HM Customs need Exercise

Coming back from Poland the other week, I had the opportunity to compare slick and fantastic customer service in Poland with “GBH” (Great British Hindrance) at London Stansted Airport, now renamed London Standstill Airport. After a two hour flight from Warsaw, it took me a whole hour to clear the UK border due to massive queues at HM Revenue and Customs.

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Having missed an important meeting due to this I decided to track down the management and ask them some questions. I ventured up the stairs to ‘mission control’. The first thing that happened was that I was told I have stepped into a restricted area and asked to walk back down the stairs (there were no restrictions, so these must have been invisible to the common man or woman). Here’s how the conversation unfolded. I was polite but firm.

Me “So, what’s your excuse today then?”

HMRC Manager “What do you mean?”

Me “Well, it’s not like Tescos, there has not been an unpredictable ‘surge in sales of cheese and ham baguettes’ etc. You know exactly how many people are due to come through here at any moment, so what is your excuse for a one hour transit time through customs?”

HMRC Manager “It’s the passengers. We have a high volume of children”

Me “Quel Surprise. Who knew? Please try again”

HMRC Manager “It’s the Government cuts. We have no resources”

Me “I’m sorry, that’s a typical public sector response. It’s the job of management to secure sufficient resources to provide a reasonable service or organise the ones you have to make the service work. You have plenty of resources anyway – you are all sitting up in your office watching the work, whilst very few people actually do the work. Why not have more people doing the work rather than watching it? The machines you invested billions in are not working either. It is management’s job to sort such things out rather than pass the blame to Government”

HMRC Manager “And the staff are not adequately trained”

ME “No sorry, it’s not a training issue. It’s a staffing issue. Your staff are perfectly capable, they are just crumbling under the pressure of inadequate numbers, whilst there are plenty of staff overall, just not enough of them working”

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The queue stretched back almost to our arrival gate – disgraceful incompetence by UK Border Agency

HMRC Manager “Would you like to fill in a complaint form?”

ME “No, I don’t have time to fill in your pointless bureaucracy and that’s just a sop anyway. I’m telling you now so that you can do something about it. In any case I have already taken photos of the problem”

HMRC Manager “I cannot do anything without a complaint form. If you have taken photographs of the booths, we may have to seize your phone and delete the pictures as this is a restricted area”

ME “Is this Russia? I went there in the 1980’s and it wasn’t this bad …. In any case, once again, you are an hour ate. The pictures have already gone on Twitter and are already half way round the world. For anyone coming to the UK, this is a national disgrace. If Tescos operated to such levels of performance, they would be out of business”

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At that point I gave up, fearing that any further attempts to install a continuous improvement culture in HMRC would be met with a ‘rubber glove inspection’. Read the comments on this post. I am far from alone in my experience. I am sure that some managers in public services do try, but I’ve yet to find one that does not respond to serious complaints with excuses such as:

It’s the customers’ fault

It’s the Government’s fault

It’s the staff’s fault

Management in public services needs to be much much better, yet there are no ‘carrots’ to do so. The result of improving efficiency is ultimately fewer jobs. Nor are there any ‘sticks’ for not making things better – it’s almost impossible to get the sack in public services. I was talking to my accountant the other day and he told me it has always been thus. He worked at the Inland Revenue many years ago and was given a verbal warning for ‘overperforming’. He was told “you will never get on here if you work that fast”. He agreed and left shortly after.

So, that’s today’s ‘grumpy man’ post. I really do expect better than this and think we must look like a laughing stock to other nations. I don’t think the private sector is the answer to public problems, yet we are stuck with poor performance from many public services and this does not fit with a public that expect their taxes to be used efficiently. Call me a heretic if you will, but the point of travel is ‘motion’ rather than being ‘stationary’. Perhaps it is time for HM Customs to be Exorcised 🙂 Time for some music Standstill airport:


Peter Cook is author of “The Music of Business” and “Punk Rock People Management” which simplify business leadership, creativity and innovation, strategic thinking and people management for busy people. HM Customs and Exorcise clearly need a lot of help in this area!!

Check out the books at Cultured Llama.

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8 responses to “HM Customs need Exercise

  1. Hi Peter, I came through the Gold Card fast-track lane on my way out of Heathrow a week ago. I was the only person and there were four staff. I had carefully placed everything as it should be with liquids in a bag, displayed etc. As I walked through the detector I noticed my bag, coat etc all being sent down the inspection line.

    When I got to them I was told curtly by a woman, “We are conducting a random check on you!”, I gently and politely replied, “I don’t like the word random as it makes no sense to me.” She immediately shouted at me that I had no choice. I quietly said, “Please do not shout.” With this she accused me of causing a problem and that if I did not like it, then stop using Heathrow. I am now quite bemused by her behaviour and quietly ask to see her supervisor.

    She points to a man who was standing by her. I said, “Are you the supervisor of this lady?” he replied, “Yes.” I then asked if he thought that her behaviour was appropriate? He replied that I was a trouble maker and she was just doing her job. He was unable to justify his comment when asked. I then asked to speak to his supervisor.

    A uniformed man came over just as I was starting to pack all my goods back in my bag and the woman was telling me to pack it elsewhere and get out of her sight. At the same time telling me that I was uneducated, ignorant and an awful person.

    I looked at the senior supervisor and then he and I walked away from the scene. The supervisor had heard all the rantings of the lady and agreed that her behaviour was inappropriate. He gave me a form to fill in if I wanted to complain.

    He said that he would talk to her as this was not the first time a complaint had been made about her behaviour. However, there would be no disciplinary action without a formal complaint, which he could not record there and then.

    Sitting in the senator lounge later I filled in the form. Then I noticed that there was no address on it to which I could send it. I was past security and so could not hand it in there. Basically it was a waste of time. There was a website url for feedback and nothing else.

    No wonder I stopped living in the UK in 1997 and seldom ever go back there. I travel over 200,000 air miles around the world each year and never experienced such behaviour other than the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What Bugs You? | BIZCATALYST 360°

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