HMRC tax advice helplines will go from using costly 0845 prefixes to cheaper 03 ones by the end of the summer, according to MPs.
Yesterday, HMRC’s chief executive Lin Homer revealed in another Public Accounts Committee (PAC) grilling that HMRC's 0845 network provider Cable & Wireless receives close to £1m profit from the calls.
While the Revenue doesn't make a cash profit from calls, it does receive extra services from the service provider in exchange for its custom.
When ringing the helpline from a mobile, callers pay 41p a minute, with some waiting for more than 10 minutes.
Some HMRC helplines already use cheaper 03 prefixes, including the tax credit enquiry line and from April, child benefit calls.
Homer and HMRC director general of personal tax Ruth Owen appeared before the PAC in response to last year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report into HMRC customer service.
The report found delays in answering calls cost around £136m in total in 2011/12 and that HMRC only answered 74% of calls. The government auditors also reported that they had been unable to ascertain how much Cable & Wireless collected from people waiting on 0845 helplines - as HMRC was not privy to that information.
During the meeting, Hodge insisted to committee chair Margaret Hodge that HMRC had maintained a 90% answer rate in the last quarter of the year.
“We have made significant progress. The NAO report set out some very proper challenges to us.” Homer said, while agreeing they still had a long way to go to be up to standard.
The Revenue has also lowered the average waiting time on calls to five to six minutes including automated messages, something they say from ‘customer’ satisfaction reviews is acceptable.
Hodge disagreed, saying: “But that’s so frustrating. Your ambition is miles below the industry benchmark of answering 80% of calls in 20 seconds. Do you really trust your own customer checks?”
According to the NAO report, 29% of tax agents did not agree HMRC were doing a good job.
Hodge said accountants are the most “informed and intelligent customers” of the Revenue helplines and so should be listened to.
“They know what they’re talking about. Their satisfaction rates should be great. My accountant says ‘at least I get through’ which is the only good thing he can say about the system,” she said.
“If you were providing a more appropriate response, their [accountants’] satisfaction levels would be much higher.”
Labour MP Austin Mitchell jumped in with the question of the 0845 prefix cost, causing Homer to bluster in her reply.
“It’s considerably less than £1m,” she said. “I’m loath to give information in public about how much I’m prepared to pay for these services.”
“We’re entitled to know how much it is, it’s taxpayers money,” said Hodge, although the full figure hasn't yet been revealed.
Homer also reassured the PAC that HMRC will be able to deal with a high volume of calls about changes to personal tax and RTI, as she believed the “well-designed” new Gov.uk website took care of most of the child benefit queries.