Pantomime Dame

Aladdin with genie
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‘… we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen’s Twankey and it was huge’ (Michael Billington, The Guardian, 20 December 2004)

No New Year’s Honour for me, unlike Lin Homer the HMRC chief executive who got a DCB (Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath) for public service ‘particularly in public finance.’ This was in spite of the fact that HMRC were on the naughty step for nearly the whole of 2015.

Ms Homer is now, therefore, Dame Lin.

In 2015, HMRC launched special campaigns aimed at residential property landlords, those with second incomes, businesses accepting credit or debit cards and solicitors.  Is it the laundry business next?

Unlike Pantoland, HMRC is not a fun place.  The 2015 People Survey published in December revealed that 49 per cent of the 42,458 who completed the survey said HMRC was managed badly and 24 per cent wanted to leave HMRC, either immediately or within the next twelve months.  Nevertheless, HMRC seem to just blunder on.  Perhaps disaster will be averted at the last minute in true pantomime tradition.

According to an article in Taxation magazine last July, the time taken by HMRC to respond to letters was around 12 weeks and in one case it was as long as five months.  This is despite a target of answering 80 per cent of letters within fifteen working days.  HMRC are not keen on email and some teams (such as Customs, International Trade and Excise) don’t even give a contact phone number.  Most of the online enquiry forms (the CITEX one is here) don’t disclose the recipient’s email address (so you have to use the form), can’t be saved and only have space for a limited number of characters.  In the case of CITEX, an online enquiry is limited to 2000 characters.  This means that snail mail is often the only option for anything other than a fairly simple query.

If you do phone HMRC, chances are you won’t get through.  HMRC’s call-handling which was bad in 2014 seems to have got worse.  In March 2015 (the most recent month for which figures were available when the Taxation article was being written) only 66 per cent of calls were answered at all.  Dame Lin was emollient (or should it be soapy?) in the face of criticism:

‘Despite our best efforts, our call performance has not been up to scratch and we apologise to all customers who have struggled to get through to us.’

So that’s OK then.  No need to worry you struggling customers, you’ve had your apology, the Dame is on it and has £45 million of taxpayer’s money to spend.  One of Homer’s previous jobs was as head of the UK Border Agency and we all know how successful an organisation that was.  So successful that it was abolished (but I can’t see that happening with HMRC).  ‘¡Ay, caramba!’

HMRC’s other way of deflecting criticism of their poor performance in the picking-up-the-phone-when-it-rings test is saying that there are alternative ways of contacting them.  As we all know, this is laughable.  Nearly as laughable as this:

‘HMRC is committed to delivering digital services that are so good that they will be our customers’ first choice for interacting with the department’.

You don’t have to be a student of semantics to realise that something’s not quite right here.

‘Choice, n.  preferential determination between things proposed’ (OED)

The alternatives are waiting up to 12 weeks for an answer to a letter or not getting through on the phone.  Duh, some choice.

If you were given the magic lamp by the Tax Genie and had three wishes for 2016 what would they be?  Here are my three:

    1. HMRC should be made to accept that tax is something most people pay because the state requires them to do so.


    1. The Office of Tax Simplification should be allowed to live up to its name.


  1. Any use by HMRC of spin, jargon or patronising language should be punishable by a fine of £100 payable to the Jaguar Charity Pantomime Society.

Incidentally last week Barbara Windsor was promoted from MBE to DBE.  Now she really is a Dame.

‘Oh no she isn’t.’

‘Oh yes she is.’

*** UPDATE – 11 January 2016 ***

Did one of you wish for this?  Lin Homer is leaving HMRC in April.  The press release singing her praises is here.

Pass me back that magic lamp.

Tax lawyer specialising in business tax, SDLT and VAT

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