17 March 2013

When you take the 'service' out of Civil Service

A few days ago HMRC announced that they are closing all 281 of it's Enquiry Centres. There's no getting around this; it's a cost cutting measure but they still have the cheek to say that they will provide a modern and accessible service to 'customers' who need it. Apparently they will offer a 'more specialised phone service' and also 'home visits'.

This is a travesty.

One of the reasons given for closing the enquiry offices is that they're just not being used the way they used to be. There's been a drop in the numbers visiting the centres of 50% since 2005/06. This is hardly surprising when you take into account that since then, the centres have reduced their opening hours and have also been part of a an enormous departmental reorganisation which has meant that most people haven't got a clue where their local enquiry centre is. Many were closed during reorganisations meaning that people didn't really have access to a 'local' service at all any longer but had to travel to a new centre.

I recall back in the 1980s the union arguing against the closure of local enquiry offices precisely because if they weren't local and serving their local community then there was in effect no service. I also recall from my own personal experience when I was a local case worker with my own allocation of work what a valuable service was offered and how much it was valued by those who used it. I knew many of my own people name, could recall instantly their history and how I might need to handle them. I also remember my 'regulars' who just wanted me to go through what had been sent to them, 'just to make sure' that everything was OK.

Now who can argue against home visits? At first thought it seems like such a good idea but two problems instantly spring to mind. HMRC are known for their 'fishing' visits and how they gather information on a taxpayers personal circumstances by visits to homes and business premises. Some of this information can be sadly wrong because of supposition and that can have devastating consequences for the individual involved. If you're offered a home visit I strongly urge you to ask them to book a room at their expense in a public building! Secondly we all know how vulnerable people can be prey to unscrupulous and criminal people calling at their doors. Letting HMRC out on the loose just gives those with bad intentions another organisation to use in pretence at gaining entry to someones home.

HMRC have come in for a lot of very justified criticism over the telephone helplines they run. People are quite literally left hanging on the telephone waiting for their call to be answered. In years gone by you called your local office and spoke to whoever it was that personally dealt with your tax affairs. Sadly that sort of caseworker no longer exists and you cannot call your local office but only a call centre. This means that rarely will you get a decent explanation of exactly what is happening with your tax affairs because in truth, no one person has ownership of them anymore. Yet HMRC now say that telephones are the only way that you will be able to have a real conversation with them, unless of course you're invited in for an investigation interview. It must not be forgotten that all of HMRCs contact numbers are now 0845 and can therefore cost some people an awful lot of money. To be left waiting for a human voice after the instant initial greeting is in my opinion unforgivable in terms of delivering an effective public service.It is sad that HMRC seem to be running what should be a public service as a business  and counting up the cost of providing a face to face service that really should be seen as essential. What they have failed to realise is that many of the people that do visit the enquiry centres are vulnerable people that need the reassurance of friendly and courteous face to face contact and are by default therefore, likely to prove to be 'expensive' customers, sorry, I mean taxpayers.

Many would say 'hey it's only HMRC' but let's not forget that this department oversees Tax Credits, National Insurance, Customs duties and VAT, as well as Income Tax. These are really complicated subjects for many people to understand. We should making access to information easier not harder to obtain for ordinary people. Or maybe I'm just a dinosaur who still believes that public services are worth fighting for?

Once HMRC could be proud of the personal service it offered. Now that service is to become merely a memory.  For some the service is already a shadow of its former self with staff ill informed and badly trained compared to twenty or even ten years ago. For many staff who work there  finding their own inability to offer a decent service is frustrating and against their own public service principals. Believe it or not many civil servants do actually want to fulfil their role as a service provider and be proud of it.

HMRC say that plans are not yet final but will be dependent upon the pilot that is to be run in the North East but we all know that pilots rarely fail in the eyes of those who most want them to succeed whatever the actual results are.

Little thought has been given to viable alternatives to closing all enquiry centres. One idea that occurred to me is that advice staff could be placed in every Job Centre so that a dual role could be given to such offices and ensure their survival in the future. I'm sure that there are many other ideas out there. The best idea though would be to abandon this badly thought out initiative. HMRC is a public service performed by civil servants. The clue is in the word 'service'. It is not just a service to the government of the day in raising and collecting taxes so that our country can run it's schools, hospitals, roads and so on but it is also a service to the people who pay those taxes.

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