HMRC are officially rubbish
Even though our Worst Company of the Year poll is still rumbling on (check out the latest quarter-finalists), there has been some interesting new evidence against one of the nominees. This year’s poll sees a noticeable increase in public service bodies, and the news that the one everyone loves to hate, mainly because their ‘service’ often comprises taking money from you, is now officially rubbish, will bring Christmas cheer to the hardest of hearts.
HM Revenue and Customs was recently criticised
by everyone by the National Audit Office for knowing about tax avoidance schemes, but not being able to do anything about them. Now, the NAO is blasting HMRC for its shoddy telephone manner, which means millions of us can’t get through at all, and whether we get through or not, ends up costing us a fortune.
The NAO estimate that the public spent £33m on call charges while on hold to HMRC in 2011/12, adding up to a total cost of £136m, adding £103m worth of ‘wasted time’ costs. Furthermore, some 20 million calls were not picked up at all last year, although this may be an overly-optimistic figure. 74% of phone calls were answered in 2011/12, compared with 48% in 2010/11 which might suggest an improvement, but the NAO warned these figures "may overestimate the number of answered calls", as it appears calls are counted as answered even when the caller is put through to an automated message and not an actual adviser.
And this is the only ‘improvement’. In 2009/10 callers had to wait for an average of 107 seconds on HMRCs (largely) 0845 numbers, which cost between 1p and 41p per minute depending on the time of day and call provider. In 2011/12 this had more than doubled to 282 seconds average waiting time- almost five minutes.
An HMRC spokesperson claimed that “by late 2012 we were answering over 90% of calls to our contact centres”, but the NAO found that, in the first six months of this (2012/13) year, 6.5 million people were kept on hold for longer than 10 minutes – a figure which represents a quarter of all callers.
Commons Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge was understandably apoplectic, describing the situation as "totally unacceptable". Ms Hodge told the BBC: "When people have no choice but to contact the Revenue to discuss their tax affairs, I find it totally unacceptable that HMRC uses costly 0845 numbers and charges people for the privilege of waiting for the department to pick up.
"In 2011-12, a staggering 20 million calls went unanswered and yet HMRC still managed to exceed its self-set target of answering just 58% of calls," she added, crossly. But with a point.
She also expressed concern that those calling HMRC from a PAYG mobile phone would suffer the highest charges, when these were probably the people who could least afford them.
But, of course, none of this is really HMRC’s fault- it is somewhat limited by the funds made available to it by Government. Like any other public service department, it has been forced to make radical cuts, and although George Osborne has promised extra money to chase down tax avoidance, there is no cash on the table for improving front line service. Shadow Treasury minister Catherine McKinnell called on the government to "get a grip" on the situation, saying:
"This report shows the impact and cost to taxpayers of this government's cuts to HMRC staff which go too far and too fast,"
"With big changes on the way next year, such as real time information and further cuts to tax credits and child benefit, I fear HMRC will struggle to cope."
HMRC claimed it was “well aware that in the past we have not delivered the standard of service to which we are committed” claiming they had invested £millions (from who knows where) in improving the service and meeting “improvement targets”. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. While listening to a recorded message and musak…