THE LEVELS OF ‘CUSTOMER' SERVICE provided by the taxman are "woefully inadequate", the Public Accounts Committee's has found in its latest Report of Session.
Around 20 million calls to HM Revenue & Customs' helplines went unanswered in 2011/12, it said, costing the callers a total of £136m while they waited to speak to an adviser. Against its target of responding to 80% of letters within 15 days, it achieved just 66%, something the committee described as "abysmal".
A new target of taking 80% of calls inside five minutes is "woefully inadequate" and "unambitious", it added. It did, however, note progress made by the department in dropping the expensive 0845 numbers and greater efforts to resolve more queries first time and a call-back service where that is not possible.
More stringent targets should be imposed, the report said, with the ultimate aim of reaching the industry standard of answering 80% of calls inside 20 seconds.
HMRC spent approximately £900m on customer service in 2011/12, around a quarter of its £3.7bn total expenditure. It received 79 million phone calls - of which 16 million waited more than five minutes - and 25 million items of post in the year.
Committee chair and Labour MP Margaret Hodge welcomed the department's "change in attitude" in making commitments to improve its customer service.
She said: "HMRC's ‘customers' have no choice over whether or not they deal with the department. It is therefore disgraceful to subject them to unacceptable levels of service when they try to contact the department by phone or letter.
"We are pleased to see signs that HMRC is changing its attitude. Officials are beginning to realise that good customer service lies at the heart of any strategy to maximise revenues while cutting costs."
In spite of ongoing efforts to up the level of customer service provided by the taxman, its decision to close down all 281 of its enquiry centres nationwide will increase the pressure on call centres, Hodge warned.
HMRC plans to replace the centres with a telephone- and home visits-based service.
Hodge said: "Since our hearing it has also been announced that HMRC is to close all of its 281 enquiry centres which give face-to-face advice to customers. This will undoubtedly put even more pressure on phone lines.
"HMRC considers that it will be able to improve service standards by reducing avoidable contact with customers and using its staff more flexibly. It may need to put in additional resources, though, to avoid the kind of plummeting performance we have seen in the past."
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