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HMRC hiring spree welcome but won’t solve ‘customer’ service issues alone

HM REVENUE & CUSTOMS’ record on ‘customer service’ is appalling, advisers have noted after the taxman revelaed it would reallocate resources to address its poor record.

Last week, HMRC allocated £45m to hire 3,000 additional staff to take calls – along with a further 2,000 re-assigned from other parts of the department – after it released statistics which showed an inconsistent call handling performance in 2014/15.

Leading advisers describe the current situation – whereby up to a third of calls are missed from taxpayers in some months, and waiting times can, in the worst cases, comfortably breach two hours – as  as “completely unacceptable”.

The hiring spree is, however – as Paul Aplin, chairman of the ICAEW’s tax technical committee and an advocate of reviewing HMRC points out – a welcome step in the right direction, with the new staff and investment undoubtedly set to make a difference. It will not, say advisers, solve the problem, though. Instead, it will simply be less bad.

Not only that, but – as Baker Tilly’s senior tax partner George Bull rightly notes – it’s the final advice you receive once you’ve gone through the ordeal of being on hold that really matters. Those results are not represented in the data provided by the taxman, but it’s safe to say the 3,000 new staff need to know their stuff.

Waiting times are not shown in the data either, but Aplin tried the service himself last week and waited 40 minutes before his call was taken, and anecdotally has colleagues who have had waiting times breach two hours. That, he says, is “appalling”.

It’s not the only appalling aspect of the service, though. In 33.5% and 33.6% of cases in September 2014 and January 2015 respectively calls went unanswered. Then there is the mail service, in which letters often go unanswered for months.

This is not a workable state of affairs.

Yet it is not entirely HMRC’s fault by any stretch of the imagination. True enough, it has recognised the problem and it is seeking to act on it, but no-one serious expects its reaction to solve the issue.

It is a woefully under-resourced organisation, and it needs far more at its disposal to truly be effective. Yet no-one can satisfactorily say what level of investment would prove adequate.

The message from advisers, though, is this: we’re starting from a low base, but this will be a small improvement. And it’s not a moment too soon.

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