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Contacting HMRC - still a nightmare

HMRC’s inability to deal efficiently with telephone callers is putting at risk not only its own reputation, but also the well-being of its low-income customers. This is the clear conclusion which can be drawn from a report published today by the National Audit Office.

In the many reports LITRG has published over the years, HMRC’s inadequate telephone performance has been one consistent theme. Contacting HMRC is a nightmare for most people and bears most harshly from a financial and need perspective on those with the lowest incomes.

The telephone is the main method of contacting HMRC and a new report from the NAO shows that 103 million call attempts were made in 2008-09, a rise of 22% compared with the previous year. This is despite numerous initiatives to get taxpayers to use the internet to deal with HMRC.

But HMRC only answered 57% of those call attempts. This is an appallingly low figure and well below the industry standard of 90%.

When you are able to get through and speak to someone, it is not necessarily someone with knowledge. Even on their own measurement of accuracy of advice, HMRC estimate that 11 out of every hundred callers will be given inaccurate advice. That represents many million people being misled.

This makes it vitally important, as we pointed out in a recent article, for people to keep records of the advice they are given.

NAO recommendations

The NAO make many recommendations, nearly all of which we too have made in our reports over the years. These include:

  • HMRC to become more joined-up internally
  • Reduce avoidable contact by customers
  • Rationalise the multiplicity of helplines
  • Take more steps to recognise disability needs
  • Reduce the cost of calls for mobile phone users
  • Simplify the customer journey
  • Use mystery shopping to test its own performance
  • Generally become more efficient

Conclusion

HMRC prides itself on being a customer-focused organisation. Undoubtedly that is what it aspires to be. Yet it appears that budgetary cuts outside of its control and inefficiency are crippling its capacity to deliver the customer service it would like, and if not reversed, it risks making recent worthy initiatives such as the Charter mere words without substance.

In addition to the evidence in today’s report, the NAO have previously found that HMRC is falling well short of its target in answering correspondence; and as enquiry centres continue to be put on shorter working hours or shut down altogether, HMRC’s customers bear the brunt.
 
HMRC’s unrepresented customers rely on being able to contact HMRC in the ways that they find easiest, although in many cases they are obliged to use the telephone by HMRC’s own rules. If they cannot get through, or wrong information is given them by staff, they lose out financially, and may incur tax credit overpayments or tax penalties. The true victims of HMRC’s inefficiency are not HMRC itself, but its customers, with those on the lowest incomes faring the worst.

(15-01-2010)

Contact: John Andrews (0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)

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