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HM Revenue and Customs Phone Line Failure as Customers Spend 798 Years On Hold

David Hencke examines a National Audit Office report revealing HMRC has not done enough to raise awareness of its digital services

HMRC website. Photo: M4OS Photos/Alamy

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Customers calling the HM Revenue and Customs tax helpline spent 798 years on hold in 2022-23 because the agency’s new digital service has flopped with the general public, the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals in a report published today.

The average wait to talk to an advisor has more than quadrupled from five to 23 minutes since 2019.

Customers with tax queries were expected to contact HMRC online rather than use the telephone as part of a government efficiency drive to cut down civil service jobs and save public money.

But the report reveals HMRC has not yet done enough to raise awareness of its digital services, increase customers’ confidence in using its online offering or understand how effectively these services meet customers’ needs.

Meg Hillier MP, Labour Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “By law, taxpayers must engage with the tax system. But for its part, HMRC’s performance in picking up the phone to customers has hit an all-time low. Its digital by default approach is trying to force customers to engage online.”

 While digital services are useful for simple tax queries they were not designed to deal with more complicated ones where a person has to speak to an advisor.

As a result, advisers were spending much longer on the phone with each customer and dealing with fewer people, leaving people on hold while they dealt with each query.

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Advisers answered 22% fewer calls in 2022-23 compared with 2019-20, but these took 21% more time to handle on average, from 11:24 minutes in 2019-20 to 13:48 minutes in 2022-23. In total, advisers spent 4.7 million hours handling calls in 2022- 23, 6% less than in 2019-20.

Figures for the last financial year are not yet complete but estimates for the first 11 months show number of calls answered in 2023-24 fell to 16 million, out of 36.5 million attempts.

HMRC has estimated that 72% of calls in 2023-24 were caused by ‘failure demand’, which includes calls caused by HMRC’s process failures or delays, customers chasing progress and customers’ errors. This proportion has increased from 65% in 2018-19.

The crisis in handling calls appears to date from huge efficiency savings ordered to save money by Rishi Sunak, when he was chancellor, and which were doubled when he became PM.

 The report says: “HMRC was asked by HM Treasury to make annual efficiency savings of £75 million in customer services by 2024-25. HMRC doubled the required savings to £149 million in response to government’s efficiency and savings review in 2022-23. However, HMRC has found it difficult to achieve its efficiency targets: by 2023-24, it achieved £53 million of savings, £22 million short of its revised targets.”

Meanwhile, in February 2024, the Committee of Public Accounts concluded that HMRC had not been given the resources from HM Treasury to meet the service standards HMRC has committed to deliver,

HMRC is not expected to meet its efficiency savings target this year either.


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Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been below its target service levels for too long. “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 must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels.”

An HMRC spokesperson said:

“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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