Administration and expenditure of the Chancellor's departments, 2008-09 - Treasury Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  Q200  John Thurso: At Annex E in your report, "Statistics and other information" you have the complaints received by HMRC which show overall quite a modestly significant rise between 2007-08 and 2008-09 and in quite a lot of key areas quite big rises. I know that complaints are only one measure of satisfaction but how do you reconcile that rise with the concept of improving customer satisfaction?

  Ms Strathie: You are right to say it is one of a basket of measures but I cannot believe there is anyone in the Department keener to end customer complaints because they ultimately end up on my desk late in the evening every night and I am responding to many of them. One of the steps we have taken on the analysis of the numbers you are talking about is to address the manner in which we deal with people, because a very large chunk of those complaints have been about rudeness or tone or the way that we handled them rather than the subject matter in the first instance.

  Q201  John Thurso: Is there a correlation between that and the poor call centre record, the fact that people are no longer dealing with their local human being but are now going through to a call centre which has a pretty poor track record?

  Ms Strathie: Again, our contact centres have come on in leaps and bounds in this past year and we certainly answer a far greater proportion of the calls offered and we have a high satisfaction level on the quality of the conversation that our customers get when they go through, so I do not see that as the real relationship. Most of the complaints I see are about the time we took to handle, or something went wrong and we did not say sorry and deal with it, or people feel that they were routed from one arm of the system to another rather than us taking responsibility for solving the issue for the customer and getting back to them. We have moved on a lot but if you consider that on any one day we have 40 million customers there are always going to be those where something goes wrong.

  Q202  John Thurso: Do you think answering 90% of all calls is actually a high enough figure as an aim? Your stated aim is to answer 90% of all calls.

  Ms Strathie: That is the industry standard and we have quite a way to go before we hit that standard, but it is my standard and it is the industry standard. To be able to answer at least 90% of all calls offered and to answer 80% within 20 seconds is what we aspire to, and you do that by reducing the demand, not by increasing the supply. There is lots of evidence in the customer space to show that lots of these calls have no value to the organisation and no value to the customer, they are often generated by our own communications and a lot of them are customers who could handle things on our e-channels. We have a number of actions in hand to improve that.

  Q203  Ms Keeble: I wanted to come in on this because I completely agree with your point that when you get through to your staff they are exceptionally helpful and friendly; there is an issue though about the phone answering, which is very important to people, because it says that your aim is 90%, your standard across the board is 57%, in off peak times you reach 75%. That suggests that at the peak point, when people are most concerned and agitated and up against deadlines, your responses must be very much lower than 57%; what are they?

  Ms Strathie: When we were looking at this when we were in the 50s we broke this into the number of days we were open and tried to pick out where the peaks are occurring and where the service dips are.

  Q204  Ms Keeble: We have got the figures here that show that you have got 57% across the board, 75% in all but three weeks outside of your peak period, so what is it in your peak period? It must be around 30% in your peaks, is that right?

  Ms Strathie: The figures you are turning to, on some of those we have actually moved. We have moved the call answering up quite a bit since then, but that was very much the focus of our action plan to improve our call answering.

  Q205  Ms Keeble: Is it the case that in the peak periods it is about 30%, because that is what your figures are suggesting?

  Ms Strathie: I honestly do not know what it is as of today.

  Q206  Ms Keeble: Does anyone else know?

  Mr Bowles: We can say that we were over 70% in our most recent numbers against 52% a year previously so I think that is indicative of an improvement.

  Q207  Ms Keeble: Perhaps you could have the figures clarified because if your average across the board is 57% and your average in the off peaks is 75%, your average in the peak periods must be very low indeed.

  Ms Strathie: We would accept that.

  Q208  Ms Keeble: It would be helpful to know so perhaps we could have those figures. Given that you know exactly when your peak periods are, because you have set them out very clearly, what are you doing to shift resources to make sure the phones get answered during the peak period?

  Ms Strathie: As I say, the first thing we are doing is actually looking at the cause of all of the calls. Many of those calls come from what I suppose we would categorise as the "worried well", so people ring up just to check we got X, or ring up just to check something—even when we write and tell people you do not need to take any action about this they do, so we have taken steps to try and manage that. On moving people around, our contact centres cover a lot of different services and lines of service so we prioritise in summertime tax credits renewal, we prioritise at other times on business support services.

  Q209  Ms Keeble: If we could perhaps have the figures, I want to go on and ask about some other things[3]. One of your other targets is around fraud on tax credits and I wanted to ask some more about tax credits. You say that in the last year or when the assessment was done it was before you had done your new strategy and the central estimate for the level of fraud was 8.6%. I understand in fact that that is a slight increase on the previous year; can you say why then you are very confident that you will get down to 5%?

  Ms Strathie: That is the combined fraud and error or the error figure. Richard, do you want to answer?

  Mr Summersgill: The latest published statistic is 8.6% and the previous year was 7.8%; the statistic for 2008-09 will not be available until next summer. The error and fraud strategy formally really began in this financial year, 2009-10, and effectively the first phase runs for two years through to April 2011, so the very vast majority of our activities are taking place over the 24 months starting in April 2009. We calculate that those activities over that two-year period should get us down to 5%.

  Q210  Ms Keeble: You also assess that the current take-up rate for working tax credit is only 57%; what do you think would be an acceptable take-up level and can you also as a second part to that say how that has been affected by the recession where quite a number of people, if they have had a reduction in hours and earnings, will be applying for tax credits, often for the first time?

  Mr Summersgill: For child tax credit the take-up rates are around 80% and for child benefit it is 90% odd. For working tax credit it has always lagged behind and we do have a target to keep working on that. A particularly difficult area is within working tax credit only, it is the people who are only entitled to working tax credit.

  Q211  Ms Keeble: That is for childless families and single people.

  Mr Summersgill: Yes, people who do not have caring responsibilities for children any more. Within that there are two particular groups that we are trying to focus on: couples over 50 and young men over 25 which tend to be the groups in particular that are more resistant to taking up working tax credit. Quite a lot of our activity is focused at those groups.

  Q212  Ms Keeble: What are your targets for those different areas?

  Mr Summersgill: We have agreed with the Treasury a target for the working tax credit only sub-category which is to increase effectively the caseload by 100,000 by spring 2011.

  Q213  Ms Keeble: What would it be in terms of the take-up rate roughly?

  Mr Summersgill: Depending on how the statistics are crunched that will certainly get it into the 60s. One of the reasons we do do it in that way is because we can actually measure that almost in real time, whereas the percentage figures are based on entitlement and they lag.

  Q214  Ms Keeble: Sure. How about the child care element which used to be the old child care tax credit which looks very generous on paper but for some reason the take-up rate had lagged way behind. What is happening about that?

  Mr Summersgill: I do not think the child care take-up rate is lagging. I am not sure I have the actual detail but there is a very high take-up of child tax credit and the child care element amongst eligible families.

  Q215  Ms Keeble: I particularly wanted to ask about that because we had asked about it previously and there were some issues around the fact that for some reason the take-up of that was not increasing in quite the way that was envisaged, and it was very difficult to find out exactly why that was.

  Mr Summersgill: In fact it is not actually measured separately from take-up of child tax credit and working tax credit per se.

  Q216  Ms Keeble: You do not look at the child care element.

  Ms Strathie: We do not measure it, that is what Richard is saying.

  Mr Summersgill: We do not measure it.

  Q217  Ms Keeble: Are you sure about that because when it was a child care tax credit it was definitely separately measured and when it switched over to the child care element there was then some discussion about it because I was very keen at the time to see some improvements to it, to make it more effective. There were a number of answers that came forward which suggested that there were issues about it—either the take-up was not going up or the take-up was not increasing. There were some issues about the take-up of it.

  Mr Summersgill: We cannot survey the number eligible so we do not have the divisor to calculate the take-up percentage. It is possible we may be able to determine from the system the number of cases, I will look at that.

  Q218  Ms Keeble: You should be able to determine the number of cases and that would be helpful. Would it be possible to have that and to have some tracking of it so we can see what is happening to it over time and whether there is an increase in the take-up?[4]

  Mr Summersgill: I will see what we can pull out on that.

  Q219  Ms Keeble: Thank you. I wanted to ask also about the errors, the overpayments and underpayments. Looking at your figures you had the big reductions in overpayments which look as if they came after the rule changes.

  Mr Summersgill: It was the 2005 PBR changes.

3   Ev 93 Back

4   Ev 94 Back

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