Blame taxpayers for our phone delays, says HMRC boss

Blame taxpayers for our phone delays, says HMRC boss

HMRC has blamed taxpayers for unnecessarily blocking phone lines due to long waiting times rather than the taxman’s homework policy, its boss has said.

The tax authority has come under fire in recent weeks after it emerged that some callers were forced to wait an hour or more to speak to HMRC or were cut off before receiving an answer. The delay has caused consternation for taxpayers with inquiries ahead of the January 31 self-assessment tax return deadline.

Earlier this month MPs suggested that falling service levels at HMRC could be linked to its generous work-from-home policy, which allows staff to spend two days a week outside the office.

But Jim Harra, the chief executive of the tax authority, has doubled down on allowing staff to work from home during one of the busiest months of the year in the tax calendar.

In a letter to MPs today he said: “Colleagues are only allowed to work at home if they can effectively carry out their duties there.

“We are able to monitor and manage the performance of a helpline adviser whether they are working from home or in the office, and our evidence of the productivity of advisers at home compared to the office shows that the number of callers served per consultant is the same regardless of location. they are working.”

HMRC had the lowest ever headquarters staff occupancy rates of any Whitehall department other than the Foreign Office last year, down as low as nine per cent and no higher than 61 per cent, according to Government data.

Instead Mr Harra said too many people who could have had their inquiry answered online were calling HMRC hoping to speak to one of its advisers and blocking the phone lines for everyone else.

The taxman estimates that 65% of calls to its self-assessment helpline in the two weeks ending January 8 were related to issues that could be resolved online.

Mr Harra said: “When more customers use our online services, this frees up our helpline advisers to offer a better service to those customers who have more complex questions or are unable to use online services .

“Self-assessed customers have a generous 10 months after the end of the tax year to file their return and pay their tax. We advise them not to leave it to the last minute to do so, especially if they are not already registered to use our online services or if they are likely to have a question.”

He added that 850 staff had been redeployed within the department to prioritize self-assessment calls.

The average waiting time for calls to the self-assessment helpline was 27 minutes in the two weeks ending January 8, compared with 12 minutes in the same period last year. Last year HMRC extended the deadline for tax returns to 28 February to accommodate the delays caused by the pandemic.

Mr Harra said at “particularly busy periods” HMRC could disconnect a call and tell taxpayers to try again later if they were unlikely to speak to an adviser within a “reasonable waiting period”.

Harriett Baldwin, MP for West Worcestershire and chair of the Treasury committee, said: “With the tax deadline approaching at the end of the month, taxpayers will heed the advice to check the HMRC website first.

“However, it is important that people can contact the taxman if they have unanswered questions and we will continue to try to ensure that the service can respond to peak demands with ease.”

The powerful Public Accounts Committee has given HMRC three months to improve “unacceptable” levels of customer service.

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