HMRC admits phoneline failings

A panel of MPs which believes the public is “ripped off” by having to wait on premium rate phone lines before getting through to the state has named HM Revenue & Customs as one of the worst offenders.

In a report by the Public Accounts Committee, HMRC is criticised for making the average caller in the first quarter of 2013-14 wait about seven minutes to be answered by an adviser.

This means the taxman is failing to hit his target of answering the majority of calls within five minutes - in itself a “woefully inadequate and unambitious” target which in March he declined to improve.

“Astonishingly,” added the PAC, “the department only managed to answer 16% of the calls it received to its Tax Credits helpline on 31 July 2013, the deadline-day for notifying changes of circumstances.”

In response, HMRC admitted that this was “not an acceptable level of service” and that the department’s “plan for handling this peak had not worked.”

The Revenue added that ways to “flatten the peak” would be explored ahead of the 2014 deadline, and that it plans to rethink its contingency arrangements.

In line with all other central departments, HMRC has signalled to the MP panel that it is unable to demonstrate how much revenue phone suppliers are earning from its helpline services.

In fact, the Revenue only found out earlier this year – after it was prompted by the National Audit Office – that the profit Cable & Wireless makes out of a phone deal with the department was £1million a year.

Although the deal only covers the tax authority’s 08 numbers, HMRC has now switched its income tax, national insurance and VAT phonelines to 03 numbers, in a move it claims makes calls for the majority cheaper.

The PAC supports the move – copied recently by the DWP– but points out that while 0345 numbers should be cheaper for mobile phone callers, they may be more expensive for those ringing from landlines.

Elsewhere in the report, the two departments emerge as the biggest recipients of phone calls from the public in 2012/13 – the DWP received 100million calls; the Revenue received 68million.

However out of the total 208 million calls that central government handles each year, 130million are restricted to premium rate lines that charge rates of up to 45p per minute, at an estimated cost of £56million.

Presented with the figures this week, the Cabinet Office admitted that it has played “no role” in monitoring or coordinating state phone lines since a 2010 guidance note, which PAC believes departments ignored.

The committee recommended: “The Cabinet Office must urgently establish clear principles on charging for telephone calls, providing access to low cost alternatives to high rate numbers particularly for services accessed by vulnerable people and informing callers of the costs involved.

“These principles should also apply to arms-length bodies (like the Student Loans Company) and private contractors delivering public services.”


12th November 2013

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