Last year, waiting on the phone to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) cost taxpayers millions, according to spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO). Thanks to long wait times, people calling the taxman spent a collective £10 million in call costs while on hold and waiting to speak to an adviser, the NAO said.
Over the span of 18 months, starting in 2014, the NAO said that HMRC’s standards of service when dealing with telephone queries “collapsed.” Over that space of time, the Office claims, the time that customers spend waiting to speak to an adviser tripled and many calls went unanswered. While HMRC has claimed that the majority of incoming calls now get an answer within six minutes, the NAO says that the time spent waiting on hold with HMRC last year could be up to an hour.
In the course of its recent investigation into the standards of HMRC’s service, the NAO calculated the amount that these lengthy calls had costs taxpayers. The cost of phone calls, the organisation reports, was £10 million in total, and the NAO believes that much of this is a result of long waiting times.
The NAO also included the value of people’s time in the calculations, averaging this at a rate of £17 per hour. On this basis, the organisation estimates that taxpayers spent a total of £66 million worth of their time just waiting on hold to speak to an adviser, and a further £21 million while talking to HMRC after their call is finally answered. This brings the NAO’s estimate for the total amount lost to taxpayers on calls to HMRC, including both call charges and time spent on the phone, at £97 million.
One of the key causes for the drop in standards for HMRC when it comes to dealing with phone queries, the NAO claims, is staff cuts. Specifically, the organisation points to the fact that the tax authority drop 11,000 of its staff as part if its drive to increase the number of tax returns completed online, on the assumption that this would result in fewer phone calls to be answered. These cuts took place in stages between 2010 and 2014.
Seemingly recognising this as a misstep, HMRC has since increased the number of staff available to answer helpline calls by 2,400. These extra staff were brought in last autumn, after typical waiting times for calls to HMRC peaked at 47 minutes.
In response to the NAO’s report, HMRC director general for customer services Ruth Owen said: “We recognise that early in 2015 we didn’t proide the standard of service that people are entitled to expect… We have since fully recovered and are now offering our best service levels in years.”