Saturday, January 03, 2015

HMRC still not that good at answering the telephone, politician comes up with soundbite...

Shabana Mahmood, Labour's shadow
Exchequer Secretary
Yesterday, I touched upon Ed Balls and his proposals to cut the deficit to nil by the end of the next Parliament. He is, he claims, counting on his colleagues to come up with savings and reforms to make this possible.

At the same time, his colleagues are putting their best foot forward. Here's Shabana Mahmood, Labour's shadow Exchequer Secretary, responding to the news that HM Revenue & Customs have published disappointing data on waiting time for callers to its helplines;

At a time when people are paying more in tax and have seen their tax credits cut, it simply isn’t good enough.
Long waits and poor service are particularly frustrating when many people are facing difficult times for the personal finances.
Ministers need to get a grip on this chaos and ensure HMRC is providing a decent service for taxpayers. The government shouldn’t be leaving people hanging on the telephone.
Well, yes, she has a point. However, given that the long term trend, established under both recent administrations, has been to cut costs by 5% per annum, the inevitable loss of staff that has resulted does mean that choices have had to be made. What, might one reasonably ask, do politicians want of HMRC and how badly do they want it?

And, given that she might reasonably be expected to be the responsible minister in the event of a Labour victory, what does she propose to do about it? Would she;

a) employ more staff, or
b) simplify the tax system to reduce the number of calls from confused taxpayers, or
c) blame management, or;
d) nothing much.

And, you see, as a senior figure of a credible party of government, she needs to have a strategy for addressing the problem. Yesterday, Ed Balls appeared to be ruling out employing more staff, so that doesn't seem like a likely solution.

Simplifying the tax system is unlikely too - its very complexity, combined with the view that the tax system offers an avenue to change behaviours, makes that quite difficult. That leaves blaming management or nothing. Civil servants are dispensable, and politicians don't appear to like them very much, so I fear that she may be headed in that direction.

It's a pity, because there is an opportunity here to rethink the way a key public service is run and managed, and it is quite possible that Ms Mahmood has some ideas along that line. The problem is, if she's going to stick to the usual strategy of attacking something we all agree to be sub-optimal without offering possible solutions, we, the voters will just assume that she's just another politician.

Turning around something that Ros often says about Facebook, you can't change things by just saying that they're bad, you actually have to make choices. And you'd like to think that politicians would take a little more care before attacking the very people who raise the revenue that is spent on all of those things that said politicians want to take credit for...

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