on the ability of individual officers and directors important contributors to confidence in the tax authority more generally.

On avoidance and evasion clampdown, HMRC was seen to be doing a good job, maximising revenues wand closing the tax gap. However, HMRC’s heavy handed approach to small businesses and individuals was seen as problematic, with stakeholders stating that they ‘were concerned that HMRC seemed to continue to focus on tax avoidance and evasion on the part of small businesses and individuals rather than on large, multinational organisations’.

The stakeholder research was conducted between October and December 2018.

HMRC Stakeholder Engagement Research 2018

By Sara White | 18-07-19

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