HMRC's customer service team shrunk by 5% in 2023by
HMRC’s customer service team numbers have fallen by 5% over the past year as the Revenue comes under increasing scrutiny for its falling service levels.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed by accountancy firm RSM has revealed that HMRC’s customer service staff numbers decreased from 20,139 in December 2022 to 18,996 in December 2023.
News that the tax authority has lost 1,143 customer service staff comes after agents complained about extended call-waiting times and a lack of support during self assessment tax return season, and professional bodies urged the Chancellor to invest in HMRC to sort out “unacceptably low level” of customer service.
In response to the FOI, an HMRC spokesperson told AccountingWEB: "Online services have revolutionised how people live their lives and we want to help and encourage customers to resolve their issues as quickly and easily as possible. This is often through our digital channels, which save people having to wait on the phone or write to us.
“We’ve moved to a flexible model where our customer advisers can operate between different channels like webchat, post and calls, as this allows us to be more productive, reacting to peaks in demand and deploy staff more efficiently.
“This frees up our expert advisors to help people with urgent and more complicated queries as well as helping the small number unable to access our online services. Just putting more people on the phones isn’t sustainable or the best use of taxpayers’ money.”
'Annus horribilis' for HMRC service levels
Yesterday’s self assessment deadline capped off a turbulent period for HMRC service levels that saw the Revenue close helplines during the summer for three months, screen agent calls to the agent helpline in December and only deal with queries that were deemed a “priority”.
In another sign that HMRC is shifting away from telephone helplines towards a digital-first approach, HMRC this week announced the continuation of the agent webchat beyond 31 January to tackle less complex self assessment and PAYE queries.
RSM's FOI request also showed staff retention rates at the Revenue becoming progressively worse over the course of 2023. In December 2022, there were 20,139 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in the customer service team with a retention rate of 99%, but by December 2023, the number of FTE staff had dropped to 18,996.
RSM pointed to the downward trend in retention rates, adding that “perhaps worse is still to come”.
With more taxpayers dragged into paying higher rates and more individuals paying tax for the first time due to the freezing of personal tax allowance thresholds, RSM highlighted that the demands on HMRC’s customer service team will inevitably increase as a result.
Describing the past year as an ‘annus horribilis’ for HMRC’s customer service team, Chris Etherington, a private client partner in RSM’s Leeds office, said: “This emphasises that there is clearly a focus on HMRC trying to maximise the output and efficiency of the resources available to them.
“However, there is a tipping point where a lack of resource can be demoralising for staff being put under increasing pressure, ultimately leading to more departures," added Etherington. "With more demands being placed on fewer staff, it is not immediately clear how HMRC will find a path back to the performance levels being asked of them.
“If HMRC is under-funded, then it feels like a false economy given it can pay its own way in driving government revenues.”