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HMRC contact services ‘go backwards’, claims ICAEW

CONCERNS PERSIST over the standards provided by HM Revenue & Customs‘ telephone and postal services, as the deadline for self-assessments approaches.

A survey conducted by the ICAEW of 300 of its members found half did not see any change in the quality of services and a third (34%) felt it had deteriorated. Only 16% felt it had improved. More members also reported an increase in costs in dealing with enquiries.

There were also concerns about the telephone service, although feedback on the call waiting time from the personal tax agent dedicated line was far better.

HMRC has suffered swingeing cuts recently, with 14 office closures announced in October last year, seeing 690 administrative staff invited to take voluntary redundancy. Over the past two years, all 281 of its contact centres have been closed due in part to lack of demand and the need for efficiency in service. It is estimated the contact centre closures save the taxpayer £12m per year.

Nearly half of the ICAEW members surrveyed (47%) reported telephone queries take longer than they should and 61% hold concerns about the ability of HMRC’s telephone staff to deal with complex queries. By contrast, members found that HMRC’s postal service is better able to provide answers to complex queries, despite being slow.

A particular frustration for nearly two thirds (62%) was the need to get things right first time, something advisers suggest could indicate an inefficient use of both agents’ and HMRC resources.

Given the concerns, the ICAEW made six recommendations to improve the service: set and implement agreed service standards; ensure that there are sufficient experienced staff to deal with complex queries; improve contact and response waiting times; ensure that in the transition to digital service levels do not deteriorate for other contact methods; do more to make it easier to find the right contact information and; raise awareness of the agent account manager service.

Head of ICAEW’s tax faculty Frank Haskew said: “HMRC service standards remain disappointing and in some areas appear to have gone backwards. There is, however, some very positive feedback on agent dedicated lines and agent account managers.

“We remain concerned that HMRC is being starved of the resources it really needs in order to provide a quick and efficient service at the front line. An efficient and effective tax administration service is the foundation of good tax compliance but to achieve this we believe that more investment is required in appropriate staffing levels and training, together with the necessary IT systems to back them up.

“Sustained improvements cannot be achieved against a background of year on year cuts in budget and staff headcount.”

An HMRC spokesman: “We accept the level of customer service we provide isn’t always as good as we would like it to be‎, but we are currently answering more than 90% of calls first time, we have 1,500 extra people taking calls during this busy time and we are processing thousands of tax returns every hour.

“We will always be under intense pressure when millions leave their tax returns to the last few weeks of the ten months they have to do them, but we have an excellent record of managing the late rush and have steadily increased online and on time returns year after year.

“We have structured our workforce and processes to meet our core priorities of maximising the collection of revenues while reducing costs, and to provide a fair and improving level of service, which we have been doing. There is room for improvement and our digital investment will deliver significantly better services to customers in future.”

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