HMRC is, in effect, passing its problems on to its customers

First published on 26 July 2023 by Alastair
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A few months ago, we reported why employers and students might have to wait longer to get through to HMRC on the phone. Now, in its latest attempt to ‘improve’ its communication, HMRC says they plan to cut access to phone lines even further - by as much as 30% - and instead ask customers to use online services to answer queries.

Now, to be fair, multi-channel communication strategies are common in business. Many companies, especially those whose ‘customer service’ is call-centre based, offer a variety of means of getting in touch.  This has led to the infuriating (for the customer) regularity of soulless messages asking us to press 1 for new sales, 2 for accounts, 3 if you are intending leaving us, and 4 if you want to shout at us because you’ve no idea which button to press and you’ve been waiting so long that you’ve forgotten what you were calling about (in which case we’ll hang up on you).

Of course, fear of being abused by customers is, sadly, very real. That’s partly behind the increased use of online chat and chatbots.  But many of us want to speak to a real human…

That’s why the news that HMRC is going to cut the use of phone-based tax advisers by 30% within two years as it struggles to cope with increasing demand and cuts to staffing budgets is not something we (as tax advisers who have to speak to HMRC on our customers’ behalf), welcome. The tax authority’s chief executive Jim Harra is reported to have said: ‘We want to reduce the volume of contact through phone and post by 30% by 2025 compared with 2021 to 2022, enabling many more customers to resolve their issues quickly and easily online, and freeing us up to help those who need extra support.’

A 30% cut to calls means that the total number of calls to HMRC would fall by nearly 10 million a year from the current 38.3 million recorded for year-end April 2022. At this point, we should note that HMRC also missed its performance targets with only 71% of calls to advisers answered and dealt with, well below the department’s target of 85%...

To make matters worse, the latest HMRC annual report shows that continuing cuts to budgets is putting immense pressure on service delivery. As a result, HMRC it taking these increasingly radical steps to ‘improve performance’ and push more taxpayers towards using online web services. This is set against a background of increasing fiscal drag pushing more of us into the higher rate tax, which has, unsurprisingly, resulted in more demand for experienced advisers to handle increasingly complex queries.

Again, to be fair, HMRC is trying to square an almost impossible circle, with increasing demand for more experienced advisers to handle calls from taxpayers with complex questions, while at the same time it is struggling to pay for enough call handlers and advisers. This, more than anything, is what is driving them to to force people to use its website to answer questions. And, underpinning this, HMRC is under pressure to reduce the 4.8% tax gap equivalent to over £36bn in lost taxes a year.

We acknowledge there is a change in the way different generations communicate, with younger people far less likely to use a phone to make a call than Baby Boomers.  Managing this transition is what HMRC needs to focus upon and, as we have noted, they have an almost impossible task. Central to the future is investment in more resilient IT infrastructure, which is happening, with legacy data centres moving to cloud hosting. But in the meantime, prepare for things to get worse before they get better.  

Paul Mollinson, M&S Accountancy and Taxation

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