As reported recently, both on our blog and in the national press, HMRC has had a few problems answering the phone and generally communicating with all those pesky taxpayers (or to use HMRC terminology customers) who want their advice and/or assistance. Clearly, there are problems…
Never fear though, for Victoria Atkins, a brainy Treasury Minister, has discovered the solution. Apparently, it’s our fault. We’re calling them too much…
Ms Atkins has claimed that at least 500 HMRC staff could be freed up if we’d only stop calling them with basic and banal enquiries and instead go online to find out the answers. It seems that too many of us just call looking for simple information such as when deadlines are for self-assessment or to get a national insurance number or tax code. Other things which we shouldn’t call up about include checking the rates, thresholds and bands for different taxes and getting an online password for dealing with tax matters.
In the House of Commons, Philip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering, asked: “Ten million calls went unanswered at HMRC last year. Of those who did get through two-thirds had to wait more than 10 minutes. Meanwhile, four out of five HMRC staff are working from home. What is being done to improve the appalling level of customer service at HMRC?”
In response, Ms Atkins said that she takes the issue “very, very seriously,” adding: “Just to put this in context, last year HMRC received 38 million telephone calls, around three million of which are to do the simplest of tasks which can be done digitally if at all possible.”
She has a point, but only up to a point. Yes, many of us are more than capable of going to a website to find out information, but some (stereotypically older people) are not confident online and prefer to speak to a human being. Why should they not be able to do that? Moreover, it is quite often the case that people will call with several questions, of which only one is the simplest one. And who would willingly call HMRC with even a simple question if it’s going to take ages to get a response…?
Here at M&S Accountancy and Taxation we have a (growing) list of the problems we’ve encountered in our attempts to speak to HMRC. For example, we’ve dialled non-existent numbers that were given on official letters from HMRC; then we’ve been asked why we were phoning as the helpline was closed (the HMRC officer was unaware that there was such a thing as an agent helpline – which was also closed earlier in the year). In general response time for a call-back from HMRC is five days.
For one complaint which has been ongoing since April, we have had three letters (June, July August) telling us that they are too busy to deal with it and will let us have response at some point. Given that the matter is urgent and involves a tax liability of over £300k that is extremely concerning. This matter also involved calls to HMRC where we were put through to the wrong department, another where the officer confirmed they had our letters but they couldn’t deal with it and so we were transferred to an officer who said they couldn’t see these letters on the system then hung up!
We feel for the ordinary staff on the front line taking these calls. The majority of them try hard to be helpful. In our view, it is people like Victoria Atkins and Jim Harra, CEO of HMRC, who should be in the firing line for their refusal to acknowledge or apologise for the dreadful service taxpayers are having to contend with – and for their ludicrous attempt to put the blame on the taxpayer rather than the service.
One thing is for sure, if we were in fact proper ‘customers’, given the appalling service on offer from HMRC at the moment, who would continue to give HMRC their business? Continuing to use the phrase 'customer' simply makes HMRC a laughing stock.
Callum McKinnon, M&S Accountancy and Taxation