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HMRC Head Grilled On Poor Customer Service

by Robert Lee,, London

04 February 2013

The head of HM Revenue and Customs has promised shorter and cheaper phone calls for taxpayers seeking advice, and rejected claims by Margaret Hodge MP that HMRC's customer service targets are "unambitious."

Hodge clashed with HMRC head Lin Homer during a meeting of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which Hodge chairs. The MP complained that according to a report from the National Audit Office, the cost of unanswered phone calls to HMRC during 2011-12 had amounted to GBP130m, including wasted time, and she told Homer that the service's targets were "miles behind" the industry benchmark of 80% of calls answered within 20 seconds.

Homer, giving evidence to the committee, countered that this benchmark was derived from industries dealing with much lower numbers, and that many industries measured answering time from after the point at which a customer has gone through the Interactive Voice Recognition process, rather than from the point at which a customer picks up the phone. Homer stated that the service was aiming for an answering rate of 80% within five minutes, and that customers found this to be reasonable. She added that many calls were in fact answered within 2 minutes, and that processing staff were now able to be deployed during times of peak demand.

Homer and HMRC Director General of Personal Tax Ruth Owen also outlined various "demand management" measures to reduce the amount of phone calls being made to the HMRC, which last year amounted to 80m calls. Citing the example of recent tax changes relating to Child Benefit, they explained that information on the service’s website, as well as letters sent out to taxpayers, had helped to reduce the number of calls to the service about the change to 80,000. Owen also discussed plans to introduce a secure messaging service, along the same lines as used by banks, to be fully implemented by 2015. Phoneback will also be introduced, although Owen stated that first-contact resolution is preferred.

As regards the cost of calls, Owen explained that the service would be moving from using an 0845 number to an 03 number from the end of the summer, and that a new contract was currently under negotiation. Hodge welcomed the move, describing the use of 0845 numbers as "unacceptable" due to their high cost for mobile users.

Hodge also challenged HMRC on the quality of advice offered, noting that 29% of tax agents, who have a designated phone line to HMRC, were dissatisfied with the information that they were given. She rejected the argument that tax agents are particularly demanding, countering that tax agents should be easier to deal with as they are better-informed than most customers.

Homer also explained that the volume of post had gone down from 1m items to 100,000, and that HMRC had provided apps and information to help businesses implement the new Real Time Information PAYE system.

TAGS: tax | business | proprietors | Personal Tax | entrepreneurs | United Kingdom | self-employment | individual income tax | Tax

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