Wednesday, 17 July 2013

HMRC cannot do joined-up writing

As anyone who reads this blog will appreciate, I correspond regularly with HMRC. If I am dealing with an issue other than an enquiry into a taxpayer's affairs, when normally one officer will run the case, HMRC's correspondence is literally all over the place.

Not all issues can be dealt with over the telephone, because HMRC's Self Assessment call centre agents are limited in their power to help with anything beyond a PAYE Coding or a payment allocation etc.. If I have to make a complaint on behalf of a client or simply highlight some issue which HMRC are clearly getting wrong, I have to write. The trouble is that each time I write a letter on a particular issue, I get a reply from a different person in HMRC.

I believe that part of the difficulty must be a drive for “efficiency” in this new digital age. Most initial correspondence has to go to a PO box in Cardiff (you might get to write to a couple of other PO boxes when you get a reply) and I believe they scan and email my letter to some anonymous office who knows where. If I am lucky I get a reply within anything from a couple of weeks to three months. If I then respond my next letter might be scanned and sent to someone else to reply, perhaps someone in another part of the country.

Because HMRC officers are not trusted to think for themselves, or are not qualified to, many of the replies are obvious “paste jobs” from standard text. They do not consider the thrust or particular nuance of the letter to which they are replying, and of course the second and third people to respond in correspondence will not know what their predecessors were thinking when they wrote their letters.

It is no good trying to send a follow-up letter before I have had a reply to the previous one, because that will be emailed somewhere else, even if I attach a copy of the earlier letter.

Sometimes I have had two replies to the same letter within a few weeks. On a recent occasion, a more favourable decision was made in the second than in the first, which is fine and they have committed themselves.

There is no continuity in the system. No one sees correspondence through, and if they did it would be dealt with more quickly and efficiently. As I have mentioned before, one letter to me was typed and never sent to me by HMRC. Often, letters I receive from HMRC are unsigned, and I wonder whether the officer who drafted the letter has checked it, or if anyone has read it through in their absence, given that sometimes mistakes are only noticed in hard copy.

I suppose the problems are that there are insufficient technical staff of a decent standard within HMRC, and that digital technology had led to misguided senior managers believing that any of their officers can deal with correspondence without a case file, even a virtual one.

The current system wastes my time and your time if you are a tax professional, and it wastes HMRC's time and resources in not getting matters dealt with more quickly and efficiently.

It is another exasperating example proving Hutber's Law: “Improvement means deterioration”. What do you think?
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