HMRC “unambitious” on customer services, says Hodge

by Calum Fuller

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29 Jan 2013

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Lin Homer

POLITICIANS CHASTISED representatives of HM Revenue & Customs over its services to taxpayers, after the department's chief executive Lin Homer told the Public Accounts Committee the department was aiming to deal with 90% of callers inside five minutes.

The Revenue is not far off achieving that aim, said Homer (pictured), with a telephony system currently receiving 80 million calls per year. Indeed, according to HMRC's own figures, the target was met regularly over the last quarter.

Committee chair, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, however, branded the taxman's targets "unambitious", noting that failure to answer the phone cost taxpayers £130m in 2011/12 and that the industry standard is answering 80% within 20 seconds.

At the current rate, claimed Hodge, 16 million callers per year would be kept waiting for more than five minutes, something she found "so frustrating".

Homer challenged Hodge's criticism, pointing to the much lower call volume most other call centres handle, and noting a shift from the current 0845 telephone numbers to the 03 prefix would drive down costs to callers. Hodge had branded the use of 0845 numbers as "unacceptable", adding that "if you don't have a landline and you use a mobile phone, it costs you 41p a minute".

HMRC director-general for personal tax Ruth Owen added the department is working on a method to cut the need for taxpayers to phone for guidance, which she said was often due to them having to check on the progress of their query or confusion over HMRC's systems or advice.

The effective implementation of such "demand management", she said, could see the volume of calls drop from 80 million to 64 million per year.

Homer flagged up improvement in correspondence by letter, too, admitting "there were points 12 months ago when we had had a million pieces of post dotted about the organisation ... I had people [in post rooms] saying, ‘Six, nine, 12 months ago, this room was full of post'".

At last check in December, though, that number had dropped to under 100,000, she said.

The committee is to reconvene this week in order to grill representatives of the Big Four over tax avoidance.

This week, Hodge reportedly suggested the Big Four wield too much power in shaping new tax laws, telling the BBC that the government "only talks to those who have a self-interest in reducing their tax contribution".

Witnesses from PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young are to appear and will include KPMG's UK head of tax Jane McCormick, Deloitte's head of tax policy Bill Dodwell, PwC's head of tax Kevin Nicholson and E&Y's head of tax policy John Dixon.

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