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Tax bodies welcome investment in HMRC call centre staff

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Tax professionals have welcomed HMRC’s decision to recruit up to 1,000 additional call centre staff in the next eight months to improve the percentage of calls answered first time.

Lin Homer, HMRC’s Chief Executive (pictured), said she was ‘reprioritising’ resources to enable an additional investment of £34m ‘without impacting our other core customer services’. The department employs 8,500 staff in 17 contact centres across the UK.

HMRC’s revised aim was to reach the call centre industry standard ‘two years earlier than [it] originally promised to Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee’.

CIOT President Patrick Stevens said: ‘This is very welcome news. Poor service levels and unacceptable delays at HMRC call centres are issues that members continually report to us and which we have consistently highlighted to HMRC, particularly in the last year through the “Clasper initiative”, which is helping HMRC to make good progress in a number of service areas.’

Chas Roy-Chowdhury, Head of Taxation at ACCA, said: ‘This is a much needed boost to staffing levels to help HMRC meet its contact centre targets ... We agreed with HMRC at Chairman, Chief Executive and also at Ministerial level that more support is needed for the UK’s taxpayers, but also that more help is needed for HMRC staff.’

He added: ‘The volume of calls they receive is huge – some 60 million a year – and with job losses and staff cuts over recent years, this has dented staff morale. This is why we welcome this announcement and look forward to seeing further improvements in service for the UK taxpayer. Benchmarking themselves with industry best practice also shows that HMRC is working to becoming truly customer focused.’

The decision was taken after close consultation with the Joint Initiative on HMRC Service Delivery (JIHSD), HMRC said.

The recruitment drive was intended to achieve a target of answering 90% of all calls two years earlier than planned: ‘While call centre performance has improved significantly, from 48% of all attempts handled in 2010/11 to 74% in 2011/12, HMRC and JIHSD agreed that more needed to be done to provide a better calls service to customers.’

Homer said: ‘Our contact centres receive around 60m phone calls a year and how well we operate this service is of huge importance to our customers. It is vital that when customers call us for help their call is answered – and in a reasonable time. The feedback we get is that the quality of the advice we give when people get through is good, but we haven’t been answering enough calls.

‘Our target of achieving contact centre industry standards of 90% of calls answered first time is the right target. But after hearing the views of customers, stakeholder bodies and our own staff, we have speeded up our timetable for achieving it.

‘I believe that we should be providing this important level of customer service sooner, not later, and investment of up to £34m will enable us to do this by the end of March 2013 and sustain service levels during the next two years, rather than wait until 2015 to achieve the target. It will also enable us to reduce call waiting times drastically.’

The ICAEW Tax Faculty had found that waits of up to 20 minutes were reported on the Employer Helpline, up to 30 minutes on the SA Helpline and up to 80 minutes on the Employee Helpline.

In a report to HMRC last week the Faculty said: ‘This is unacceptable given that HMRC’s business model is now focused on contact centres and encouraging taxpayers to contact HMRC by telephone.’

Every new media report on the standard of HMRC’s telephone service ‘further erodes public confidence in HMRC’s ability to deliver the services that taxpayers expect and deserve’, it said.

In its press release HMRC quoted Paul Aplin, Chairman of the Tax Faculty’s Technical Committee and a member of the JIHSD, as saying: ‘Today’s announcement shows how effective the engagement between HMRC and the key stakeholders involved in this initiative has been. There is more to do but this is a really encouraging step forward.’