The head of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) recently spent an afternoon attempting to defend the department’s inadequate record on answering telephone calls.
In answer to questions put to her by members of the Public Accounts Committee, Lin Homer stated “I don’t think the overall trend is worsening. We aren’t answering enough calls within five minutes, but we are now doing more ‘once and done’ calls.”
If Lin Horner ever tried to obtain information from her own department she may well find out how deeply frustrating the experience can be. First of all, a caller may well have spent hours trying to find an answer to their question on the website. The main problem is that the HMRC website is part of the much larger Gov.UK website which covers all government departments. If you type in a simple query such as “VAT recovery on motor car purchase” there are 527 documents, 266 of which relate to HMRC. The first four documents refer to Section 33 bodies, which means something to me as I am a VAT specialist but will mean nothing at all to the average business. The public notice that deals with motor cars, which you might expect to be the first document offered, is not listed on the first of the 14 pages of documents. The first document that is helpful to the average business is the seventh document listed. Many busy business people having clicked on some of the first six documents, will have given up before reaching the seventh and have believed that will be simpler to call HMRC.
When someone calls HMRC they spend the first few minutes of their call being advised to use the website. If such a business person was one of those thousands of people whom a recent report from Citizens Advice said had to wait 47 minutes to get their calls answered, one might expect that they were deeply frustrated by the time they spoke to a HMRC representative. The Citizens Advice study showed that over the last year, 11,500 frustrated callers turned to Twitter to complain. One taxpayer tweeted that they had tried on four occasions to get through to HMRC and waited an hour each time.
HMRC said the survey was “unscientific” and “out of date”.
“We have already apologised for what we see as a failure in our performance at the end of last year, and the first couple of months of this year,” Lin Horner informed members of the Public Accounts Committee.
In what seems like an attempt to offer information that could mitigate any judgement that may be made regarding the unacceptability of the level of service, Ms Horner stated that HMRC were now endeavouring to answer a caller’s question in just one phone call and as a result of this, some conversations were getting longer. Such a statement begs the question, why has trying to give a complete answer to a question not been the policy of HMRC previously?
The total number of calls answered by HMRC fell from 79% in 2013/14, to 72.5% in 2014/15, according to the National Audit Office, and just 39% of calls were being answered within five minutes. With HMRC stating that it receives 70 million calls a year so that makes 42.7 million callers who were unable to receive a response within 5 minutes and 19.25 million whose call was not answered at all. It is difficult to think of any business that did not have a captive market that would survive in business if it experienced a similar performance.
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