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TAS - Can HMRC go Waitrose?

This is number three in a series of articles on this blog from CIOT members exploring different aspects of the Tax Agent Strategy (TAS) consultation. The articles are published in a personal capacity, are intended to stimulate debate and do not represent agreed CIOT policy. Please email if you would like to post an article. Comments in response are very welcome. All articles are written by CIOT members but comments may come from anyone.

In an article on the CCH website Trevor Johnson has likened the Revenue’s ‘self serve’ plans for tax agents to a ‘Tesco’ tax system, with an automated checkout and the whole process able to be completed without the involvement of any member of the store’s staff.

Being positive and using Trevor’s analogy, I hope it will be more like Waitrose than Tesco (and not just being snobby – they have a good self-serve model) –
• you self-serve (by scanning your food as you go round and pack it just as you like)
• though the actual process takes a bit longer (i.e. scanning each item as you put it in your trolley – especially if your other half is with you and hogs the scanner)
• but overall you save significant time, hassle and effort (no going through check-outs and repacking goods – unlike some self-serve shops)
• and much of the their saving has clearly been invested in:
o good systems (reliable hand scanning system),
o good quality and value product (never knowingly undersold) and
o redeployed and well trained staff who can provide a good service if you need it.

If there is a problem (e.g. something won’t scan because it is on that week’s ‘list to check’) helpful staff will get you back on track when you pay. Otherwise you just pay as you leave and walk out of the shop without having to even speak to a member of staff. In fact you feel so unusually trusted you almost feel like you need to wave your receipt around as you leave.

The enrolled (you have to have a John Lewis card to self-serve) are occasionally checked up on (i.e. sent to a checkout to have all your goods rechecked) and that is a pain – especially if you are in a hurry – but it’s the occasional price of an otherwise speedy service. If you make the odd genuine mistake they just adjust your bill with little comment.

You cannot really totally abuse the system if enrolled (e.g. if you walk out without paying) as they know who you are and have your John Lewis credit card details so can get you anyway.

They know what is normal for you – and even ask if they have done anything wrong if your habits change significantly - scary!

And if you abuse the system (by not scanning everything) and they catch you they’ll refuse you access to the system – but I’ve never heard of it happening to anyone who just made the odd genuine mistake. As for disenrolment – well it is Waitrose’ final decision, but then you can always shop at M&S or Tesco – with HMRC there is no alternative – which is why everyone is twitchy and wants some independent oversight here.

And the ‘unrepresented’ can still shop there and go through the tills – where the queues are much shorter than in most shops.

If we agree to this then I think we have to push for the Waitrose model. The secret is they trust their customers, who in turn are honest back – like the market trader who realised he spent too much time handing out change so just put a pot of change on his counter and told customers to help themselves when they overpaid. His queues were cut, his customers increased, they were happier and his turnover and profits rocketed!


Friday 10 June 2011

1 comment

Rating: 3/5But only the favoured few will be allowed to shop at Waitrose
The rest of the population will have to go to elsewhere, where they will have to wait in a queue to be served (eventually) by staff who are under-trained, demoralised and have lost interest in the job.

What members need to remember is that the Institute is a charity. It cannot act solely in the interests of its members and their clients (as John Andrews has often pointed out over the years). It therefore has an obligation to argue against the introduction of a two-tier service where the unrepresented will continue to be subject to the current abysmal standard of service.

As part of the Revenue’s charm offensive, Brian Redford appeared in the Institute’s webinar and claimed that self serve would not lead to a two-tier system, merely a ‘differentiated’ system. This misses the point; it is not the form of that service that matters, it’s the quality.

Nowhere in the consultation document can I see any undertaking to devote the resources freed up by self serve being applied in improving the standard of service for everyone else. They should be charged with explaining how they will improve that service. (Given that you cannot, under English law make a contract with yourself, then presumably you cannot appoint yourself as your tax agent. Thus many members will not be able to benefit from self serve in connection with their own affairs?).

Self serve is a means of the Revenue saving costs and getting themselves out of a hole. It also acts as a useful smokescreen for the introduction of registration/regulation. It is merely a very small carrot being dangled in front of the tax agent donkey to make it go the way the Revenue want. Once inside the stable, the door will be bolted.

On a different point perhaps someone at the Institute would like to address the question of what took place in the meetings with the Revenue referred to at the bottom of page 9 of the condoc and what influence the bodies had on the final version of that document. The December 2009 condoc Working with tax agents; the next stage at para 1.8 it stated that the Revenue did not propose taking forward the idea of registration or regulation of tax agents. The current condoc proposes mandatory 'enrolment', so what has happened to change that view and how did the bodies react when they realised registration/regulation was now being proposed?

Trevor Johnson from Waiting in the queue at the cheese counter, 15 June 2011 11:58

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