Tax helpline callers left on hold for nearly eight centuries

HMRC forgot to tell Brits about its digital support channels

Appalling service levels at Britain's tax collector meant customers phoning in with inquiries were collectively left on hold for 798 years in fiscal 2023.

This is according to the National Audit Office (NAO), which found the time spent waiting in the 12 months to March last year was more than double the time wasted in fiscal 2020. It says digital channels intended to ease service pressures didn't help as expected.

The plan was to convince more citizens phoning in with questions about their taxes to consider using online services to resolve them more quickly. It was also intended to cut costs for His Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and free up staff to tackle those needing extra support.

However, the NAO found that it is not clear how "far and fast digital will reduce demand for telephone calls and correspondence services." It also reckons digital services are best suited to "straightforward queries and reporting changes in customers' circumstances."

HMRC has not done enough to raise awareness of alternative customer service channels, said the NAO, and the "quality of service provided by HMRC telephone and correspondence has been far below the levels expected in recent years, and has not met annual targets."

The ultimate aim is to handle 80 percent of queries within 15 days and it managed 73 percent, albeit better than 45 percent rates achieved during the pandemic.

The NAO said the number of telephone calls to HMRC has reduced, yet the amount of time advisors spend on a call has increased – it was up to 23 minutes in the first 11 months of fiscal 2024. This means the call-handling workload pressures have reduced more slowly than forecast. More taxpayers hold multiple jobs and often have more complex needs, and fiscal drag has brought more taxpayers into the system, the NAO said.

This meant proposed headcount reductions could not be realized, the watchdog said. HMRC expunged 9 percent between fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2024. Budget constraints mean it now needs to cut staff numbers by 14 percent, according to the NAO.

In March, HMRC said it would restrict a number of helplines, including the Self Assessment helpline for six months. This was to ease funding pressures, but after just one day the tax collector U-turned. A more realistic plan to cut services being replaced with digital channels and to market them more effectively is something HMRC must consider, the watchdog concluded.

"HMRC's telephone and correspondence services have been below its target service levels for too long," said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

"While many of its digital services work well, they have not made enough of a difference to customers, some of whom have been caught in a declining spiral of service pressures and cuts. HMRC has also not achieved planned efficiencies.

"HMRC must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels."

This isn't the first time HMRC has been criticized for poor telephone support. The Public Accounts Committee also pulled the authority over hot coals in March.

An HMRC spokesperson told The Register: "While customer service standards on our phone lines are still not where we want them to be, we're making strong progress in our efforts to improve our customer service and additional funding has been confirmed by the government this week.

"Millions more people used our highly rated online services last year – saving them waiting on the phone and freeing up our advisors to deal with those people who need extra support. We continue to encourage people to deal with us online or via the app where they can, and we are working to provide even better, easier and always-available online services. But, as we have recognised, these changes need to happen at a speed and in ways that our customers are comfortable with." ®

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