A call for action

Accountants have told us how call centre staff are ‘unqualified’ to provide
advice and that the service is worse than that delivered by traditional tax

Their concern is perfectly understandable. As Jane Moore, technical manager
at the ICAEW tax faculty and someone who has heard many of the complaints, says:
‘You can change your bank if you don’t get good service, but it’s not the same
for HMRC.’

It’s one thing using ‘unqualified’ staff to deal with concerns raised by the
general taxpaying public. But accountants seeking advice, do require a different
– and more sophisticated – level of service.

So when accountants say that call centre staff are unable to deal with
complex technical tax issues raised during calls, HMRC must listen. As what is
still a fledgling tax authority, it cannot afford to preside over a major drop
in confidence among tax professionals.

You can understand how the new arrangement appeals to the new department and
one designed with leanness very much in mind. Put simply it must be looking for
quick and substantial wins. And the new approach to managing call centres will
be significantly cheaper than the old way.

Nevertheless the concerns do need to be listened to. And, so far at least,
the taxman’s response has not been encouraging. HMRC says that, despite the
sporadic criticisms, it will use more call centres in the future.

It’s not a perfect medium, but there is a way accountants can raise concerns
about the call centre culture. Lord Carter of Coles is conducting a review of
the department’s online services.

The snapshot review – Lord Carter has been asked to make recommendations by
late autumn and wants submissions within a fortnight – will influence how and
whether the taxman expands its online offering.

Most tax professionals will already have a list of concerns and issues – from
online filing to e-payment, VAT registration to the usefulness of the HMRC
website. Just add call centres to the list.

There may be some hope. A scheme piloted in Sunderland’s call centre, where
accountants can be routed through to old-style technical experts, is said to
have produced encouraging results. And it might just provide a middle ground as
the department seeks to balance cost and quality.

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