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The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has harshly criticised HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in a report published this week for “failing UK tax payers” and using inadequate IT systems.

A significant section of this criticism has focused on the appalling level of customer service provide by the tax collectors – HMRC only answers 39% of telephone calls within five minutes.

The correct level of tax citizens are required to pay is almost never easy to calculate and many people want to ask for advice, but if it is almost impossible to reach HMRC then it is likely that this has a direct impact on the amount of revenue collected.

“HMRC should identify what impact its poor level of service is having on tax revenues and produce a detailed plan setting out how and when it will provide an acceptable standard of customer service,” the PAC report said.

The report goes on to add: “This should include a clear plan for the efficient management of its change programme and introduction of new IT systems.”

In the first half of this year HMRC only answered half of the calls they received; last year they managed to at least answer 72.5% of calls demonstrating that while their service was poor last year, it was worse in 2015. HMRC customer service is going from bad to worse with no indication of how a recovery can begin.

The PAC once described the customer service offered by HMRC as “abysmal” and PAC Chair, Meg Hillier, said this week that it has now deteriorated “to the extent it could be considered a genuine threat to tax collection.”

Hillier added: “It beggars belief that, having made disappointing progress on tax evasion and avoidance, the taxman also seems incapable of running a satisfactory service for people trying to pay their fair share.”

HMRC has previously published their ambition as the ability to answer 80% of all calls within 5 minutes. This is pathetic. The “ambition” is that a fifth of callers will be waiting longer than 5 minutes just to get some advice? And as Hillier pointed out, not only is HMRC failing to clampdown on tax-dodgers, but here we can also see that honest citizens who want to pay are unable to get the advice they need.

The UK government has been in hot water over tax credits recently and it is likely that confusion over tax credits has added to an increased need for citizens to ask for help. Either the tax system needs a dramatic simplification or the customer service team has to be fit for purpose.

Suggesting that ambitions fall short of serving anything less than 100% of citizens in an effective and timely fashion is not acceptable and answering a call within 5 minutes is not timely.

Imagine if this was a commercial operation and you were calling a company with the intention of paying them several thousand pounds of your hard-earned income. If they had not answered the phone after five minutes would you still be hanging on or checking Google for an alternative? With HMRC, citizens have no choice other than to wait, but surely a small investment in better service would not only create more satisfied and happy citizens, it would pay for itself by smoothing the path for those who want to pay the correct amount of tax to the government?

It is now twenty-four years since Prime Minister John Major launched his idea of a ‘Citizen’s Charter’ where he proposed that citizens should expect the government to treat them with respect. Clearly those ideas from the nineties have been long forgotten, but how many more years will it take for HMRC to discover that an up-front investment in improving the customer experience may actually cost them nothing in the long-term?

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