Home Finance HMRC fury of wait times as customers spent 7million hours in queue...

HMRC fury of wait times as customers spent 7million hours in queue in 2022-23

A mobile phone

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, the National Audit Office said (Yui Mok/PA) (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

A report has found that customers spent a staggering 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.

This equates to around seven million hours spent by customers and their agents waiting to speak to an adviser in 2022-23, up from 365 years or approximately 3.2 million hours in 2019-20.

The National Audit Office (NAO) stated that HMRC’s strategy is to encourage customers to utilise its digital services first, but it remains unclear how quickly and significantly these digital services will reduce the demand for telephone and correspondence services.

This strategy aims to reduce costs associated with servicing telephone calls and correspondence, as well as freeing up staff to assist those who require additional support.

However, the NAO pointed out that HMRC has not yet done enough to promote its digital services, boost customers’ confidence in using its online platform, or understand how effectively these services meet customers’ needs.

It also noted that the shift to digital services has not alleviated pressure on traditional services as much as HMRC anticipated, with many avoidable customer calls being triggered by the revenue body itself due to reasons such as delays and customers chasing progress.

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

Advisers fielded 22 percent fewer calls in 2022-23 compared to 2019-20, yet the duration of each call increased, with advisers spending over 13 minutes on average per call, up from just over 11 minutes.

The report suggests that the rise in average call-handling time could be due to simpler queries being resolved online, a decrease in call-handling efficiency, or customers presenting more complex issues when they do connect with an adviser.

Taxpayers with multiple jobs and those affected by “fiscal drag” are contributing to more complex enquiries, as pay rises push them over static tax thresholds, thus expanding the taxpaying population.

Despite a drop in call volume, HMRC hasn’t achieved the staff reductions it aimed for, as the workload didn’t fall as much as anticipated, according to the NAO.

In a controversial move, HMRC announced in March 2024 that it would limit access to its helplines, including the self-assessment line, but swiftly backtracked after widespread criticism from various groups.

The department’s earlier experiments in 2023 with closing and restricting helplines were critiqued by the NAO for not taking into account stakeholder feedback or fully evaluating the impact on customers.

HMRC had hoped that shutting down helplines would reallocate approximately 520 staff members to other areas, such as additional helplines and processing backlogs.

The NAO report stated: “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 suggested that HMRC should devise more realistic plans for phasing out the services it is replacing with digital channels.

Earlier this week, on Monday, the Treasury declared an additional £51 million in funding to enable staff to handle more calls and assist more people over the phone.

Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Nigel Huddleston, who announced the funding, stated on Monday that he is “fully committed” to equipping HMRC with the resources necessary to meet customer needs.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, commented: “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), expressed: “HMRC must hear the frustration of taxpayers and make more realistic plans to improve customer service and deliver value for money.”

An HMRC spokesperson commented: “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.”

He added: “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.”

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

In addition, Dame Harriett Baldwin, chairwoman of the Treasury Committee, stated: “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.”

She concluded with: “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.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here