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Britons Spend 800 Years Waiting to Speak to HMRC

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Taxpayers spent a staggering total of nearly 800 years on hold to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) last year, amid what the government’s spending watchdog describes as a “declining spiral” of customer service.

The National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that HMRC failed to answer up to 45% of calls to its tax helpline, with the average wait time for those who did get through rising to 23 minutes, up from five minutes in 2019.

The NAO’s damning report highlighted that this increased wait time equated to a total of 798 years spent waiting on the phone, a significant rise from 365 years just three years prior. The report accuses HMRC of deliberately limiting telephone service availability to manage its workload and criticized the agency’s strategy of cutting costs by promoting digital services, which do not provide an equivalent level of support.

Testing of HMRC’s new digital assistant tool revealed that it could resolve only about half of the sampled queries. Additionally, the NAO criticized the reduction of HMRC’s frontline customer service workforce by more than 9% over the past four years without properly assessing whether digital services met customer needs.

Public dissatisfaction with HMRC’s service is growing, as evidenced by the 91,000 complaints lodged last year, marking a nearly 40% increase from 2020. In response to these challenges, HMRC shut down four helplines for three months to redeploy staff and save money. Plans to make these cuts permanent were vetoed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

A Treasury source emphasized that staff cuts should not compromise public access to essential services, particularly for vulnerable individuals needing support with tax matters. In response to the NAO report, the Treasury announced an additional £51 million in funding for HMRC to help answer more calls.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, pointed out that HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been below target service levels for an extended period. “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,” he said. “HMRC must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels.”

The report also questioned staff productivity, noting an increase in sickness levels to an average of 11 days per year. Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, urged HMRC to listen to taxpayer frustration and develop realistic plans to improve customer service and deliver value for money.

An HMRC spokesman responded: “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.”

Seb Maley, CEO of IR35 tax and compliance firm, Qdos, commented: “This report makes for damning reading, and it exposes just how bad things have gotten over the last five years. Despite astronomical investment in its customer service offering, HMRC has fallen well short. All taxpayers – whether self-employed or employed – are getting a raw deal.

“The NAO is right to call out HMRC’s customer service levels, which have nosedived in recent years. The concern is that while the help and support HMRC offers taxpayers worsens, the tax office’s approach to policing non-compliance becomes more aggressive. It doesn’t stack up.”

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