HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) has been urged to adopt email as an official communication channel in order to improve its response times.
A survey of members by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) revealed that email access was one of the top three measures that members believed HMRC should adopt to improve accountants’ experience of dealing with the department. It was preceded by better trained staff and having nominated staff to take ownership of problems.
“The request for email reflects the fact that email has now become the standard means of business to business communication. In addition to speed and ease of use, it provides an audit trail and the ability for automatic acknowledgement by the recipient,” the ICAEW said in the TAXREP 43/10 report.
“There have been numerous discussions between HMRC and the professional bodies to explore using email over the past decade, but with very little progress. We urge HMRC to speed up this project and make a start in email communication as we believe it is an essential step in effecting improvements in service standards.”
ICAEW said that HMRC needed to “at least” accept inbound email as an alternative to post wherever possible.
A spokesperson for the HMRC said: "There is already a dedicated facility on HMRC’s website designed specifically for tax professionals but we are currently reviewing agents’ web services on both the HMRC and Business Link sites over the next few months as part of an overall improvement package."
Given a choice of how they would like to communicate with HMRC, ICAEW said that email continues to the most popular choice compared to telephone, post and online.
ICAEW said that members found it difficult to get through on the telephone and letters were frequently unanswered. A written parliamentary answer revealed that in June 2010, only 34 percent of calls from the general public were being answered by HMRC – out of 12.8 million call attempts.
Furthermore, the institute believes that the HMRC’s troublesome new National Insurance and PAYE Service (NPS) was responsible for some of the problems encountered by members. The survey was conducted at a time when members had experienced four months of notices of coding generated by the new system, “many being based on incorrect data”.
It asked respondents to how many times a simple data change request, for example, to amend a name or address, was resolved to their satisfaction on the first phone call to HMRC. The rate of success had fallen in the 2010 survey, compared with last year.
“We did not ask what specific changes caused the most problems, but believe it is likely that a large number of problems may have been at least partly linked to the new National Insurance and PAYE Service (NPS) launched in June 2009,” the report said.
It added that the problems caused by the NPS - six million people have been incorrectly taxed since 2008, with 1.4 million facing an unexpected tax bill - were “exacerbated” by processing delays that might be resolved if post was dealt with more quickly.
The report said: “HMRC needs systems in place to capture information more quickly.”
ICAEW also suggested that HMRC needs to “make better use” of technology, as was recommended by the National Audit Office Report ‘Engaging with tax agents’, published on 13 October.
“We appreciate that this [expansion of e-services] comes at a cost. HMRC has invested heavily in new IT in recent years and needs to continue to do so.
“Well-targeted investment in improved IT systems could produce substantial savings in the medium to longer term to support the ambitious budget reduction targets that HMRC has been set,” it said.
One new online system that HMRC has recently announced it will introduce is the system for traders of "duty suspended excise goods", which is designed to reduce excise fraud. Traders will have to move to the online, real-time system, from the current paper-based one, from 1 January.
Two-hundred and forty-nine accountants responded to the ICAEW’s online survey between 18 May and 14 July 2010.