CUSTOMERS spent 798 years collectively waiting to speak to the tax man in the 2022/23 financial year, more than double the waiting time of 2019/20, a spending watchdog has found.

Around seven million hours was spent by customers waiting to speak to an adviser at HMRC in the year, up around 3.2 million hours from 2019/20.

HMRC’s strategy is to encourage customers to turn to its digital services first – but it is not clear how far and fast digital services will reduce demand for telephone and correspondence services, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

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The NAO said that HMRC has not yet done enough to raise awareness of its digital services, increase customers’ confidence in using its online offering or understand how effectively these services meet customers’ needs.

The National: HMRC customers spent a collective 7 million hours waiting to speak to the taxman over the course of the financial year, the report foundHMRC customers spent a collective 7 million hours waiting to speak to the taxman over the course of the financial year, the report found (Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

It said the move to digital services has not eased pressure on traditional services as much as HMRC expected – and many avoidable customer calls are caused by the revenue body itself for reasons including delays and customers chasing progress.

Some taxpayers hold multiple jobs, meaning they have less straightforward needs, while “fiscal drag,” where people are pushed over frozen tax thresholds by pay rises, has also brought more people into the tax system.

With HMRC’s call-handling workload falling less than expected, it has not been able to make all the staff reductions it planned, the NAO said.

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In March 2024, HMRC announced that it would restrict helplines, its self-assessment helpline. It reversed its decision a day later following an outcry from a range of organisations.

HMRC had expected that closing the helplines would free up around 520 members of staff to work on other helplines and tackle processing backlogs.

The NAO report said: “HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been falling below the expected service levels for too long and HMRC has not achieved planned efficiencies.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “HMRC’s telephone and correspondence services have been below its target service levels for too long.

“While many of its digital services work well, they have not made enough of a difference to customers, some of whom have been caught in a declining spiral of service pressures and cuts. HMRC has also not achieved planned efficiencies.

“HMRC must allow more time for these services to bed in and understand the difference they make before adjusting staffing levels.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, added: “This scathing report from the NAO will come as no surprise to taxpayers who have tried and tried again to contact HMRC.”

A HMRC spokesperson said: “While customer service standards on our phone lines are still not where we want them to be, we’re making strong progress in our efforts to improve our customer service and additional funding has been confirmed by the Government this week.

“Millions more people used our highly-rated online services last year – saving them waiting on the phone and freeing up our advisers to deal with those people who need extra support.

“We continue to encourage people to deal with us online or via the app where they can and we are working to provide even better, easier and always-available online services. But, as we have recognised, these changes need to happen at a speed and in ways that our customers are comfortable with.”