HM Revenue and Customs has come under fire after it emerged that calls from one in ten people contacting its tax advice helpline are not picked up by staff.
Over the past year four million out of 43 million callers to the HMRC helpline failed to get through to anyone. There has been an increase in unanswered calls since the year before, when one in 20 calls went unanswered.
Figures gleaned from the tax agency's monthly performance reports show that, despite promises to improve service levels, the time taken for HMRC to answer phone calls rose by almost 30 seconds between February 2017 and the same month this year.
HMRC callers are now left hanging on the line for 3 minutes 47 seconds on average, with monthly complaints soaring from 5,427 to 6,162 over the same period.
On average, some 14% of customers were left waiting for more than ten minutes.
Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier, who has previously urged the taxman to up its game, told The Telegraph: “There are a lot of people who are self-employed, who do not have a raft of tax advisers and who rely on HMRC for help. Hanging on the phone during the day is difficult to do for a lot of people.
“It is absolutely vital HMRC provides a good service. It is collecting tax on hard-earned money, and it needs to make it easier for people to play by the rules. Its telephone service is still an important part of that.”
The figures also that a significant chunk of calls to HMRC are going unanswered. The percentage of calls answered by staff has plummeted from 94% in February 2017 to just 89.5% in the same month of this year.
A spokesperson for HMRC said the tax authority had improved its customer service levels “enormously over the last two years”.
The spokesperson added: “Our phone call handling has got better, with the average response time falling from 12 minutes in 2015-16 to below five minutes for the past two years.
“Time in the automated telephony system is valuable because it ensures customers are directed to the right person to deal with their question, or get their question answered through the automated system. The National Audit Office last year recognised a large number of organisations use the same measures as HMRC.”
It is not the first time HMRC has come under fire over call wait times. At one point in 2015, average wait times for calls to its personal tax line soared to a staggering 34 minutes after the tax authority axed thousands of call centre jobs.
Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Peter Dowd seized on the figures to accuse ministers of underfunding HMRC, which has had its resources and staffing slashed by 17% since 2010.
“If people call up to pay their taxes they should be able to get through, and given that the deficit still hasn't been eliminated you would think this would be a top priority for the chancellor," the Labour frontbencher said.
He added: "HMRC’s falling performance is further evidence of this Conservative government’s disastrous and misguided programme of cuts. It’s clear the chronic under-staffing and under-resourcing of HMRC over the last eight years is having real consequences on the effectiveness of our tax system and people’s ability to access the financial help and tax expertise they need."