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unhappy face | accountingweb | HMRC customer service
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HMRC’s customer service is anything but

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As HMRC’s performance sinks ever lower, Philip Fisher thinks the tax department should be banned from using the words “customer” and “service” as it doesn’t seem to know what they mean.

29th Feb 2024
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Occasionally, an article in The Daily Telegraph could turn even a mild-mannered accountant into Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

Discovering that your town’s charming Nevill Ground is unlikely to be used for first-class cricket during your lifetime will be enough to make the blood boil.

However, even that must pale into insignificance when compared with an article on Wednesday entitled: “HMRC customer service sinks to ‘all-time low’”.

It wasn’t just the Telegraph, since assorted other newspapers and our dear AccountingWEB also caustically commented on the latest feedback from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Quite frankly, HMRC should be banned from using either the word “customer” or the word “service”. Taxpayers have never been customers in the usual sense of the word, since they have no choice as to whether they interact with the department and can’t return shoddy goods.

Low levels of performance

One could argue that, given the low levels of performance, some might opt out of the system and never be noticed but that is hardly playing the game.

As the Public Accounts Committee so cogently demonstrates, HMRC has also given up on service. You can take your pick from some of the following devastating exposés of performance (actually lack of it) in 2022/23.

  • The average time for the phone to be answered was 16 minutes, up one-third on the previous year.
  • 62% of callers waited more than 10 minutes to speak to an adviser, also up approximately one-third.
  • In December, many callers were left hanging on for over an hour and some of those were then cut off.
  • That may partly have been because HMRC has twice closed down its phone support services during the past tax year.
  • Calls and postal communications to HMRC are increasing at the rate of 10% a year.
  • HMRC has a target of cutting phone and postal contact by 30% by 2025.
  • Criminal prosecutions have reduced from 691 in 2019/20 to 240 last year.

Don’t worry though, according to a spokesperson, HMRC is on the case. “We’re making strong progress improving our customer services, with a focus on encouraging people to deal with us online where they can by providing quicker, easier and always-available digital services.”

Translated into simple English, HMRC is deliberately driving its support service into the ground in the hope of cutting costs. Those needing assistance will be forced to try “being serviced through an online service instead, including webinars, YouTube videos, chatbots and web chat”.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is all very well but many people, and not just older folk, like to get accurate answers to questions and have the ability to interrogate those giving advice. After all, if we get it wrong there can be interest and penalties to pay.

Answers to questions

It is incorrect to assume that the vast majority of the UK population is desperate to fiddle their taxes. Most of us would much rather get it right and have a quiet life. That can be impossible where there is no way of getting answers to questions that may be basic for an accountant or HMRC inspector but can be challenging if you are barely numerate, unfamiliar with tax legislation or technophobic.

It is also worth noting that the number of people obliged to make a tax return has increased from 10m to 12m in the past decade and, thanks to the government’s policy of freezing personal allowances, it is estimated that there will be an additional 4m basic rate taxpayers by 2028.

What is HMRC’s solution to this dilemma? It has cut 1,100 customer service jobs over the past year.

Make a splash

It is time that those responsible were brought to book. Every year, the Public Accounts Committee issues a new horrific report and those at HMRC and in the Treasury ignore it.

If the government has its way, there will be more austerity to come, which will inevitably lead to further cuts at HMRC. It is hard to see how this could improve “customer service” and it is more likely to lead to frustration as well as even greater tax avoidance and evasion.

If Jeremy Hunt really wants to make a big splash with his Budget next week, he should announce major changes at HMRC to increase the number and quality of staff, chase miscreants and turn an embarrassing disaster into a business where staff are proud and customers get Harrods-level service.

Replies (17)

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Tornado
By Tornado
29th Feb 2024 16:01

"Quite frankly, HMRC should be banned"

Apologies for the misquote, but I thought it apt :-)

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Replying to Tornado:
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By FactChecker
29th Feb 2024 20:19

... although sometimes the quotes are entirely true, whilst still missing their mark.

"It is incorrect to assume that the vast majority of the UK population is desperate to fiddle their taxes. Most of us would much rather get it right and have a quiet life."
Those two sentences aren't quite as logically connected as they seem at first sight.

* The vast majority of the UK population, as individuals, would happily pay less tax if that could be achieved without personal risk.
The number of those who would willingly "fiddle their taxes" is much smaller, but then many don't see pushing claims (for WFH as the simplest example) to the point of absurdity as 'fiddling'.
And even without the helpful insights promulgated by MDTP, it's a very British thing to consider anything done by others as obviously OK to do yourself.

* The net result is that many do indeed want "a quiet life", but not based just on "getting it right" ... more to do with feeling safe and not at risk.
Which is where the near eradication of front-line HMRC resources produces its double whammy.
First, by making it harder to get unequivocal answers to basic tax queries ... it makes it easier for the individual to go with "what everyone else is doing"; and
Second, by making 'discovery' (in the colloquial sense) a remote chance ... it removes the small amount of remaining conscience (or fear) to not stray.

It's basic psychology ... so basic that you'll see it referred to as common sense ... but politicians either don't understand this or don't care (which are equally likely to damn the end result).

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By PAULLEWISFCCA
29th Feb 2024 16:23

customer???

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By Tom+Cross
29th Feb 2024 16:23

Currently, even The Post Office looks credible, compared to HMRC.
The 'security' of the civil service clearly covers up all the cracks. And my goodness, there are some. Cracks, that is.
The word customer and service are clearly misnomers. Again, everyone but those who operate within the vaults of HMRC know that. Should they have a customer service department, it would be filled with complaints - permanently.
Rishi seems to be waking up to a number of matters, at the moment and we all know why. It won't make a difference, to the outcome. At the moment, a pet donkey could adminster the UK.
HMRC, The Post Office, the NHS (the bods that run it), Parliament - the list is endless and they all make for Britain to be the basket case, in Europe.
Please, please, let's start to be proud of our nation and strive to improve.

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By PAULLEWISFCCA
29th Feb 2024 16:26

one hour and ten minutes on hold today (surprisingly they didn't cut me off) - chasing them up for something they should have dealt with six months ago - apparently they are going to get back to me in two weeks - for sure....

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By GHarr497688
29th Feb 2024 16:57

I have never agreed with the word customer and they give sXIt service. Good for nothing. You can't be a Customer if no competition.

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By Hometing
01st Mar 2024 14:50

Where do they get their stats from? I strongly suspect they scratch their own backs one way or another with these.

"62% of callers waited more than 10 minutes to speak to an adviser, also up approximately one-third."

Really? I've not once got through in less than 10 minutes, let alone 38% of attempted calls. Currently on hold now - 55 mins in, still no answer.

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By Eric T
04th Mar 2024 10:20

I have always thought that referring to taxpayers as "customers" was egregious, disingenuous and frankly, insulting.

What "service" does HMRC provide to me?
What alternative supplier can I go to for this non-existent service as the term "customer" implies there are competitors and alternatives to supply this "service". In other words, do I have any choice as to whether I use HMRC's "services"? Of course I don't.

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By indomitable
04th Mar 2024 11:41

Absolutely! although have to disagree that HMRC needs more funding

I think Jeremy Hunt needs to slash the civil service by at least 20% to pre covid levels (that includes HMRC)

stop letting civil servants work from home.

Stop ALL new initiatives, fix the current woeful online offering and get the basics right

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Replying to indomitable:
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By ruth.julian
05th Mar 2024 16:05

Although the garden wasn't rosy when HMRC was two separate departments, the merger saw total staff reduce from over 93K to around 58K within 4 years, and the closure of enquiry offices, on the assumption that technology would fill the gap. That's an awful lot of tax expertise lost, as those leaving were either the older cohort or those with transferable skills and knowledge. There is nothing more annoying than holding on for a human to speak with to be told that all the answers are to be found on line. If the personal/agent tax account doesn't give the answer on line, what to do?

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By Charlie Carne
04th Mar 2024 12:34

I agree with the main thrust of this article but I have also become surprised and confused by the increasing use of the word 'customer' by some accountants to describe what I would always call clients. The term 'clients' implies a professional relationship, while a customer is merely a random purchaser of goods or services. It is clearly a definite choice by some to use that word but I fail to understand the reasoning which seems, to me, to diminish the relationship and lessen the accountant's authority. I'd be no more shocked if my doctor described me as their customer.

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By MartinLevin
04th Mar 2024 13:08

As The GoodEnglish Professor, I recall fronting an invited District Inspector to our Chelmsford Branch, some time in the mid 1980s, when I challenged the misuse of the term "customers". I said: "You are monopoly. We don't have a choice; and that is what the term means".
Bless him in his reply that "I like the new term term".
Grammatical English has NOT improved over the ensuing years.
Sadly, we have de-generated in our use of English (grammar).

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Replying to MartinLevin:
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By Rgab1947
04th Mar 2024 16:44

As they said in My Fair Lady

"Oh why can't the English speak English"

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By tedbuck
04th Mar 2024 13:18

HMRC is utterly useless. They think that digitalisation is the answer but it isn't - trained staff and a decent telephone service is the essential. If we have to have digitalisation do it a step at a time and make sure it works. The trouble we have had with MTD for VAT which all worked without a hitch before MTD is mindblowing and the heplines/chatbots etc are really no help. As for HMRC's instructions on their website- mostly incomprehensible even to an accountant so what use are they to Jo Public?

Sack Harra - he really hasn't a clue. HMRC has got worse by the minute since he has been there.

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By Moira O'Brien
04th Mar 2024 14:33

I have detested the term “customer” ever since they introduced it, and in every letter I (have to) write to HRMC I tell them that I, and my clients, are “taxpayers” not “customers”.

Maybe that is why they rarely reply to my letters….. at least not until I have sent the 3rd one.

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By Gazzo
04th Mar 2024 16:18

I tried what was once the simplest of tasks ie changing a tax code. Couldn't get through on the phone and then it took me the best part of 40 mins to do it via the taxbot. What I found even more amazing was I basically typed in what I considered the code should be. They just accepted it. Didn't ask the reasoning behind why I wanted it altered. I just had an " ok done". That will count as another completed transaction even though they have no idea why its been changed.

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By tedbuck
09th Mar 2024 19:48

I had an email from a friend in Gran Canaria as we had been talking about HMRC and its shortcomings.
I set out below the pertinent bit and if that doesn't bring a sense of shame to HMRC then nothing will.

"One of our neighbours received a letter from the tax office in Madrid last week to say that she hadn´t paid her taxes for 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 (which she hadn't despite my telling her frequently that they were due and that there was a fine of up to 10,000 euros for non payment).

Anyway, the letter gave her the opportunity to put the situation straight before any action was started against her, so I went online for her and booked her an appointment at the local office for mid day the following day.

When she turned up there a tax officer sorted out all the necessary paperwork for her, made all the returns online and she has now paid her dues for 2019, 2020 and 2021 - with 2022 pending processing."

Can you imagine that here? Harra please note what you should be doing.

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