Blame defaulting taxpayers for our phone delays, says HMRC boss

Taxpayers unnecessarily clogging up phone lines at HM Revenue and Customs are more likely to blame for long waits than for the tax official to work from home, his boss has insisted.

The tax authority has been heavily criticized in recent weeks after it was revealed that some callers were forced to wait an hour or more to speak to HMRC or were cut off before receiving an answer. The delays have caused chaos for taxpayers with inquiries ahead of the January 31 self-assessment tax return deadline.

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

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

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

“We are able to monitor and manage the performance of helpline advisors, whether they are working from home or in the office, and the evidence we have on the productivity of advisors at home versus the office, show that the number of callers served per agent is similar everywhere they work.”

HMRC consistently had the lowest staff occupancy rate at headquarters of any Whitehall department last year, with the exception of the Foreign Office, which has fallen to just nine per cent and no more than 61 per cent, according to government data.

Instead, Mr Harra said too many people who could find an answer to their question online called HMRC hoping to speak to one of his advisers and clogging up the phone lines for everyone else.

The IRS estimates that 65 percent of calls to its self-assessment hotline in the two weeks ended Jan. 8 were for issues that could have been resolved online.

Mr Harra said: “Having more customers using our online services frees up our helpline advisors to provide better service to those customers who have more complex questions or are unable to use online services.

“Self-assessment customers have a generous 10 months after the end of the tax year to file their tax returns and pay their taxes. We advise them not to do this until the last minute, especially if they have not yet signed up to use our online services or likely have a question.”

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

The average call wait time to the self-assessment hotline was 27 minutes in the two weeks ended Jan. 8, compared to 12 minutes for the same period last year. Last year, HMRC extended the deadline for tax returns to February 28 to accommodate delays caused by the pandemic.

Mr Harra said that at “exceptionally busy times” HMRC can interrupt a call and tell taxpayers to try again later if they are unlikely to speak to an adviser within a “reasonable waiting time”.

Harriett Baldwin, MP for West Worcestershire and Chair of the Finance Committee, said: “As the tax deadline approaches at the end of the month, taxpayers will take note of the advice to check HMRC’s website first.

“However, it is important that people can reach the tax officer if there are unanswered questions, and we will continue to seek confirmation that the service can respond to spikes in demand without crashing.”

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

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