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Tax professionals concerned over strain on understaffed HMRC

November 21, 2013


The Association of Taxation Technicians has voiced its concern over HMRC’s capacity to effectively manage the tax system. The ATT is worried that HMRC frontline staff are being placed under increasing pressure as staffing levels are decreased as HMRC scrambles to go digital and rely entirely on electronic interaction with taxpayers and employers.

The recently appointed Chief Digital and Information Officer for HMRC, Mark Dearnley, who joined HMRC from Vodafone, told delegates at a London IT conference on 5 November: “We are going to become a fully accessible digital business.”

The ATT stated that HMRC’s digital service is “simply not sufficiently mature to allay concerns over diminishing staff levels and long waiting times.”  Although acknowledging that moving towards an increasingly digital tax system could have significant benefits for both taxpayers and HMRC, the ATT emphasised the importance of having a “properly resourced” telephone support system in place to provide taxpayers with the help they need to use digital resources effectively.

The comments come after reports of high volumes of staff resignations at HMRC. In the year 2012-13 1,697 HMRC staff resigned, of which 1,238 were from the personal tax department. 

Yvette Nunn, President of the ATT, highlighted disappointing HMRC service statistics (as quoted in the Public Accounts Committee’s ‘Charges for customer telephone lines’ report of October this year) as an indicator that HMRC’s service still has some way to go.  Nunn commented that “The numbers speak for themselves; HMRC only expect 80% of calls to be answered in five minutes so at least one in five of the calls that a call centre officer takes will be from a taxpayer who has already waited over five minutes to speak with a human-being.”

She further pointed out that “Callers must know they will get through to an officer who is able to deal with their query.  Otherwise, they will lose confidence in the department and that can ultimately lead to non-compliance.”

Commenting on the issue of HMRC funding and staffing in his recent Hardman Tax lecture, leading tax expert Paul Aplin said that “Headcount reductions have sometimes been made ahead of new processes being proved effective and often predicated on the idea that digitalisation would automatically lead to cost savings.”  He described HMRC’s reduction in staffing levels as “too fast”, and said that “with a tax system that becomes more complex every year, the need for technical skills will continue to increase. As HMRC’s headcount fell, its service standards declined.”

Amongst the growing concern of tax professionals about HMRC’s management of the tax system comes the news that cuts at HMRC offices in Northern Ireland have been announced, with HMRC seeking up to 250 voluntary redundancies by the 18th of December.  A spokesperson for HMRC said that the redundancies were due to the shift towards digital: “An increasing number of our customers are choosing to do business with us through our online services, which has reduced our need for physical sites.”

HMRC further said that the move towards online taxation had led to “the nature of our work shift[ing] away from the mass processing work of the past to the more specialist, but less labour intensive, roles required in effective policing of the tax system.”

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