Frustrated callers hang up on tax ‘helplines’ – From today’s Times
Further to the blog of 6 May, here is another story about what a terrible state HMRC is in. Telephone statistics are fantastic because – you see – with a tax investigation you often come across people saying things like, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ i.e. if you are being investigated you must have done something wrong.
But telephone waiting times can be measured and compared with the private sector response times and – you know – many of these people are phoning up telling HMRC that they want to pay tax and they are just asking for a form to be sent out.
Am I the only one who thinks of Debbie Harry when these stories come out? I don’t think so! On a personal note Parallel Lines was the first album I ever bought (if you don’t count the Jungle Book).
Anyway here’s the article…
Four million callers to Revenue & Customs hung up in frustration last year after waiting times trebled to almost six minutes on average, The Times can reveal.
Labour has accused HMRC of “chaos and incompetence”, questioning how much money the Government was losing as some callers tried in vain to pay tax back.
The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that 28 per cent of callers gave up midway through their call to the pay-as-you-earn helpline. That has risen from 10 per cent in 2009, when the average waiting time was one minute 53 seconds. By last year it was five minutes 45 seconds.
The revelation will inflict further damage to HMRC, which admitted this year that it had sent out incorrect penalty threats to 12,000 people.
It also raises questions about how the taxman will cope with queries from the millions of people being told that they have been charged the wrong amount of tax as part of the annual PAYE “reconciliation” process.
Last month HMRC started to send letters to up to 1.6 million people demanding that they pay back an average of £537. As many as 3.5 million people will receive the better news that they have overpaid, and can expect a rebate of £379 on average.
The money that people owe to the taxman is supposed to be taken automatically from their pay the next tax year, but taxpayers have complained that the letters do not make this sufficiently clear, while others dispute that they owe such sums, prompting a likely increase in calls to the PAYE helpline.
HMRC says that the change in waiting times is because of a decision to increase the size of the queue, so that fewer people hear the engaged tone when they call. “These figures do not reflect the improvement in service at contact centres,” a spokesman said.
He added that the waiting times were not acceptable, but said that greater use of “digital services, high-quality voice recognition, better written communications and faster processing of returns and letters” would reduce the need for people to call.
Some people rang in unnecessarily, he said, giving an example of a man who said that he did not have an A4 envelope and wondered if A5 would be acceptable. HMRC was working on the issue by diverting back-office staff on to calls at times of high demand.
Catherine McKinnell, the Shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury, said that the situation was unacceptable. “This is yet more evidence of chaos and incompetence in government and of the false economy of imposing staff cuts that go too far and too fast on HMRC,” she said. With big changes to child benefit approaching, “ministers urgently need to get a grip”.
Mike Warburton, tax director at Grant Thornton, said that the taxpaying public was “overwhelmingly honest”. He added: “Sadly the tax system has become so complicated under successive governments that HMRC is being left with ever-increasing demand for help, as these figures show.”
Waiting could be especially frustrating for those worried about an unexpected tax demand, he said. “HMRC is working hard to improve its service but there is a way to go yet.”
Among those hanging up — through irritation, boredom or concerns about costs — was Ben Schofield, 49, who was desperately trying to pay £1,200 in underpaid tax.
The communications manager from Southall found out he owed the money after a second employer accidentally listed him under the wrong code.
Mr Schofield decided to get in touch with HMRC because his underpayment had not been dealt with for three years.
When he finally got through to the PAYE helpline, after three days, he was told that the computers were down so they could not process his payment. Frustrated by his experience, Mr Schofield submitted the freedom of information request, which also revealed that callers have to “endure” a recorded message lasting nearly three minutes, which advises them to try the “frequently asked questions” section of the website.
“All I want to do is pay some tax,” he said. “It does make you wonder how much tax they are not collecting.”