HMRC has cut 6,000 frontline customer services staff over the last five years.
The Government’s ‘making tax digital’ initiative, which among other things aims to encourage businesses and accountants to use online chatbots, will likely drive this figure even higher.
The face of HMRC has changed significantly in recent years. In 2015, the tax office closed 170 tax offices in favour of 13 new regional hubs.
Over this period, waiting times have rocketed and customer satisfaction has plummeted. The average speed of answering calls was 6:39 minutes in 2019-20, but soared to 12:22 minutes the next year, according to a report by the committee of public accounts.
Chaos: HMRC has come under fire for shutting some of its helplines as waiting times grow longer
But, in reality, plenty of accountants, business owners and individuals have been in touch with This Is Money to say they have spent hours on the phone to the taxman.
HMRC’s most recent annual report shows customer satisfaction has dipped from 85.2 per cent in 2020-21 to 82 per cent in 2021-22. It is currently at 79.2 per cent, the lowest rate since 2018.
The closure of the VAT registration helpline in May and summer closure of the self-assessment helpline has further infuriated those trying to get through to HMRC.
Headcount cuts have likely done little to help matters, but insiders have told This Is Money that it is staff retention and lack of training at the root of HMRC’s issues.
A former employee, who was moved from HMRC to another department before retiring, told This Is Money: ‘There were lots of people in their 50s and 60s who knew the job and knew how to deal with customers. Then they just got rid of them.
‘They put a lot of lower paid staff on with basic training and saved a lot of money that way. Then they put them on fixed term contracts over one or two years.’
A spokesman for HMRC said redundancies are ‘always a last resort’ and schemes are ‘not restricted to any particular age group’.
They added: ‘We support colleagues who are unable to move, including offering flexible working arrangements, or helping them to find another role, including in other government departments, before considering voluntary redundancy.’
You can go and work at McDonald’s and earn more, with less hassle and less micromanagement
PCS union representative
The spokesman said all customer service advisers are on the same salary and HMRC mostly recruits to permanent contracts, rather than fixed term ones.
The former employee also suggested that working from home has exacerbated matters, with newer staff unable to ask experienced colleagues for help. This has always been strenuously denied by HMRC.
They said they had received comprehensive training when they started out, working towards an advanced BTEC qualification with a period of ongoing learning: ‘You start off with simple cases and move on to complex ones.’
When it comes to training staff now, the taxman said: ‘New HMRC staff receive a comprehensive suite of tax training before being put on customer service phonelines with the public, which ranges from two to ten weeks dependent on the type and complexity of work.
‘Staff also receive on the job learning, observing and taking live calls with an experienced call advisor; have an opportunity for learning consolidation, and ongoing support and coaching from their manager. They also have access to tax Subject Matter Experts if required.’
Now it seems customer service advisers are bounced around various enquiries.
One source with intimate knowledge of how the department operates said: ‘You’re picking up the phone to someone who is completely and totally bereft.
‘The next call, seconds later, is someone who’s bouncing with rage.
‘The next call is the most complex enquiry, which means you’re having to go through the manuals to find the answer.’
And the problems are only set to deteriorate further as HMRC closes the VAT registration helpline, pushing queries online or to the main VAT line.
Similarly, any self-assessment queries have been pushed online and the taxman has said it will allow 350 advisers to take urgent calls on other lines, putting them under further pressure.
Insiders have described an ‘oppressive’ work environment
A rep for the PCS union, which represents workers in all government departments, told This Is Money: ‘One of the big issues is that HMRC has got is the fact that it’s unable to retain its staff, which then means that pressure passes onto the public.’
HMRC does not publish – and did not provide when asked – the staff retention rate for its customer services advisers.
Its latest annual report showed there was an 8.7 per cent turnover rate in HMRC, which includes those who have left entirely, transferred to other departments or retired.
The union representative said: ‘These [customer service] members do really complex jobs.
‘I’d go so far as to say that their job is probably one of the most difficult and yet you can go and work at McDonald’s and earn more, with less hassle and less micromanagement, less frustration being vented at them from the public. We don’t blame them.’
Micromanagement and a ‘culture of fear’
One of the chief complaints from the PCS union is claims of micromanagement in the customer services department, whereby advisers are expected to put codes into the computer system to account for every minute of the day.
‘If you need time to finish a call, you have to put in a code. If you want to go to the toilet, you have to put a code in. If you’re in a meeting you have to put a code in. Every minute of your time in work is scrutinised,’ a representative said.
‘The way it’s put is that HMRC can plan for the number of people they need at any given time on a particular line of work. But the reality is that managers are scrutinisng and questioning ‘where have you been? Why aren’t you taking another call?’ It’s very oppressive.’
If a customer service adviser is continually on a break, managers will often send through messages asking: ‘where are you? You’ve been in that code for 20 minutes’, according to one insider.
HMRC may argue that this level of oversight is essential for welfare obligations, someone familiar with the department’s customer services operations claim that management have build charts monitoring staff adherence.
‘We’ve seen databases whereby people’s check in and out times have been recorded, their breaks are being recorded. If they flick to red, that automatically means managers are looking at them with even more scrutiny,’ they added.
Asked if there was a culture of fear at the tax office, an insider said: ‘In customer services, absolutely.’
When these claims were to put to HMRC, a spokesperson said: ‘Last year, we received more than three million calls on three things that can easily be done digitally – resetting an online password, getting a tax code, and getting a National Insurance number. These calls divert our expert advisors, reducing their capacity to help those who need one-to-one support.
‘While we encourage more customers to use our highly-rated online services, we must also work to deliver the highest possible standards under current circumstances.
‘To do that, we use standard customer service practices in our call centres while, of course, upholding the welfare of colleagues and ensuring everyone is treated with respect.’
The union representative said: ‘If our members were just allowed to do the job they’re paid for… I think HMRC would be even more productive than they are now. It’s that thing of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. It just leads to good faith.’
Are you a frustrated HMRC employee or a business owner who has been left in the dark? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with HMRC in the subject line
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