Minutes of the Tax Credits Consultation Group (TCCG) meeting 04 December 2008

Attendees

HM Revenue & Customs

Tracy Gale (Chair)
Richard Summersgill
Vicky Passant
David Skinner
Irene O'Brien
Stephen Younger
Colin Shingler
Andrew Burland

Representatives

David Brodie (Taxaid)
Katie Lane (Citizens Advice)
Siobhan Harding (Citizens Advice Northern Ireland)
Robin Williamson (Chartered Institute of Taxation)
Kevin Higgins (Advice Northern Ireland)
Victoria Todd (Low Incomes Tax Reform Group)
Beth Lakhani (Child Poverty Action Group)
Bernie O'Gorman (Local Government Association)
Jane Hayball (Local Government Association)

Apologies

Brigid Campbell (Social Security Advisory Committee)
Lindsay Isaacs (Citizens Advice Scotland)
John Andrews (Low Incomes Tax Reform Group)
Frances Corrie (Taxaid)
Fran Robinson (Local Government Association)
Sylvia Gilbert (Local Government Association)
Fran Bennett (University of Oxford)
Paul Treloar (Disability Alliance)
Lucy Cochrane (Citizens Advice Northern Ireland)
Jane Moore (Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales)
Kate Bell (One Parent Families)

Welcome and Introductions

Tracy Gale welcomed everyone to the meeting, which had been arranged outside the normal pattern of meetings to discuss operational issues raised by representatives specifically, and introduced Richard Summersgill (new Director of Benefits and Credits).

Richard said he was glad to be meeting with the Consultation Group again in his new role, as it had been three years since he last met with the Group. He explained that there had been several changes recently, and all aspects of tax credits and Child Benefit have now been brought together under his work area (Tax Credit Office, Child Benefit Office, Product and Process Group, Tax Credits Transformation Programme and Claimant Compliance). He reported that Paul Gerrard will now take over as Director of Tax Credit and Child Benefit processing.

Richard mentioned he was keen to keep building on the progress on improving customer service that had been made in the last five years, and that we had come a long way with tax credits in particular thanks to the great team effort of all those involved.

Richard acknowledged the work done in the policy team, in the Tax Credits Transformation Programme, and the achievements in the Child Benefit and Tax Credit Offices under the Pacesetter programme. He said this has seen a 25 per cent increase in productivity, as well as marked improvements in customer satisfaction and staff morale since 2003.

Richard acknowledged that there had been knock-backs, such as the administrative error around tax credits finalisations from last year, and that there were still quite a few operational issues that were to be discussed at this meeting. Richard explained that he hoped, in the short term, that things would be in a better position by next spring, and said that recovery measures were in place to move towards that.

Victoria Todd from the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group explained that she had compiled the list of priority issues she had sent to form the basis for the meeting from several representatives' comments and experiences.

Child Benefit

Stephen Younger from the Child Benefit Office led by acknowledging the problems representatives had raised in relation to processing delays on Child Benefit claims. Stephen agreed that there were some Child Benefit customers who have not had a good enough service this year, and said that he wanted to explain why things are this way, and what is being done to improve them.

Stephen added it was also important to remember that 63 per cent of all claims to Child Benefit are dealt with within five days, with those customers generally receiving payment within nine days of claiming the benefit.

Stephen outlined the reasons he saw for the problems experienced by some claimants:

  • There has been an increase in the amount of more complex work coming into the Child Benefit Office (family breakdown/disputed care claims/claimants from abroad).
  • The rules for dealing with claims from nationals of other European Economic Area countries sometimes mean that HMRC need to write to the authorities of those countries to check a claimants' details (whether they are receiving benefits in another country, etc) before Child Benefit can be paid in the UK, which can lead to delays. Verification checks on documents such as birth certificates from abroad can also take time. However, Stephen did point out that such documents are returned to claimants as soon as possible once they have been verified.
  • The number of responses from carers of children remaining in full time education has increased, as has the number of changes of circumstances being reported by customers.
  • The number of customers calling the Helpline has increased.

Stephen mentioned that his staff are working closely with HMRC Contact Centre colleagues to address the problems customers have had in getting through to the Helpline, and that extra staff had been deployed to help with this. The effectiveness of messages given to customers queuing on helplines is also to be reviewed.

Other initiatives for improvement include:

  • changes being sought to the IT system, where possible, including work around electronic links with other European countries
  • work has been undertaken with customer groups on a redesign of the Child Benefit claim form which we hope to introduce for 2010-2011 to make it easier to use, to help enable bigger long-term improvements
  • work is ongoing around trying to set-up an Intermediaries Helpline for Child Benefit similar to the one for tax credits
  • introduction of a system to enable Contact Centre staff to see what action is being taken in the processing office, which means they should be able to inform more customers without referring the call on

Stephen said that he therefore hoped representatives would be able to see productivity improving, and for the timeliness of Child Benefit payments to be better by the end of the financial year.

Representatives thanked Stephen for his open and honest account of the issues they had raised, and said that they had found what he had said very helpful.

They noted that, previously, they had seen very few problems involving Child Benefit processing, but that they had started to see problems around March/April this year following the announcement by the Home Office that they were to give Indefinite Leave to Remain to a large number of former asylum seekers. Representatives thought it was important that callers/advisers be told by Helpline when HMRC were checking details with other European countries, etc, so that they were kept informed.

Representatives expressed some disappointment that they had been raising issues about Child Benefit since the summer, but that there hadn't been any acknowledgement or recognition of this from HMRC until now. They said that a range of customers, not just migrants, had seen problems with claims to Child Benefit. Local Government Association representatives raised issues around the impact of delays in processing Child Benefit on families with whom local authorities Children's Services Departments were working.

Stephen said it was important to remember that performance in the Child Benefit Office is currently improving month by month and that, whilst acknowledging that not everyone had seen improvements yet, he didn't want representatives to get the wrong picture. Factors mentioned had increased demand beyond that which was expected, but the initiatives that had been explained were helping to improve the situation, and HMRC were open to ideas the representatives may have that might help to improve things further.

Representatives welcomed the proposed introduction of an Intermediaries Helpline for Child Benefit. In the meantime, they asked whether the fact that an intermediary had taken on a case could mean it is identified and possibly prioritised. They added that the HMRC 'Working Together' forums (although perhaps in a different format) may be used to help to push initiatives forward.

Tracy Gale said that HMRC will provide representatives with feedback from the meeting due to take place the following week around setting up an Intermediaries Helpline for Child Benefit, and that HMRC needed to look at the messages it puts out to intermediaries. Tracy also said that any further suggestions representatives may have to help identify and prioritise the most needy cases would be welcomed.

Representatives asked about the knock-on effects of Child Benefit processing delays on tax credit claims. Stephen said that there had been some effects in this area, but that the improvements mentioned should help with this. HMRC agreed to look into this issue.

Representatives also asked whether it might be possible to use keywords to identify claims with Helpline as those who have a means-tested benefit such as Income Support or Jobseeker's Allowance involved, and so may be in need of priority.

Additionally, representatives asked for clarification of the rules around priorities for deciding who gets Child Benefit in disputed cases. HMRC said that they would report back on this.

Tax credits fast track

Vicky Passant explained that migration of claimants previously receiving child premiums included in Income Support to Child Tax Credit had started in October this year, with a priority aim that no Lone Parent should have any 'gaps' in payment of support for their children.

Vicky explained how the fast track system works, in that Jobcentre Plus staff complete the tax credits claim form for the client and then send the signed form to HMRC, where they are given an 'end-to-end' closely-managed service by a bespoke team. There is also an aim to offer a system of 'deemed claims' in the future, whereby claims submitted via Jobcentre Plus may not be required to be signed by the claimant or their partner, to streamline the process.

Representatives mentioned that they had seen a strategy presentation recently, which indicated that lone parents were being encouraged to submit tax credits claims directly to HMRC, and so may miss out on the fast track arrangements. HMRC said they would check this but that the expectation was that such claims should come via the fast track route and since the meeting have fed back comments accordingly.

Irene O'Brien from the Tax Credit Office also confirmed that External Relations staff from the TCO were visiting Jobcentre Plus offices to share expertise about tax credits.

Representatives mentioned that they are supportive of the process itself, but said that they do sometimes see problems getting claims into it. They asked about the possibility of 'retrospectively' getting claims into the fast track process via the Intermediaries Helpline if they hadn't been put through it in the first place, or had had intervention by Compliance areas. HMRC said they would look into this and agreed to provide written feedback around what happens where someone falls outside of the fast track process.

Tax credits operational issues

Irene O'Brien from the Tax Credit Office explained that she would go through the list of tax credits issues raised in the order representatives had given them on their list.

  • Backdating - Irene mentioned that Helpline can refer claims to the backdating team when customers call to request backdating, and that claimants should not be told that they have to write in to request backdating.

Post-meeting note: this message has now been clarified with Contact Centre staff in their update sessions

  • As regards the issue raised by Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) around non-automatic backdating of WTC-only claims, and customers not being aware that they may need to request backdating, HMRC confirmed that this issue was being considered on the back of the example LITRG had provided recently. Representatives mentioned that a 'tick-box' on the claim form might ultimately be the best way to deal with this issue, if it were possible. HMRC will also look at improving the information on their website around backdating.
  • Customer Service and Support Group and what representatives and clients should expect from them - Irene mentioned that a note would be circulated shortly answering reps questions on this. Representatives mentioned that certain things they were previously told should happen (such as receiving acknowledgements to letters and putting direct-dial contact details on replies) does not always happen, as had been shown in the examples they had sent.
  • Irene mentioned that the success of initiatives under the Tax Credits Transformation Programme has meant that more tax credits work is now routed via Contact Centres, so her team from the TCO are now working with Contact Centre managers to put together a list of expected timescales for Contact Centre staff to use as part of their guidance.

Representatives asked that they are kept aware if plans they had been told about changed in the future. Further points were also raised on correspondence received by customers but it was unclear whether that correspondence had been sent from the Tax Credit Office or from Debt Management colleagues. Tracy Gale explained that the revised set of Debt Management guidance should be ready for circulation shortly, and so this may clear up any confusion.

Representatives mentioned that they see many appeals that seem to 'stall' after being submitted to HMRC, where nothing further appears to happen after a long time. HMRC thought that this may have previously been due to confusion as to whether a letter was a dispute against an overpayment or an appeal. However, if a request/grounds for an appeal are stated on correspondence then it should be registered as such.

HMRC said they had met with lawyers and representatives from Child Poverty Action Group to consider issues around appeals. HMRC confirmed they are adhering to new processes introduced in September 2008. They also confirmed that there is nothing to stop a claimant who wants their appeal referring to the tribunal rather than first going through the settlement process from doing so, and agreed to check these processes with Appeals staff.

After these discussions about appeals, it was agreed that a further session on appeals should be included at one of the upcoming TCCG meetings in 2009.

In relation to the points representatives had raised around escalation routes, Irene explained that staff on the Intermediaries Helpline should be able to take ownership of issues to ensure they are resolved (*see note below). Irene asked that reps let HMRC know if they were told anything other than this, and confirmed that she would remind managers and new staff on the team of the need to use this approach. Irene confirmed that it is possible for claimants and their advisers to make a complaint by telephone via the Helpline which could be referred to the TCO as appropriate, and that staff would be reminded of this process.

[Post-meeting note: HMRC would like to clarify that TCO Intermediaries Helpline staff can deal with many aspects of a query in this way from 'end to end', but should add that they are not trained to deal with overpayment disputes and complaints. Their role is to provide advice and try to resolve any query at first contact or to escalate to the appropriate work area within TCO. They are there as a contact for cases where, for example, the customer is out of payment or needs other urgent attention. Their role is to ensure that for most queries, other than disputes and complaints, the intermediary only needs to speak to one person at TCO. Where it is necessary to pass the query onto another team or area they would ensure there was an appropriate 'hand-over' where someone agrees to take on the case.]

Representatives also asked about the process for claimants. HMRC confirmed that there is a referral route for the helpline to hand off cases that need escalating to a dedicated TCO team. Household notes will show a referral has been made. Contact should be made by the escalations team within seven to ten days (although the issue may take longer to resolve).

Representatives asked about problems they had encountered in getting the TC689 'authorisation form' on the system to enable them to discuss clients' queries with CBO/TCO, and HMRC confirmed that this general issue was being looked at again.

LITRG stated that John Andrews had offered to work with HMRC to improve current processes for welfare rights intermediaries with the aim of intermediaries receiving the same treatment as tax advisers. HMRC agreed to discuss this with John directly.

David Skinner then proceeded to cover the points representatives had raised around tax credit overpayments. David explained the reasons why HMRC do not routinely suspend recovery of an overpayment when customers asked for an explanation of how their overpayment arose (as they do when an overpayment is disputed by the customer). Representatives explained that they felt claimants were in a difficult position as they were forced to dispute an overpayment even though they had not had any explanation. This causes more disputes to be sent, some of which would not be required if an explanation was issued. Representatives expressed their concern that no suspension is in place whilst claimants pursue an explanation.

Some representatives mentioned that they advise clients to dispute their overpayments rather than ask for an explanation for this reason, and said that problems can originate when overpayments aren't properly explained to customers.

Timescales for dealing with correspondence were outlined and HMRC stated that the aim was to publish these on the HMRC website.

Representatives raised problems of sending disputes with no acknowledgement of receipt or that they were being dealt with. HMRC said that letters are sent to state that recovery has been suspended, and representatives expressed surprise at this. Further discussion revealed that this may be in the form of a new award notice for ongoing claimants. Representatives pointed out that most claimants would not be able to determine from such a notice that their dispute had been received. HMRC agreed to check what happens for those subject to direct recovery.

HMRC explained that the new 'Lean' methods of working being gradually introduced into the team dealing with disputed overpayments should mean that representatives see further improvements in the quality of correspondence, and that this system should be fully introduced by the end of the financial year.

In relation to the issue of requesting recordings of telephone calls raised by representatives under the Data Protection Act and the length of time taken for HMRC to respond to such requests. David Skinner said that HMRC could offer the best service to customers if they made more specific requests for the periods in which the appropriate calls were made. 'Blanket' requests for all calls advocated by some groups only served to slow the process down overall and so are not helpful to customers in general.

Representatives asked about disputes involving telephone calls that were made during the period when not all calls were recorded. For calls made in this period where there is no record held, the claimant should be given the benefit of the doubt and staff dealing with disputes are aware of this.

Representatives asked whether HMRC had an answer to the questions they had raised around the 'four-week' issue in connection with working hours, and mentioned that the wording in leaflet WTC7 and Compliance guidance may need revising dependent on the response. David explained that a written response would be circulated to all reps shortly on this issue, and that any appropriate follow-up work would be carried-out as soon as possible.

David also confirmed that a revised copy of the four-week run-on letter representatives had comments on would be circulated as soon as possible.

HMRC also agreed to look at helpline scripts regarding the ability of representatives to request claim forms on a claimant's behalf.

Conclusions

Richard Summersgill said that he had found the meeting with the Group very interesting and useful and that he felt another similar meeting may be useful at some point in the future.

Tracy Gale agreed with these sentiments, and thanked everyone for their attendance and input. Tracy also mentioned that HMRC would endeavour to give representatives notice as soon as possible in future where plans had to change out of necessity, as had been mentioned earlier in the meeting.