Don't complain to us

Published on 11 May 2007

For years HMRC and its predecessor organisations have admitted that they really ought to do better at handling the complaints of its customers. So it is doubly disappointing that the new HMRC have not yet been able to build upon even their own best practice as they introduce a new approach to complaints.

On 3rd May HMRC announced the withdrawal of its existing complaints leaflets and their replacement by a factsheet 'Complaints and putting things right'.

As a short statement of what a customer should do in order to get heard when something has gone wrong the new factsheet is, prima facie, an improvement upon the rather long-winded, out-of-date and cumbersome documents of the past (COP1 and Notice 1000).

When LITRG last wrote on this subject three years ago we wanted to see a range of improvements to overcome some of the then barriers placed in front of people wanting to complain. We made a range of recommendations, none of which were too difficult to implement. We wanted:

  • Complaints by e-mail to be accepted (as Customs & Excise used to do)
  • A single complaints helpline to assist the customer to get their complaint to the right place (this has now become even more complex with the advent of HMRC)
  • Those with special needs to be treated well
  • The unrepresented to get the maximum help and guidance on their rights

HMRC have once again failed to deliver. Although, to be fair, we do understand that they have those objectives on their agenda in the foreseeable future. However, we hope that they can take on board some of our issues below before they print too many copies of the new leaflet.

Complaints by e-mail

The limited ability that existed to complain by e-mail has now been withdrawn. You can only do this by phone, in writing, by fax or in person. We doubt from our past experience whether even these choices are available to a customer in many parts of HMRC.

Indeed we were told by the Tax Credits Helpline last week that they will only accept complaints in writing.

Single complaints helpline

HMRC suggest that the customer should make contact with the Complaints Manager at 'the office you have been dealing with'. Finding out where that is can be a severe challenge for many customers. You will find yourself being shunted off to offices all around the UK.

A single complaints helpline would enable the customer to be directed to the right place and the right person with a single phone call.

Those with special needs

In a fanfare of publicity HMRC announced that after extensive consultation with disability organisations that they had in December 2006 signed up to a Disability Equality Scheme. Responsibility for its implementation was to be taken at Board level.

We had criticised the former Inland Revenue back in 2001 (and every year since) about its poor treatment of people with disabilities. We thought there was a breakthrough when the Disability Discrimination Act forced a duty on public bodies to take appropriate account of people’s disabilities. But it appears to be only HMRC words and not actions which are in evidence in the field of complaints.

  • There are no textphone numbers listed for those with hearing difficulties
  • The leaflet does not adopt best practice for those with sight difficulties as set out by the Royal National Institute of the Blind
  • Customers are referred at various points to the HMRC and other websites for additional help (leaving aside the difficulties of those with disabilities getting access to this information, if they did manage to do so they would find little help specifically for them).

Rights of customers

The rights of the HMRC customer are further eroded by the omission of many helpful pointers which were in the previous guides and practice.

  • There are no service standards quoted which can be used as a yardstick to determine what service a customer can expect.
  • There are no promises made to acknowledge the receipt of a complaint or deal with it in an acceptable timescale.
  • The fact that a customer can get compensation if a complaint is badly handled is now omitted.
  • The possible levels of “consolatory” payments (£25 to £500) have now been left out. Hopefully this means they are going to become more generous.
  • The rules about HMRC errors and when the tax bill may not be collected are no longer set out in detail. Now the complainant has to ask the HMRC person dealing with them to provide them with information. What should, of course, happen is that HMRC should identify when someone may be entitled to have their tax bill written off and take positive action to achieve that.
  • Full contact details of the Adjudicator and the Ombudsman are no longer provided, just the website of the Ombudsman is mentioned.
  • HMRC misleadingly tell all customers that they 'should continue to pay HMRC bills on time' when this is often poor advice in dispute situations.
  • HMRC tell customers that they might need to make a formal appeal and omit to say that there may be a 30 day time limit in which to do so. We hope that they will always now accept late appeals.

Conclusion

An opportunity has been lost to introduce further alleviating measures to address a range of the problems that the massive HMRC reorganisation and rationalisation has wrought upon the HMRC customer base. A real cause for complaint.

(11-05-2007)

Contact Name: John Andrews (Tel 0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)

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