11 July 2023
Back when David Cameron was prime minister, he made a manifesto pledge that the Conservative government would offer up to 15 million workers three days’ paid leave per year for volunteering. He proposed that every public sector worker and anyone working in a company with at least 250 employees would be entitled to the volunteering leave. At the time, some government departments allowed staff one day of paid leave for volunteering.
Skip forward to today and the civil servants have a variety of rules around volunteering leave which are unlikely to be found in the private sector. Some offer three paid days but for special constables its 12 days. In recent years HMRC has increased its paid volunteering days to five days, and last year, HMRC volunteers gave over 3,500 days of their time. That’s the equivalent of 15 staff being full-time volunteers.
HMRC told us in June when closing the self-assessment (SA) helpline to 4th September that it would free up around 350 advisers to support more urgent enquiries and keep its post up to date. But it appears this is just solving one problem to create another further down the line.
While recovering the previous year’s level of volunteering time would not likely be enough to keep the SA helpline open, if all of the more than 66,000 HMRC employees decided to take up their full allocation of volunteering days it could be enough to cripple HMRC’s service delivery. At a time when HMRC is having to reduce its available services to taxpayers, should it consider reducing the volunteering time available?
HMRC has limited resource, and Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s deputy chief executive and second permanent secretary, recently explained this in a letter to Harriett Baldwin MP, chair of the Treasury select committee, with the seasonal closure of the SA helpline being set against the context of the challenging level of efficiencies required from HMRC to meet its Spending Review 2021 settlement. For example, the recent national minimum wage (NMW) increases mean HMRC needs to do more with less, as almost one-third of HMRC staff are on the national minimum wage. Only last week, the unions were talking about HMRC’s attempt to get staff to sign up for guaranteed extra hours. This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that they have to serve.
In fact, in that letter Angela MacDonald confirmed: “No fewer people will be employed answering enquiries and processing customers’ tax affairs, no staff will be working fewer hours, and nobody will be doing less. The staff who would have been on this phone line will be working in other customer service roles during the pilot.”
But HMRC hasn’t been helped by government who, along with introducing policies that mean more people will need to engage with the tax system and file tax returns, introduced the civil service volunteer policy.
One volunteer Kay Patel said: “We do not volunteer, for the most part, because it benefits us. We volunteer because we want to make a difference.” On the flip side, all those extra hours, if they were worked, are likely to make a big difference to HMRC service levels. I’m sure there will be many taxpayers who think it’s bad enough that they are funding volunteer time, without them further suffering in the service they receive!