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7m hours collectively spent waiting to speak to taxman in 2022-23, report finds

Customers spent 798 years collectively waiting to speak with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in 2022-23 – more than double the time spent waiting in 2019-20, according to a spending watchdog.

The equivalent of 798 years – or around seven million hours – was spent by customers and their agents waiting to speak to an adviser in 2022-23, up from 365 years or around 3.2 million hours in 2019-20.

HMRC’s strategy is to encourage customers to turn to its digital services first – but it is not clear how far and fast digital services will reduce demand for telephone and correspondence services, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

The strategy is intended to cut costs servicing telephone calls and correspondence, as well as to free up staff to serve people who need extra support.

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The NAO said that HMRC has not yet done enough to raise awareness of its digital services, increase customers’ confidence in using its online offering or understand how effectively these services meet customers’ needs.

It said the move to digital services has not eased pressure on traditional services as much as HMRC expected – and many avoidable customer calls are caused by the revenue body itself for reasons including delays and customers chasing progress.

Some 4.7 million hours was spent by HMRC customer service advisers answering and handling calls in 2022-23, down from 5.0 million in 2019-20.

Advisers answered 22% fewer calls in 2022-23 than in 2019-20, but those that were answered took more time to handle on average.

The time taken to handle each call answered by an adviser increased from just over 11 minutes in 2019-20 to more than 13 minutes in 2022-23.

Average call-handling time may be increasing because more simple queries are being handled digitally; call-handling efficiency is reducing; or customers are raising more issues when they are able to get through to an adviser, the report said.

Some taxpayers hold multiple jobs, meaning they have less straightforward needs, while “fiscal drag”, where people are pushed over frozen tax thresholds by pay rises, has also brought more people into the tax system.

With HMRC’s call-handling workload falling less than expected, it has not been able to make all the staff reductions it planned, the NAO said.

In March 2024, HMRC announced that it would restrict helplines, its self-assessment helpline. It reversed its decision a day later following an outcry from a range of organisations.

The department had trialled closing and restricting helplines in 2023 but the NAO said its evaluation of the changes did not consider stakeholder views or adequately assess the impacts of the changes on customers.

HMRC had expected that closing the helplines would free up around 520 members of staff to work on other helplines and tackle processing backlogs.

The NAO report said: “HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been falling below the expected service levels for too long and HMRC has not achieved planned efficiencies.”

It said HMRC should develop more realistic plans for cutting the services it is replacing with digital channels.

On Monday this week, the Treasury announced £51 million in additional funding so that staff can answer more calls and help more people on the phone.

Announcing the funding, financial secretary to the Treasury Nigel Huddleston said on Monday that he is “fully committed” to providing HMRC with the resources to meet customer needs.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been below its target service levels for too long.

“While many of its digital services work well, they have not made enough of a difference to customers, some of whom have been caught in a declining spiral of service pressures and cuts. HMRC has also not achieved planned efficiencies.

“HMRC must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels.”

Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said: “HMRC must hear the frustration of taxpayers and make more realistic plans to improve customer service and deliver value for money.”

An HMRC spokesperson said: “While customer service standards on our phone lines are still not where we want them to be, we’re making strong progress in our efforts to improve our customer service and additional funding has been confirmed by the Government this week.

“Millions more people used our highly-rated online services last year – saving them waiting on the phone and freeing up our advisers to deal with those people who need extra support.

“We continue to encourage people to deal with us online or via the app where they can and we are working to provide even better, easier and always-available online services. But, as we have recognised, these changes need to happen at a speed and in ways that our customers are comfortable with.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “This scathing report from the NAO will come as no surprise to taxpayers who have tried and tried again to contact HMRC.”

Dame Harriett Baldwin, chairwoman of the Treasury Committee, said: “Unfortunately, the NAO’s findings come as no surprise. For a long time, the Treasury Committee has been banging the drum for a more coherent communications plan from HMRC on their plans to move customers online.

“The committee broadly supports the department’s plans but they must take law-abiding taxpayers with them – and that simply hasn’t happened yet.

“The committee has repeatedly discussed low service standards with HMRC so we are pleased the Government listened to our plea not to further reduce the capacity of the phone lines this year. The extra money announced by the Treasury this week to keep phone lines going is welcome, but questions remain regarding how they plan to implement their strategy going forward.”

Shadow Treasury minister James Murray said: “As businesses and taxpayers across the country already know, service levels at HMRC – like so many other public services – have been collapsing under the Conservatives.

“It is staggering that taxpayers spent nearly 800 years in total waiting on hold for HMRC. That is double the amount of time at the last election, and shows the Conservatives have no idea how to deliver the service that people deserve.”