HMRC slated over wait times for Making Tax Digital helplines

HMRC is coming under fire from MPs over long waiting times for businesses trying to get through to Making Tax Digital for VAT helplines and a cavalier attitude to dealing with calls with taxpayers cut off if they wait longer than 10 minutes, reports Sara White 

In a letter to Nicky Morgan, chair of the influential Treasury Committee, HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson struggled to defend criticisms over the poor standards of service on phone helplines dealing with MTD, which has seen taxpayers enduring lengthy waits on VAT helplines, callers cut off when waiting times get too long and call-back requests ignored.

At the same time, the service has had teething problems with direct debit payments, and the registration process is not activated in real time, instead taking up to five days to create an account.

Thomson said: ‘We continue to refine our support offer in response to feedback from customers and agents. I am aware that some callers have experienced extended waiting times on our VAT helpline. This falls short of the standards of service we want our customers to experience.

‘I’d like to reassure you that we have been working hard to bring the waiting times down and improve performance. In the last week we have started to see positive results from that, with waiting times falling to around our target of five minutes. It is too soon to be confident that we have resolved the issue, and we continue to monitor it very closely.’

Terminated calls

There has also been an increase in the number of calls terminated by HMRC after they have been in the queue for more than 10 minutes, regardless of whether the caller might have preferred to stay on the line and get an answer to their query.

‘We monitor closely the number of calls that are terminated both by the caller before they reach an adviser and by HMRC because lines are busy, to inform operational decisions to optimise our service.

‘This data is not reflected in our Average Speed of Answer performance indicator, which measures the time from the end of the recorded announcements until the call is answered by an adviser, or the speed of answer performance indicator that measures the percentage of calls answered by an adviser after a wait of more than 10 minutes.

‘You asked why calls are terminated by HMRC instead of giving customers the option to wait in the queue. In order to manage customer experience and minimise their costs, checks are made to determine if there are sufficient advisers available with the necessary skills to answer calls in an acceptable timeframe; if not, we play a busy message and disconnect the call.’

Staffing levels

Staffing issues are another significant problem for HMRC, which has had to divert staff to Brexit work, with demand for resources in customs and excise, for example, squeezing other departments. Thomson confirmed that the MTD helplines have now been upstaffed to deal with the high demand, with an additional 100 agents hired to work exclusively on MTD issues.

‘HMRC’s telephony performance has been impacted by ongoing recruitment and staffing shortfalls.

‘Recruitment for a no deal EU exit was slower than expected, and so we had to divert resource from business as usual in February and March. This meant that some of the people earmarked for training on MTD were diverted onto the government’s operational priority of no deal.

‘Since the EU exit extension was agreed in April, we have been training staff on MTD and increased numbers to those originally planned. We have doubled the number of people taking VAT helpline calls from 100 in March to more than 200 now, and extra staff are being deployed to match call peaks.’

Callbacks

There has also been criticism of poor handling of automatic callbacks with HMRC failing to get through to callers, claiming that 13% of those requesting a callback were not available when HMRC tried to get back to them.

‘I am sorry that some customers have not received promised callbacks. I can confirm that we attempt to call all customers back. On average, we conduct between 60 and 70 call-backs each day on MTD queries. Customers requesting a callback are called on two separate occasions, and our success rate for getting through is 87%. On occasions where we are unsuccessful in reaching the customer, a note is left on the customer’s record so that, when they make contact again, the correct advice can be given.’

The first significant reporting period for Making Tax Digital for VAT kicks in from the beginning of July when the deadline for the first significant batch of quarterly VAT reporting is due.

The rollout of Making Tax Digital has been hampered by the impact of Brexit on HMRC activities and the original plans were reeled back when it was clear that the rollout to business taxes and buy-to-let landlords by 2021 was too ambitious.

‘MTD represents a significant change for some businesses and their agents. We are committed to delivering these changes in a way that works for all,’ said Thompson.

‘Our support model is designed to guide customers to the most appropriate help for their particular needs; whether through HMRC, a software developer or their agent. Our HMRC offer ranges from basic support such as signposting to online guidance for digital services, webinars and YouTube videos through to more intensive one to one support. We used the pilot and feedback from stakeholders to test and expand our help and support.’

Jon Thompson letter to Treasury Committee - MTD service levels

Sara White

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