‘HMRC has risen to the challenge’ of coronavirus response, says CEO Harra

Tax agency head salutes colleagues’ work in building new platforms at speed

Credit: Gary Todd/Public domain

HM Revenue and Customs has “risen to the challenge” of building major new digital services at speed, the tax agency’s chief executive Jim Harra has claimed.

In enabling the rollout of major new crisis-response initiatives such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – commonly referred to as the furlough programme – the department has needed to create, implement and support a number of large-scale digital services at tremendous speed.

The job-retention initiative was announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak on 20 March – nine days after the expansion of statutory sick pay entitlement he had announced in the budget, and shortly before the launch of the government’s Self-Employment Income Support scheme. 

The furlough scheme, including an online application process, was up and running on 20 April, exactly a month after Sunak’s announcement – and 10 days sooner than expected. It was followed by the self-employment scheme and expanded sick pay entitlement, which went live on 13 May and 26 May, respectively.  

In an exclusive interview with PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, Harra said that HMRC had been asked to “switch the tanker around in a different direction very, very quickly”.

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He added: “I’m very proud of what everybody achieved, both in developing the technology from our in-house team, and our suppliers, but also all the operational colleagues who got behind that to man the phone lines and the web chat, and to write guidance and train colleagues.”

The HMRC boss claimed that the department’s policy partnership with the Treasury had played a key role in ensuring the services were rolled out quickly and smoothly.

“One of the reasons why we’ve been able to implement them so fast is that implementation was built into the design of the policy – and for these schemes to achieve their objectives, they had to be delivered fast, otherwise they wouldn’t have worked,” Harra said.

The furlough programme was opened to all employers on the same day, and there were 5,000 staff manning phone lines and webchat services to answer any questions, and as many as 10,000 people trained to support the launch.

Harra said: “Such was the need to get the support out, we thought: we can’t have a gradual release of this, we have to have a big bang, so we scaled that service as big as we possibly could. And it withstood the hammering that it got [in terms of user demand] really well.”

For the self-employed scheme, HMRC had data indicating that around 3.5 million people could be eligible, and it invited them to apply over five days to manage the demand, which was “not so much on the IT system, but on the back-office support”.

According to Harra, the work conducted by the tax authority during the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated – to the rest of government and the public – what HMRC is capable of.

He said: “The most rewarding thing for me through the pandemic has just been my pride in how we have delivered, on behalf of ministers, the support for those who desperately needed it, and how the people in HMRC have really risen to the challenge, some of them while dealing with quite difficult situations.”

Click here to read the full interview, including lots more insight on the HMRC’s coronavirus response, what effect it has had on the department’s reputation, and how the pandemic might impact the UK’s tax system.



Sam Trendall

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