HMRC customer service ‘unacceptable’, says PAC
By Richard Johnstone | 18 March 2013
The Public Accounts Committee has slammed Revenue & Customs’ ‘disgraceful’ treatment of taxpayers making enquiries.
Chair Margaret Hodge said HMRC too often offered an ‘unacceptable’ service to those attempting trying to contact the department by phone or letter.
In a report published today, the PAC highlighted the £900m HMRC spent on customer services in 2011/12, around a quarter of its £3.7bn total expenditure. It received 79 million phone calls that year, but 20 million went unanswered, meaning customers incurred costs of £136m while they waited to speak to an adviser. HMRC also missed its own target to respond to 80% of letters within 15 days, managing to do so in just 66% of cases.
However, HMRC: customer service found that, in the past, the agency deemed it ‘too difficult’ to make improvements.
The MPs said they were ‘pleased’ the department was now changing this attitude. While there was still much to be done, commitments to introduce a call-back service for customers whose queries cannot be resolved first time and to replace all 0845 numbers with cheaper 03 numbers, were welcome, they added.
‘The department seems to be realising that good customer service is not a “nice to have” feature that can be sacrificed when resources are tight and workloads high, but an essential part of any strategy to collect revenues while also reducing costs’, the report stated.
However, MPs also warned that reforms to tax collection, such as the introduction of the new Real Time Information system for taxation as part of the government’s Universal Credit reforms, were likely to lead to more calls. At the same time, the department’s savings plans included reducing customer-facing staff by a third, down from 6,900 in 2011/12 to 3,700 in 2014/15.
If there were significant increases in customer contact, HMRC would need to provide additional staff to avoid its performance ‘plummeting’, MPs said.
Hodge added the department needed to improve its ‘abysmal record’ of customer service.
‘We are pleased to see signs that HMRC is changing its attitude. Officials are beginning to realise that good customer service lies at the heart of any strategy to maximise revenues while cutting costs.
‘It’s good news for those trying to phone the department that they will no longer be forced to use the more expensive 0845 numbers.’
However, she questioned how the department was going to improve standards in the light of reduced staff numbers and increasing demands.
An HMRC spokeswoman said the report criticised ‘a previous poor standard of service from which HMRC has already recovered’.
She added: ‘In the past three months, we have been answering more than 90% of calls to our contact centres and during the current year we have replied to 84.5% of the 16 million pieces of post we have received within 15 working days.
‘We will continue to build on these improvements until we deliver the consistent quality of service that our customers are entitled to expect.’
Last week, HMRC announced plans to close the 281 enquiry centres that provide face-to-face support to customers. The proposal, which is out to consultation, suggests replacing the centres with an enhanced telephone service and a team of mobile advisers offering face-to-face assistance.
Closure of the centres would save £47m in property costs and £13.5m in staff costs each year.