HMRC criticised over customer service measures

HMRC has come under fire over its failure to deliver its transformation programme as planned, disparities in the treatment of high net worth individuals (HNWI) compared with other taxpayers, and a lack of clarity in its customer service.

In its review of HMRC’s performance 2016-17, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that HMRC’s transformation programme is not deliverable as planned due to unrealistic assumptions, particularly around reduced customer demand, and increased pressure from the 15% of additional workload caused by Brexit. The current estimate is the department will deliver £707m by 2020 against a target of £717m.

PAC says HMRC may face massive changes over the next quarter of a century, such as from a revolution in business technology, and its long-term property deals may restrict its ability to transform or relocate in the future, to support new responsibilities and new ways of working.

On the subject of customer service, while 2016−17 saw HMRC’s best performance in the past five years against its key targets, PAC says future improvements are dependent on reducing levels of customer demand as new digital services are introduced.

The committee points out that HMRC’s original assumptions on the extent to which customer demand could be reduced were too aggressive, and HMRC’s call centre advisers had to deal with eight million more calls in 2016−17 than forecast.

The report said: “HMRC says it will support vulnerable and digitally excluded customers by continuing to provide phone services seven days a week and face-to-face ‘surgeries’ in 300 locations.

“However, we remain sceptical that this will be enough to help more vulnerable people, and are concerned about the disparity of service between how HMRC deals with high-net-worth customers compared with the ordinary customer. HMRC could not give a guarantee that it would wait for demand to fall before cutting its headcount, and warned of a potential risk to customer service performance in future years.”

The committee flagged up concerns about the measures HMRC uses to assess customer service.

HMRC improved its average speed to answer calls from approximately 12 minutes in 2015−16 to under four minutes in 2016–17. HMRC’s target is for its customers to spend no more than five minutes waiting to speak to an adviser. However, this measure excludes the time customers are in HMRC’s automated telephony system before entering the queue.

HMRC admits that typically customers spend an additional two to four minutes listening to automated messages before entering a queue for an adviser, so the total time spent waiting could often be more like nine minutes.

The report also noted: “Some of HMRC’s other performance measures also provide a misleading picture of the reality of customers’ experiences. For example, HMRC counts most calls terminated in its automated telephony system as successfully handled. In many cases, though, the customer simply hangs up because they are having difficulty navigating through the automated message system and are frustrated by how long this is taking.”

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