Saturday, 28 May 2016

Tax but don't spend


Last February I wrote a post in which I peevishly listed various experiences of organizations not working very well. One item on the list concerned the problems of getting through the HMRC (the British tax office) on the telephone. So I was interested to see that this week the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on HMRC’s quality of service. This identified a “collapse” in customer service over 18 months in 2014-15 with call waiting times tripling and some customers being kept on hold for up to an hour.
What lay behind this were massive cuts in staffing levels, which in personal tax fell from 26,000 to 15,000 between 2010-11 and 2014-15. This of course is just one of the many consequences emerging across all parts of the public sector as ‘austerity economics’ bites deep under the ideology that eliminating the government’s budget deficit is the sole aim of policy (what Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “deficit fetishism”). But there is more to it than that: associated with the cuts was the technocratic fantasy of paperless (on line) tax returns and automated telephony.
We’ll break here for another oldster rant: why does everything have to be done online, with endless passwords and usernames in hundreds of different formats? How I long for the days when you could just fill in a form and send a cheque in the post. There are still a few places you can do this and I would single out from my own experiences the insurance company NFU Mutual as particularly good not just for this but for that fact that they have an ordinary phone number that goes to the local office where I talk to a person I have met and who has been in post through all the years I have dealt with them. And, on the one occasion I’ve had to make a claim, they are excellent to deal with. Is it because they are a mutual organization?
Back to the HMRC and what is interesting is to note how this story illustrates some of the recurring – and linked - themes of my book, namely those of unintended consequences and of the ambiguity of efficiency. In terms of unintended consequences the issue is how cost savings in one budget show up as new costs somewhere else. This is especially obvious in relation to HMRC because an effective tax gathering system is vital to meet the costs of government spending departments. So to impinge on the first inevitably has consequences for the second.
The issue of efficiency is linked in that what may be efficient for the HMRC maybe inefficient for other departments but, beyond that, inefficient for the user – in this case the taxpayer or, as they are now called, with tragic inevitability, customers. And let’s just have another break here to remind ourselves how crass, how nonsensical, it is to describe people paying taxes as ‘customers’. The NAO Report is helpful in quantifying this by reference to the HMRC’s own costings of people’s time (£17 per hour, apparently). On this basis, the time spent waiting and talking, and the cost of the call, added up to £97M (of which £66M was the cost of waiting to be answered) in 2015-16. So HMRC’s efficiency savings become its “customers’” costs. According to the NAO and the HMRC things are now getting better, though I must say that this is not my personal experience and, anyway, we have been here before. A damning 2012 NAO Report on phone call waits was also met with promises of improved performance and assurances that this was beginning to happen.
There’s a bigger organizational story here. The HMRC is the result of a merger, in 2005, between what were previously the Inland Revenue and the Customs and Excise office. Culturally very different, many date the problems at HMRC from this archetypical example of reform through reorganization. Subsequently, there have been repeated high-profile scandals. Dave Hartnett, its boss until 2012 when he joined global accountancy firm Deloitte as a consultant, was accused of cutting lax ‘sweetheart deals’ with big corporates like Vodafone and Goldman Sachs, and called “a liar” by the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. His successor, Lin Homer – dubbed ‘Dame Disaster’ by satirists – was criticised for failures in relation to the HSBC tax scandal and also for claiming the HMRC to have had its best year ever in 2015 despite – yet again – massive problems with phone systems. She stood down in April 2016.
As for the future, who knows? HMRC have taken on more staff, but the ongoing closure of 137 local tax offices in favour of 13 regional centres does not bode well, and the latest NAO Report says that HMRC’s capacity to sustain planned cost reductions rest upon its Making Tax Digital initiative, another techno-fantasy, which has already been met with scepticism, if not outright derision, by tax accountants.
It’s tempting to ascribe all this to the well-attested failures of neo-liberal ideology in general and the effects of its application to the public sector in particular. But it’s more complex, and worse, than that. Even the most assiduous neo-liberal assumes, accepts and expects that the State will act as a ‘nightwatchman’, undertaking the basic functions of tax collection, law and policing. But cuts have “brought the court system close to breaking point” and are causing a crisis in policing and in the prison system. It used to be the leitmotif of anti-state ideologues that cuts could be achieved by getting rid of ‘five-a-say Czars’, ‘diversity officers’ and, of course, that perennial favourite ‘faceless bureaucrats’. Now it turns out that even the most basic functions of the state are up for grabs. If proof of that were needed, look no further than current plans to privatise the Land Registry, the body that administers that most basic feature of any capitalist economy, property ownership.

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