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Prospect of fewer staff and more calls puts HMRC service standards at risk, say MPs

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HMRC has ‘an abysmal record’ on customer service but has given 'welcome' commitments to improve, according to the Commons public accounts committee.

A report on HMRC’s customer service, published today, concluded that the department’s target of answering 80% of calls within five minutes is ‘woefully inadequate and unambitious’.

The prospects of fewer staff and more calls represent a ‘real risk to HMRC being able to improve standards of customer service’, the report said. ‘In the past, customer service has suffered when workloads increased. HMRC now plans to reduce the number of customer-facing staff by 8,500 (about a third) by 2015. At the same time, the introduction of real time information and universal credit could lead to extra calls, and changes to the child benefit system may also increase workload. HMRC should develop a contingency plan for how it will make sure customer service is not sacrificed, in the event that its plans to reduce avoidable contact and deploy staff more flexibly do not work.’

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the committee, 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.

‘In 2011/12, 20m phone calls were not answered. It cost the callers £136m while they waited to speak to an adviser. And, against its target of responding to 80% of letters within 15 days, the department managed to reply to just 66%. This is an abysmal record.’

Hodge added: ‘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 maximize revenues while cutting costs.’

An HMRC spokesperson said the report criticised ‘a previous poor standard of service from which HMRC has already recovered’.

‘In the past three months, we have been answering more than 90% of calls to our contact centres, and during the current year we have replied to 84.5% of the 16m pieces of post we have received within 15 working days,’ she said.

‘We are investing an extra £34m in our contact centres to maintain this industry standard level of performance. To make it cheaper for customers to call us, we already transferred our tax credits phone lines from 0845 to 0345, and will move begin to move our remaining lines to 03 numbers from April …

‘We will continue to build on these improvements until we deliver the consistent quality of service that our customers are entitled to expect.’

Lin Homer, HMRC’s chief executive, told the BBC’s Breakfast programme: ‘In the past we have really struggled with the volume of calls. Just to put this in context, we get 79m calls a year and 29m pieces of post. My staff do a fantastic job trying to keep on top of that.’

Last week HMRC announced that it proposes to close its enquiry centres and deliver face-to-face support through teams of ‘extra support mobile advisers’ located at libraries and community centres, and visits to customers’ homes. A spokesperson said today that the new mobile service for taxpayers who need face-to-face help would be ‘more flexible and affordable than the service we currently provide’.