HMRC’s claims about improvements in call-answering times “don’t stack up”, according to the chair of an influential parliamentary committee. The criticism from Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier MP has been echoed by professional tax advisors.

HMRC told the committee that it has reduced the time taken to answer calls from taxpayers from 12 minutes in 2015-16 to around five minutes in 2016-17. Further probing however revealed that the taxman does not count the two to four minutes spent listening to recorded messages and navigating computerised menus, giving actual call times of up to nine minutes. Pointing out that most people would expect the figures to include the time spent listening to recorded messages, the committee criticised the Revenue’s counting method as “particularly unacceptable” given the personal service received by large companies and high net-worth individuals.

The long wait times were held up by IPSE, a contractors’ group, as particularly damaging to small businesses. Simon McVicker, IPSE’s Director of Policy, said: “Every minute a self-employed person spends on the phone is time they could be using to generate money through their business. They simply cannot afford to be diverted by long waiting times and poor administration from HMRC.” Hillier meanwhile warned that “Any new deterioration would be wholly unacceptable.

The PAC report uncovered a further subterfuge in how the Revenue counts the calls it successfully handles. Under questioning from MPs, HMRC admitted that when a taxpayer hangs up in frustration during several minutes of automated recordings, the tax authority counts this as a successfully resolved call. A quarter of calls to HMRC in 2016-17 were counted as solved in this way. Tax professionals added their voices to the criticism. Responding to the report, Yvette Nunn of the Association of Taxation Technicians said “the complexity of tax means there will always be times when an individual needs to speak to HMRC. HMRC need to realise that automated messages are a source of frustration, by making it hard to speak to someone they increase the risk of taxpayers guessing the answer and getting it wrong.”

HMRC’s plan for customer service is to move people away from using telephone services entirely, by encouraging taxpayers to use online services. This plan does not escape criticism however, the MPs’ report notes concerns that many people without internet access risk being cut off from advice and information. Even many who are happy, or even prefer, to access HMRC services online this may not be the solution the taxman promises. The Revenue’s web services have at best a patchy record, with the Self Assessment website repeatedly crashing earlier this month, just weeks before the filing deadline, and the BBC reporting that thousands of parents are struggling to access the HMRC-run website for subsidised childcare.

John Cullinane, Tax Policy Director at the Chartered Institute of Taxation, says that HMRC has a history of bungling the transition to digital customer service: “For example, early in 2017 HMRC stopped providing pay and tax details over the phone to agents, because HMRC were being flooded with calls, but they did this before a suitable alternative arrangement was made available. This risks HMRC being seen to say that customer service has improved, when in fact in some areas they are simply providing less of a service.

HMRC have promised improvements, both in the levels of customer service, and in the way they measure performance. With their recent track record under fire, they have a long way to go to improve taxpayer’s experience.

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