December 18, 2012 12:03 am

Revenue’s hotline called to account

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Find “inner peace” by completing your tax return early, HM Revenue & Customs promises in an advertising campaign launched this week. But for the 20m taxpayers whose calls went unanswered last year, tranquillity may be hard to come by.

Billboard and press advertisements featuring cooks, builders and gardeners meditating after completing their self-assessment tax returns were unveiled on Monday in a drive for early filing.

Yet, in a coincidental twist of timing, a report from the public spending watchdog on Tuesday will highlight the “substandard” customer service that makes the annual tax return so stressful.

Some 6.5m people had to wait more than 10 minutes to get their calls to the Revenue hotlines answered, adding £33m to customers’ telephone bills and wasting £103m of their time last year, a report from the National Audit Office found.

Margaret Hodge, who chairs the public accounts committee, said it was “totally unacceptable” that the Revenue uses expensive 0845 numbers which mean its phone service provider, Cable and Wireless, profits while customers wait.

“Current call-answering targets are far too soft and way below industry standards,” she said. “In 2011-12, a staggering 20m calls went unanswered and yet HMRC still managed to exceed its self-set target of answering just 58 per cent of calls.”

George Osborne, the chancellor, gave the Revenue an extra £77m a year in his Autumn Statement but the money is to be spent enforcing tax rules on multinationals, the wealthy and offshore evasion.

Ms Hodge added she was concerned that taxpayers would continue to receive a poor service as the Revenue targets for 2014-15 are “less demanding”.

Nevertheless, the NAO says the Revenue has improved its performance from a low in 2010. In the period 2011-2013 it spent £74m to employ 2,500 temporary staff to tackle the backlog and the long delays. But it said that by 2014-15 it will have reduced the number of extra staff, and would have to redeploy an average of 700-800 staff throughout the year to reach its target of answering 90 per cent of calls.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The taxpayers and claimants who phone HMRC do not have a choice about whether they interact with the department. Despite some welcome improvements, HMRC has acknowledged that its performance in providing services to the public has been unacceptable.”

The Revenue said it was “well aware” that in the past it had not delivered a good enough service but it had improved.

“In 2010-11 we answered 48 per cent of all call attempts, rising to 74 per cent in 2011-12. By late 2012 we were answering over 90 per cent of calls to our contact centres,” a spokesperson said. “We are determined to build on this progress and we have invested £34m so we can deliver on our improvement targets earlier than planned.”

The Revenue added that it had transferred its tax credits hotline to a cheaper 0345 number.

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