Under a process called the Identity Authentication Service (IDAS), introduced in 2009, any tax credit claimant who calls the helpline is required to prove their identity by answering security questions. If they cannot answer them correctly, they are required to make an appointment at an enquiry centre for an interview.
We welcome HMRC’s constructive response to their recent, if belated, consultation whether IDAS puts certain protected groups under the Equality Act 2010, such as disabled people and non-UK nationals or various ethnic groups, at a disadvantage.
We and other members of the HMRC’s Benefits and Credits Consultation Group found evidence that these procedures were indeed putting certain claimants at a distinct disadvantage, especially those with mobility problems or who found it difficult to transact business by phone. We were extremely disturbed that HMRC had put IDAS procedures in place without carrying out an equality impact assessment (EQIA) under the Equality Act as they should have done; nor were they prepared to suspend the practice while they carried out such an assessment when eventually persuaded that one was indeed required by law.
In their response to the consultation, HMRC have acknowledged that the full EQIA consultation process should have been completed prior to the IDAS service going live. They also reiterated that it is not accepted HMRC practice to implement changes without showing that they have given due regard to the need to consider the impact on equality first.
As a result of the consultation, HMRC have said they will ensure consideration of EQIA is built into the Benefits and Credits change team processes for each new piece of work. There will be a dedicated trained EQIA assessor to manage the process and where a decision is taken that a full EQIA is not necessary (as it was with IDAS) it will now be referred to a panel of trained EQIA assessors. LITRG welcome these new processes.
HMRC also announced some specific measures to address concerns raised in the consultation including a pilot which will allow people to obtain claim forms without having to attend an interview, an undertaking to commission work to better understand the needs of disabled customers and the introduction of friends and family language translation. These measures are most welcome.
But still room for improvement?
However, many of the points listed by HMRC in their response simply state provisions and processes that already exist such as specialist services in place for those with hearing/speech impairments, home visits, transactions in writing as an alternative to phone, translation services and access to general advice without the need to pass security.
Whilst these services seem acceptable on paper, in practice claimants are often not aware that they exist or they find the service is inadequate (for example, lengthy delays in receiving a reply to written correspondence). While HMRC acknowledge some of these issues and promise that some action will be taken, a great deal of work is still needed to ensure that vulnerable customers are able to access the services they need either themselves or via an intermediary if that is their preferred method.
We look forward to working with HMRC to develop the actions outlined in their response and to help them meet future challenges presented by the need to comply with their public equality duties.
Contact: Victoria Todd (please use form at http://www.litrg.org.uk/ContactUs)