HMRC has been criticised for the time it takes to resolve queries – in research it commissioned itself. The survey of individuals, small businesses and tax professionals recorded HMRC errors, unnavigable systems, incorrect or contradictory answers, and uninformed, hostile or patronising staff.

HMRC commissioned the research after discovering – to their apparent shock – in a 2015 survey that “a proportion of customers were dissatisfied with the time taken by HMRC to resolve queries”. Those who have to deal with the Revenue, whether for Self Assessment, queries about their company’s tax or as a tax agent, will somewhat less surprised, that “proportion” was as much as a quarter of individuals and a half of tax agents, and even parliament has criticised HMRC’s customer service, over unacceptable call handling times.

The latest research is based on interviews with dissatisfied users of HMRC customers including individual taxpayers, small businesses and professional tax agents, who deal with HMRC for a living. The resulting report goes into detail about the issues frustrating taxpayers, and presents their suggestions for improvement.

Common problems encountered included errors from HMRC, either coming from uninformed call centre staff or from malfunctioning computer systems. Users reported that they would receive multiple copies of the same letters, contradictory letters, or letters chasing debt collection for amounts that had been paid. “They’re very polite and nice and usually apologise and say it’s an automated letter but I can’t seem to get through to them it’s happening, it’s happening every year,” one taxpayer told the researchers.

When attempting to use the Revenue’s online self-service tools, taxpayers and agents find themselves facing a navigation challenge. The report highlights a “lack of signposting, guidance and expectation setting by HMRC”, leading to frustration. Even tax agents, who use the systems on a regular basis and are used to navigating them complain that they are not given an overview of how far complaints are from being resolved, or reasons for missed deadlines.

When taxpayers gave up on the website and phoned HMRC instead, they still received substandard service. Responses to the survey show that information given is inconsistent, or inaccurate, for example being told incorrectly that an issue has been resolved, leading to a fine or penalty. At other times HMRC staff were simply unable to answer questions, or even connect callers to someone who could: “I would expect people to know the answers to questions and to offer alternatives if they can’t help and so this chap was ‘there’s nothing I can do, you’ll have to ring back’”, said one small business owner.

The tone taken by HMRC representatives on the phone also drew criticism. For individuals and small businesses, the main complaint was that HMRC staff were often rude and hostile – with the general impression being that the caller was treated with suspicion and deliberately trying to be non-compliant. For agents a common complaint was that HMRC representatives were patronising, talking down to callers as if they knew nothing about tax – especially annoying since tax agents will usually be calling on a dedicated line for professionals.

Building on these and other common complaints, the report lists improvements that taxpayers would like to see from HMRC. High on the list is better communication, including clearly laid out timelines for resolving queries and acknowledgment of actions taken. Users also want to see better customer service standards from the Revenue’s staff, in terms of tone and manner, the accuracy and consistency of information, and willingness to apologise when HMRC is at fault. Above all, since online self-service is the preferred option for all types of respondent, they would like to see an improvement in these systems. Suggested improvements include better signposting to appropriate services, detailed guidance, and clearly laid out timeframes for resolving queries.

The full report is available online here.

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