HMRC leaves customers hanging on the telephone

Written by: Rachel Miller

Date: 20 May 2024

A woman spends hours waiting for HMRC to answer her call

Customers cumulatively spent 798 years on hold waiting to speak with HMRC in 2022/23 - more than double the time spent waiting in 2019/20, according to a new National Audit Office report.

HMRC's telephone customer service is not delivering - that's the conclusion of a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO). Its findings show that the average wait time for callers was nearly 23 minutes in the first 11 months of 2023/24 (up from five minutes in 2018/19). What's more, almost half of all calls to HMRC go unanswered.

HMRC has been trying to cut staffing by providing more digital services to customers. However, the NAO has found that new digital services have not eased pressure on traditional services as much as expected and HMRC is not expecting to meet its telephone performance target in 2024/25 either.

While the number of telephone calls has reduced, the amount of time advisers spend on each call has increased. More taxpayers now hold multiple jobs and fiscal drag has brought more people into the tax system.

"Tax compliance is a huge headache for small firms, who spend on average 52 hours a year trying to sort out how much they need to pay ... The long delays, troubles getting through, and struggle to speak to someone who can actually help rather than read from a script compound the stress for small business owners who have received letters from the tax authority saying there is a problem with their taxes." Tina McKenzie, policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses.

HMRC self-assessment helpline

In March 2024, HMRC announced that it would restrict a number of its helplines, including closing its self-assessment helpline for six months, but it reversed that decision one day after announcing the changes to the public. The NAO has recommended that HMRC develops more realistic plans for cutting the services it is replacing with digital channels and adopts a "more customer-focused approach" to encourage the take-up of new services.

"HMRC must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels." Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has previously criticised what it calls HMRC's "guilty until proven innocent" approach to its communications with small firms. "Digital avenues for support certainly have their place, and many small business owners are perfectly happy to use them. But there are some times when speaking to a real person is the only way to get something sorted, especially for queries which are anything other than totally straightforward," said the FSB's Tina McKenzie.

She added: "We welcome the NAO's report, with its emphasis on the need for HMRC to make 'realistic plans' and take a 'more customer-focused approach'. Small firms come in all shapes and sizes, but they all need to know they can get tax queries sorted without delay - something that HMRC needs to ensure is the case for everyone."

Written by Rachel Miller.

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