MPs attack HMRC for keeping hotline callers on hold for more than five minutes as they promise move to a cheaper number
The UK’s revenue authorities have been accused of failing to get to grips with its customer service arrangements, which leave around 16 million people and businesses facing the prospect of hanging on the line for more than five minutes when trying to get through.
MPs attacked HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for its “low ambitions” after revealing that it expects about 20% of the 80m calls to their hotlines – many of which are 0845 numbers – to take longer than five minutes to answer.
After HMRC was condemned last year for costing callers £136m a year through delays in answering calls, chief executive Lin Homer told the public accounts committee (PAC) on Monday that the cost was made up of the time people lost on the phone to the service and the cost of the call charge, which accounted for about £34m of the total.
“We think if we increase the number of calls handled to the 90% we’ve held in the last quarter of this year, that will about halve the time of the call,” she said. Homer said that would mean the four minutes 42 second average waiting time would drop to about two minutes but admitted those timings did not include how long customers had spent dealing with interactive voice recognition systems.
“We think real people start counting the call from when they pick up the phone so we are going to measure that and we reckon that will mean that we will be achieving a call of about five minutes to six minutes,” she added.
But the committee’s chair, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, said the industry norm was to take eight out of 10 calls within 20 seconds and dismissed the target as a “disappointment”.
“Jesus! Dear, dear, dear. 80 per cent in 20 seconds is the industry norm,” she said.
“Eighty per cent in 20 seconds is the industry norm and you’re going 80% in five minutes. I think it’s a disappointment. It’s unambitious.”
Homer said HMRC research showed customers believed a five-minute wait was acceptable, adding: “If we can answer 90% of the calls, which as I say we have been doing for the last quarter, then we think people will wait up to five minutes.”
The committee was told from April HMRC would measure call waiting times from picking up the phone to talking to an adviser and expected to have a target of answering 80% within five minutes.
The National Audit Office disclosed in December that 20m telephone calls for advice or to leave required information were not picked up at all last year, leaving people frustrated and helpless.
It found many of the helplines are premium-rated 0845 numbers and raise £136m a year from callers.
The report also found that 6.5 million people waited on hold for more than 10 minutes last year, and spent £33m on call charges doing so. HMRC has now said it is set to move calls to cheaper 03 numbers by the end of the summer.