According to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) the quality of service at HMRC 'collapsed' over an 18 month period between 2014 and 2015.
The report found that average call waiting times tripled in 2014/15 and in the first seven months of 2015/16. Call waiting times for self assessment tax returns peaked at 47 minutes last autumn, which resulted in HMRC having to bring in 2,400 extra staff for their tax helpline.
Using HMRC's own criteria, the NAO valued people's time at an average of £17 an hour, and, as a result, calculated that callers would have wasted a total of £66 million while waiting on the phone, £21 million while actually talking to HMRC and £10 million on the cost of the call itself.
The NAO report blames the poor performance on HMRC's decision to cut 11,000 staff between 2010 and 2014 in the move to persuade more people to complete their tax returns online. The report claims that HMRC 'misjudged the cumulative impact of its complex transition and released too many customer service staff before completing service changes'.
In other words, it greatly underestimated how many call centre staff would still be required to help taxpayers with self assessment queries.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said:
'HMRC's overall strategy of using digitally enabled information to improve efficiency and deliver service in new ways make sense to the NAO. This does not change the fact that they got their timing badly wrong in 2014, letting significant numbers of call handling staff go before their new approach was working reliably.
This led to a collapse in service quality and forced a rapid expansion of headcount. HMRC needs to move forward carefully and get their strategy back on track while maintaining, and hopefully improving, service standards.'
HMRC said its service levels had improved since the period analysed in the NAO report, and that, over the last six months, call waiting times had averaged six minutes.
Ruth Owen, HMRC's director general for customer services, said:
'We recognise that early in 2015 we didn't provide the standard of service that people are entitled to expect and we apologised at the time. We have since fully recovered and are now offering our best service levels in years.'
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