Press reports and postings on online forums showed that LITRG’s experience was by no means untypical; BBC Radio 4 Money Box listeners wrote in and LITRG Technical Director, Robin Williamson, was interviewed on Saturday morning’s programme, although nobody appeared to defend HMRC.
Many of HMRC’s low-income customers use pay-as-you-go mobiles, and it can cost them as much as 40p a minute to ring an HMRC helpline on an 0845 number. So by the time they have held on for 30 minutes, they have spent up to £11.60. That could be half a day’s income for a pensioner.
The results of the short mystery shop exercise are reported at: http://www.litrg.org.uk/News/2012/promises. While not necessarily a statistically significant exercise it was indicative of the average waiting time to get through to HMRC helplines, as evidenced by subsequent correspondence to press and online forums and to the CIOT.
The CIOT and LITRG and other professional bodies have raised with HMRC the issue of unanswered calls before. We have asked HMRC to plan better when sending out communications to taxpayers so as to stagger calls and respond more speedily. Also, where taxpayers are obliged to ‘hang on’, we have asked for information to be given to them on where they are in the queue and the expected response time, so the caller can make an informed decision as to whether to call back on another day. This has the potential to even out the flow of calls, reduce pressure on the lines and reduce costs for callers. HMRC do not measure the length of time people have to wait in order to get through - a performance indicator we think should be measured.
After the weekend media highlighted these problems, HMRC issued the following stakeholder letter. This does not seem to resolve the issues highlighted above.
START OF HMRC MESSAGE:
Briefing Note - Our Contact Centre performance last week
A number of customers have experienced difficulty getting through to our helplines following the Easter period. We are taking urgent steps to rectify the situation as quickly as possible and response times are improving this week. We are very sorry for any inconvenience and wanted to let you know what we are doing to address the situation.
Against much improved performance over the last few months, we have had a very challenging week following the Easter break.
In preparation for the new tax year, we update our systems over a weekend in April. These updates keep our systems in line with legislation, help lower costs and ensure that our critical systems are maintained. During the period in which these updates take place, our services are disrupted and we are not able to make changes to customer records.
This year, we updated our systems over the Easter weekend, when demand is generally lower. Following the Easter break, we have experienced some of our busiest days. Demand from customers calling us back following the planned system update coupled with higher than anticipated levels of calls from taxpayers responding to the invitation to query the need to complete a self assessment tax return which went out with the 2011/12 notices to file.
We have also seen increases in calls to our Tax Credits helpline from customers notifying us of changes to their circumstances, as a result of previous Budget changes, further increasing our already high demand.
The 370,000 callers who rang on Tuesday 10 April was the second highest number of callers on any day in the last 12 months.
We have also been experiencing some technical telephony issues during this period, which we continue to work through.
What are we doing to improve service levels?
We have longstanding arrangements in place to redeploy staff to cope with peaks in demand. And we do this in “real time” to try and ensure that we can offer the best possible service levels we can.
In the light of the exceptional demand we have seen over the past few days, we have deployed all available trained staff within our Contact Centre network to handle additional PAYE and SA demand, as well as an additional 350 staff from processing offices around the country to help us to manage the additional calls we are receiving.
We are deploying front line managers to answer calls, and have cancelled all training time on our busiest days to ensure we are in a position to improve service levels as soon as possible.
We are already looking closely at how we can more effectively manage demand during this period in 2013/14 and for the future as part of our ongoing review processes.
What should our customers do?
These measures are already taking effect and service is improving, but demand for our PAYE and SA helplines continue to be high.
It will help us to improve further if customers with non urgent enquiries can defer their call until next week when we are confident these measures will have improved things even more.
We will keep you up to date with our progress.
END OF HMRC MESSAGE
19 April 2012