A HMRC press release issued on 13 January 2006 tells us that:
‘HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is redesigning its Enquiry Centres (ECs) so that customers with queries about their tax affairs are dealt with more quickly and effectively.’
LITRG is concerned that, although the official press release is sanguine about the increased speed and efficiency the new system will bring, its impact on HMRC’s more vulnerable customers could be less beneficial.
How will the new system work?
According to the official press release, the replacement of the existing queueing system with one based on appointments is an improvement in customer service.
That may well be so, but much will depend on the length of waiting times for appointments. Many HMRC customers have become used to dropping in on an enquiry centre, expecting to get an answer to their query before they leave. These might be taxpayers on low incomes, or tax credit claimants, who may have had to make long and expensive journeys by bus, or who cannot easily come back because of work or childcare constraints. They will not necessarily regard a system which requires them to come back another day as an improvement in the service to them.
A customer service announcement issued by West Wales District dated 5 January 2006 gives a more detailed picture of how the new system will work. It states:
‘Between January and August 2006, HM Revenue and Customs will be rolling out a programme of introducing appointments for customers calling at our Enquiry Centres’.
The announcement outlines the new system of dealing with customers who call in to an Enquiry Centre (IREC) as follows. First, they will be greeted by a ‘floorwalker’ who will:
‘either, very quickly, meet the customer’s need or establish which channel can best meet that need.’
That will normally involve showing the customer to a telephone booth where they can contact a dedicated helpline, or to an internet portal. If the customer’s query remains unanswered, or if the floorwalker ‘feels it is appropriate’, the customer will be able to make an appointment to see an adviser.
The announcement states that ‘appointments will be made at the customer’s convenience, up to a maximum of 10 days in advance’, but that most customers will be seen in much shorter timescales.
The final part of the announcement may not be a comfort to those customers who have been used to calling in to their local IREC and having their query dealt with before they leave.
‘Those customers who have an urgent need to be seen will be given same day appointments. There will be strict criteria used to manage these urgent appointments.’
What is an ‘urgent need’ and who will assess whether the need is urgent – the floorwalker, or the customer? What are the ‘strict criteria’ that will be used to determine whether the customer will be seen ‘on the same day’, or has to wait up to 10 days to get an answer to a question that has been worrying them?
However, we are told that:
‘Moving to this approach will improve the service we give to our customers. Waiting times to be seen will be drastically reduced and many customers will find that they can access the required information from the convenience of their own home, thus avoiding unnecessary travelling time and cost.’
‘Waiting times . . . will be drastically reduced’. Not for those who used to get answers to their questions by calling in, but will now have to wait for up to 10 days.
‘Many customers . . . can access the required information from the convenience of their own homes.’ How?
- By telephone? But a recent survey by LITRG has shown that it is now extremely difficult to get through to a contact centre by phone (see Lack of Contact Centres).
- By internet? But many of HMRC’s older or less well-off customers do not necessarily have internet access.
- By asking for a home visit? While it is stated policy for HMRC to offer home visits to older or disabled customers, LITRG is aware of many cases where home visits have been refused to just those customers who need them most.
LITRG fears that these changes to customer service, however well-intentioned, may end up restricting access to HMRC services. Up until now people have been able simply to walk into their local enquiry centre and get their problems resolved straight away. From now they may have to wait for up to 10 days if a floorwalker deems their problem to be ‘non-urgent’.
Contact: Robin Williamson (Tel: 0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)