Tone of HMRC customer charter criticised as a 'bit threatening'

There has been mixed reaction to HMRC’s Customer Charter with criticism that the tone and language of the new Charter is overly aggressive and a ‘bit threatening’ in an indepth survey of customers and employers conducted by Ipsos Mori

HMRC commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct research to test customers’ understanding of a revised version of its Customer Charter. The study explored understanding and interpretation of the key messages proposed in the Charter, clarity of language and appropriateness of tone.

While those surveyed on the whole approved of the new format and said that it was clear to understand, it appeared that the positive comments were generally made by respondents from businesses and not for the tax adviser community.

There have been criticisms that the charter is aggressive and assumes that those reading it will have contravened the tax law, rather than simply checking out their expectations around HMRC service.

The key areas that were most contentious were around whether the revised Charter used consistent language and tone, or created more confusion for customers with its threatening language.

There was crticisim of the changing nuances of the language. Certain words stood out as being very different in tone to others, such as the word ‘tough’ with people questioning the language in Right 6, ‘Be tough on people who bend or break the rules’. This was felt to be more informal than language used elsewhere.  One employer commented: ‘I find that a bit threatening. But maybe that’s what they want.’

There were some instances where the language was felt to be ambiguous. For example, some employers did not think Obligation 4 ,‘Keep accurate records and protect your information’ was as precise as they would like it to be. HMRC’s customer insight and knowledge team commented: ‘It made them (customers) question how long they needed to keep accurate records for and what exactly they needed to keep records of.’

The restructuring of the charter was welcome by some, as they felt it was easier to understand in the new form.

For example, on the tone and clarity of the language used, and heading statements and narratives one customer comment from an employer stated: ‘The language used is good, especially if you’re not used to dealing with HMRC.’

In terms of the Charter’s Right 1, to ‘respect you and treat you as honest’, customers felt that this was clear and easy to understand. One comment stated: ‘(It means) we won’t assume you’ve done something wrong until they’ve found you’ve done something wrong.’

The focus groups tested two versions of the charter, one more narrative based, while the other was loaded with hyperlinks. Neither format was overwhelmingly preferred, but depended on the individual’s frequency of use of the site. Again, it does not appear that the HMRC Charter would be available as a PDF although individuals can save the HTML as a PDF document, which makes it easier to identify changes to the charter over time.

They also asked for proper contact details for HMRC in the Charter, particularly an email or phone number as the current charter was purely online and did not give customers any recourse to raise issues.

Ipsos MORI conducted five focus groups with customers and ten in-depth telephone interviews with employers between June and July 2015. It also conducted ten interviews with small (10-49 employees) and medium sized businesses (50-100 employees).

The full results of the research are available at HMRC Customer Views on the revised Customer Charter report

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