Tax helplines cut off one third of callers, UK Government vows to improve

After a Which? undercover test showed that almost one third of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) Helpline calls were cut off because there were too many enquiries, the government has vowed to improve the service. The investigation also found that for those who did manage to get through, they had to wait up to 41 minutes.

Which? decided to carry out the investigation after a growing number of members complained. Undercover researchers made 100 telephone calls to the main HMRC helplines – for General Queries and Self-Assessment. Calls were made over a week and were spaced out at different times of the day.

Twenty-nine percent of all the calls were cut off before the person got through to an adviser. Before hanging up, a recording would say “We’re very busy right now…We’re sorry we can’t deal with your call at the moment. Goodbye.”

HMRC’s target is to answer 80% of calls. According to its recent figures, it managed to answer 74.5% (September 2014).

Tax helpline cut off

29% of callers were cut off (Photo: Which?)

Which? pointed out that its study was carried out in September and early October, before the super busy months of December and January.

Voice-recognition system

In November 2013, HMRC introduced a voice-recognition switchboard so that callers were saved the nuisance of having to keep pushing buttons. According to HMRC, it would cut the time between starting the call and getting to an adviser.

Which? found that the voice-recognition system was good at understanding obvious tax terms, but not at dealing with more general questions.

One of the Which? undercover callers said:

“When we asked: ‘Is there any tax to pay on premium bond winnings?’ the system suggested we wanted help with a VAT surcharge notice, for example.”

With the current system, as soon as the automated system finds out why the person is calling, he or she is put on hold until an adviser is available.

Average time 18 minutes on hold

The average time it took to wait for an adviser was 18 minutes. In one case, the undercover inquirer was on the line for 41 minutes, while another got through in just 2 minutes.

Waiting times tended to be shorter soon after the call centres opened (they open at 8am), and longer in the afternoons and evenings. Fewer callers were cut off in the early morning.

For those in a hurry to meet deadlines, contacting by telephone is still the fastest way. Emails only work for a very narrow range of subjects, while surface post enquiries may take more than a month.

Which? issued the following advice:

“As the 31 January 2015 self-assessment tax return deadline approaches, it’s important to persist if you have an urgent tax query. Ringing early in the day and making the reason for your call obvious will help you get through. HMRC offers authoritative guidance on tax returns and more general tax matters.”

The following helpline numbers are available:

Self-assessment: 0300 200 3310.

General enquiries: 0300 200 3300.