Britons Spent 798 Years on Hold to Tax Authority, Watchdog Says

(Bloomberg) -- UK customers spent almost 800 years in total on hold to the country’s tax authority last fiscal year, according to the government spending watchdog, which said more than half of phone calls are now going unanswered.

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Advisers with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs answered just 20.5 million out of 38 million calls in 2022-23, the last year for which full data is available, the National Audit Office said Wednesday in a report. Based on 11 months of data, it projected a deterioration in the rate for 2023-24 to 16.3 million calls answered out of 36.5 million.

The NAO’s damning report found that the HMRC is on track to miss its correspondence targets for a fifth year in a row and that taxpayers are spending on average more than four times as long waiting to speak to an adviser on the phone as they did in 2018-19.

“HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been below its target service levels for too long,” NAO chief Gareth Davies said. “While many of its digital services work well, they have not made enough of a difference to customers, some of whom have been caught in a declining spiral of service.”

The failings are the latest illustration of the toll on public services after a decade of austerity policies under the Conservative government, followed by efforts to rein in public spending in the wake of the record government largess shown during the Covid-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer — in 2021 asked HMRC to find savings worth £75 million ($94 million) a year by 2024-25, a target the tax authority has struggled to meet, despite cutting staffing by 9% over four years.

The third largest government department cleared just 76% of queries within 15 working days in the first 11 months of 2023-24, according to the NAO. There was an average wait time of nearly 23 minutes, compared to five minutes five years earlier.

The NAO found that the tax authority’s telephone workload is coming down more slowly than projected as it tries to shift customer service online. That’s in part due to increased demand, as fiscal drag brings more people into the tax system, and to more complex queries, with advisers having to spend longer on average dealing with each call.

In recognition of HMRC’s struggles to meet its targets, the Treasury on Monday announced £51 million of new funding for the tax authority to service its phone lines. That will mean “everyone can rest assured there will be someone at the end of the phone, ready to speak,” Treasury Minister Nigel Huddlestone said in a statement.

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