HMRC service levels ‘unlikely to improve quickly’, say MPs

HMRC service levels ‘unlikely to improve quickly’, say MPs

The Public Accounts Committee has said it’s “not convinced” by HM Revenue & Customs’ plans to reduce demand for its phone and postal lines, or by its plans to improve the “unacceptable” level of service taxpayers and advisers are currently experiencing.

In a report published today (January 11), MPs said HMRC’s digitalisation of the tax system will take time and that the government department does not currently have the resources required to provide the level of service its customers need.

As a result, they surmised that service levels are “unlikely to improve quickly”.

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HMRC employs about 63,000 people but in the past five years, the number of customer service staff has reduced from 25,500 to 19,500.

While the tax collector has said it has made efficiencies with digital agents, it has caveated this with “the additional pressure of responding to the pandemic”.

It blames this pressure for poorer service in the past and backlogs such as a 3.3mn post pile up it had at one point.

HMRC has come under renewed pressure over its service levels of late, after reports in December and January pointed to customer service issues. 

Last month, the tax department’s website struggled to cope with an influx of people trying to use it, and this month taxpayers were reportedly kept on hold for several hours before being cut off without speaking to a staff member.

The Treasury committee has been pressing HMRC for answers on why the outages happened, and how it plans to avoid them in the future.

In the report published today, MPs said they were “surprised to learn” that at times in the past, HMRC has simply closed its telephone line when it could not cope with demand. 

They dubbed the practice “unacceptable”, especially when people ringing in are simply trying to pay the government money. 

The tax gap - the difference between the amount of tax that should, in theory be paid, and what is actually paid - was £32bn in 2020-21, or 5.1 per cent of all tax liabilities.

President of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, Susan Ball, said in October 2021 HMRC’s response levels were 'the worst they've ever been'

MPs said improving customer service is set to become even more difficult as the current inflationary pressures squeeze taxpayer budgets and reduce HMRC’s own spending power.

They added: “HMRC’s plan for improving customer service is to continue digitalising the tax system, moving people away from phone and post onto online systems.

“However, we are not convinced that its plans will sustainably reduce demand for traditional channels or deal with the unacceptable level of service that taxpayers and agents are currently suffering. 

“The move to online services will not happen quickly and will not be appropriate for all circumstances or customers.”