'Brexit means most of my Zoom calls will be for business rather than festive fun': HMRC chief Jim Harra reflects on 2020

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
HMRC perm sec and chief executive Jim Harra

By Civil Service World

18 Dec 2020

What are you proudest of your department or agency achieving in 2020?

It’s got to be how colleagues in HMRC worked together to help millions of people across the UK cope with the impact of Covid-19 on their livelihoods – whether through the new support schemes for furloughed employees and the self-employed, or the 60 urgent policy changes we introduced in the tax, customs and tax credits system, or simply giving people the time they need to pay their tax bill.

Colleagues showed HMRC’s values of professionalism, integrity, respect and innovation at their best, finding solutions to unprecedented problems and creating the necessary policies, systems, guidance and support services in a matter of weeks – a process that would usually take months or even years. And they did all of this while coping with the impact of Covid-19 on their own lives – often working from their kitchen tables and back bedrooms, and while caring for their children when schools and childcare were closed.  

To be the chief executive of an organisation whose people show such ingenuity, flexibility and commitment to public service makes me feel incredibly proud.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

It has been the pleasure of my life to lead HMRC in 2020, but it has also been hard leading colleagues through the immense pressures and uncertainties we’ve faced. I’ve had to demand a lot from everyone in HMRC, but at the same time I’ve strived to make HMRC a caring, supportive place where we look out for each other. That’s not easy to do on Microsoft Teams!

It has also been hard knowing that while our work has helped millions of people, we can’t help everyone who needs it.

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

Right now, we have three immediate priorities:

  • to help people cope with the impact of Covid-19 on their livelihoods and save jobs and businesses;
  • to help businesses get ready for the end of the EU-exit transition period; and
  • to protect the tax system from criminal attacks and abuse.  

This is the right thing to do right now, but it has short-term implications for our usual work, including the levels of service we can give in our core function of collecting the tax that pays for the UK’s vital public services.

Looking forward, we want to make progress with modernising the way we administer the tax system to make it more resilient, sustainable and trusted.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

I usually go on holiday to somewhere warm for New Year but Covid-19 means I’m staying in the UK. And I suspect the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December means most of my Zoom calls will be for business rather than festive fun!

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