Out of disaster comes there hope
When the records of millions of child benefit records went missing the morale of HMRC hit rock bottom, as did the trust of many HMRC customers. The Poynter review published yesterday marks out a new strategic approach to HMRC data which should be welcomed by people on low incomes provided, and it is a big proviso, that the needs of the most vulnerable “customers” of HMRC are appropriately recognised.
On 20 November 2007, the Chancellor appointed Kieran Poynter, the Chairman and Senior Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, to investigate the circumstances that led to the significant loss of confidential personal data on Child Benefit recipients and the lessons to be learnt.
His report was published yesterday and goes much further than just finding out who did what and allocating blame. Far more interesting for those on low incomes are the recommendations to be taken forward for the future. The Government and HMRC have agreed all the recommendations.
How the recommendations could be good for low income customers
It is a long report (109 pages) but the key features we have identified for those on low incomes are as follows:
- Following this report, their data and its confidentiality is likely to be safer than for many years.
- There is a strong push to create a system where the customer is at the centre and therefore need provide their details only once.
- There is a push towards customers being able to change their records for themselves via telephone or computer.
- There is criticism of the silo mentality of HMRC and the lack of joining-up, which has often been one of our complaints.
- The report acknowledges that some people need special treatment. “These tend to be customers who are needy – for instance some tax credit recipients – or those whose tax affairs are complex. These groups need engagement – involved interaction – rather than automation.”
- HMRC should use the data that they have about individuals for the benefit of those individuals.
- The report recommends the option of communicating with customers via e-mail and vice versa.
- The report recommends the use of the new “PAYE service” computer as the base for further development; most low paid people already have their records on this database.
- There are some suggestions for greater co-operation between the Department for Work & Pensions and HMRC.
All change that happens within HMRC seems to have potentially difficult consequences for those on low incomes. Some issues we would like to identify include:
- How will this substantial change be funded? We have already expressed grave concerns about the ability of HMRC to deliver improved customer performance with fewer and fewer resources. HMRC used to have a programme called “invest to save” which was all about taxpayer misdeeds. We would like to see strategic investment aimed at customer service with this same “invest to save” philosophy which, if it was implemented properly, would save money down the road.
- The push to electronic communication should not leave behind some of the most vulnerable sectors of HMRC customers, for example, older pensioners. Imaginative ideas need to be debated in order to service these needs. Poynter suggests that e-mail should be introduced for agents of HMRC and although this is to be welcomed, why not be bolder and take a particular group of individuals at the same time? We would suggest the student population, which readers of our website will appreciate have their own particular problems and where e-mail communication might have many attractions.
- Poynter also suggests that cross-sector functions, such as running the contact centres or debt management, might be split up and distributed across lines of business. We are concerned that scarce resources at a senior level might get diluted just when they are starting to take a holistic approach. Much remedial work needs to be done in those areas; but at least they appreciate the problems and are trying to address them. More change now might be unhelpful.
- Most of the links identified by Poynter in relation to greater DWP/HMRC co-operation are in the field of systems and security; there is an even greater need for co-operation between DWP and HMRC systems to deliver greater customer benefits.
- We have noticed a much greater reluctance of HMRC over the last few months to talk to voluntary sector and pro bono advisers due to uncertainty about security procedures. Now this exercise has been completed and individual compliance has not been highlighted as an issue, we should enter discussions about how we can make the interface between tax and welfare benefits advisers for the non-paying client a much easier process.
The way forward
The Poynter review has shown a bold way forward. We are in favour of such an approach as long as those at the bottom of the economic pile do not get left behind.
Contact Name: John Andrews (Tel: 0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)