Blog > HMRC > Eight centuries wasted waiting for HMRC to pick up the phone
Cres Moseley
13 June 2024

Eight centuries wasted waiting for HMRC to pick up the phone

Can you imagine waiting for 800 years for an appointment? How about 30,000 days or 7 million hours? That’s how long, collectively, taxpayers reported waiting for an HMRC advisor in the 2023-24 tax year.

“A declining spiral” was how the National Audit Office (NAO) recently described HMRC’s customer service performance after its recent U-turn on digital services. The department has consistently failed to hit its customer service targets for almost all of the last five years (1). Call waiting times have risen 350% in the same period (2). In fact, you’re now likely to waste 23 minutes on average waiting for an HMRC advisor when, five years prior, you would only have spent 5 minutes on hold (3).

Overburdened phone lines have called to attention the major neglect of the HMRC to address the increasing demand for phone services, resulting in an extra load on an already strained system.

Fiscal drag has pulled millions into a new tax bracket since 2021. What is more, many of those affected have called HMRC with more complex queries because they have taken on extra jobs and freelance work to contend with the cost of living in recent years. These external pressures from difficult financial times have also appeared to affect not just the waiting time but also increased the time advisors spent resolving inquiries: from 11 to 13 minutes (4).

The obvious demand for up-to-date telephone services from MPs and customers alike has prompted a complete reversal in HMRC’s plans to close its phone lines every summer. This comes after a coordinated effort on the organisation’s behalf to shift most of its customers to its online platform.

Meg Hillier MP, in response to the NAO article, declared that the HMRC’s “digital by default approach is trying to force customers to engage online,”(5) and the stats seem to agree. A poll of 11,000 people from the Telegraph reports that 68% of the taxpayers surveyed preferred telephone communication over a chatbot, email, or the post. This preference is reflected in HMRC’s call numbers which still make up 46% of all their customer communication this year (6).

“We’ve listened to the feedback,” says the treasury, “and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services.” (7)

The NAO report notes: “Digital transactions can be easier and faster for many customers to access and submit information. However, they do not currently allow customers to resolve more complex queries.” This is reflected in the NAO’s findings that HMRC’s digital assistant required an adviser to assist with half of the posed tax inquiries.

Customer satisfaction dropped from 82% in 2021-2023 to 79.2% when telephony was first included in customer feedback metrics, and the percentage continues to fall into 2024 (8). Poor advisor performance is a likely dent in taxpayers’ experience – that’s if they can even reach one.

Despite the higher volume of calls, 22% fewer calls were answered by HMRC’s advisors in 2022-23 than in 2019-2020 while the total time advisors spent answering and handling calls fell by 6% (300,000 hours). This is reportedly due to handling more complex tax queries, taxpayers calling to chase updates and a higher number of sick days taken by staff.

However, of the 38 million calls received by the tax office, an estimated 72%-or 27 million- were a result of “failure demand” (because of HMRC’s errors or customers chasing up their case). Furthermore, an internal audit found that HMRC’s advisors had not fully complied with procedure in a third of sampled telephone and correspondence cases, likely leading to more need for follow-up from customers and more time spent on each call.

Additionally, sick days at HMRC were a third higher than in 2019-20, with the typical worker taking 11 days off a year while the civil service average is 8 days. This is perhaps an effect of an overworked workforce after HMRC’s 6% cut to its customer service staff since the 2022-23 tax year (9).

NAO’s report concluded that: “to achieve value for money, HMRC must provide a timely and effective service for customers needing help with their tax or benefits, even as it attempts to reduce costs.” Unfortunately, the wait times have only escalated, meaning taxpayers now have to wait four times longer to speak to an advisor than in 2018-19; with a clear requirement for functional telephone services for more complex issues, HMRC’s cost-cutting aspirations for a digital customer experience will have to be put on hold until call handlers can match demand. Taxpayers are required, by law, to engage with HMRC, the NAO points out, so their services must improve to meet customer expectations.

Sam Richards, from Which? Money has said in response to the report that “not being able to get through to HMRC could have serious financial and mental health-related consequences, so it’s crucial that the service urgently makes improvements to the time it takes to get through and the quality of help offered.”

A spokesman from HMRC admits that their customer service standards and phone lines are “still not where we want them to be,” but remains optimistic, pointing out that they are making “strong progress” and that £51 million in additional funding to resolve the issues has recently been promised by the government. He assured the public that HMRC accepts that “changes need to happen at a speed and in ways that our customers are comfortable with.”

Whilst we can’t answer every query you might have with HMRC, we do have a great knowledge of over 22,000 pages of tax legislation and our tax team is always on hand to help.












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