Warning of HMRC tax phone line 'collapse'

MPs have warned that HM Revenue and Customs services plan to move services online could lead to another potentially

As more people access digital services, HMRC are cutting approximately a third of their customer services staff in a bid to make savings of £98m by 2021.

However, a report by MPs says it is "not convinced" the tax authority will not repeat the "collapse" of 2014-15, which led to a tripling of call waiting times.

The tax authority is aiming to make most processes automated and also have more staff focusing on specialist work to crack down on tax avoidance and evasion. It expects to employ 16% fewer staff and close 137 regional offices by 2021.

"HMRC expects that, as it introduces more online services, a channel shift will occur resulting in a reduction in the demand for phone calls as more people will be able to meet their needs through online services," the MPs report said.

But the committee noted the "collapse" of customer services in 2014-15 after 5,600 staff were made redundant. It also highlighted that during an 18-month period, call waiting times tripled and some customers were kept on hold for up to an hour.

The MPs said there was an "enormous challenge" ahead for HMRC, while it also restructures its business, relocates many of its staff and moves to a new IT contract.

The committee said: "HMRC is staking a great deal on the success of its plans to digitise the tax system, but once again it lacks an adequate plan if demand for its call centres does not reduce as quickly as it hopes."

Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "The lack of a convincing fall-back plan to safeguard service as HMRC undergoes significant change remains a looming threat to its ability to collect tax from individuals simply trying to pay their fair share.

In their defence a spokesperson for HMRC said:
"We now consistently answer 90% of calls first time, in an average of less than five minutes.
"We have invested heavily in customer services, recruiting more than 3,000 new staff who are also available outside normal office hours when many of our customers choose to call us.
"This is alongside a new range of popular digital channels for customers to get the information and support they need without having to pick up a phone or pen."

They also pointed out that they had made significant improvements to global tax transparency and that by cracking down on tax avoidance, evasion and fraud had brought in £26.6bn over the last year.

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