HM Revenue and Customs has seen a spike of 12% in the number of complaints filed by citizens in a year, following six months of customer-service struggles.
The tax agency also saw its performance dip sharply again in November, following a sustained period of small, but steady, improvement.
By the end of the month, the department had received a running total of 50,056 customer complaints during the 2020/21 year – almost 5,500 more than at the same point in the prior year.
Beginning in April 2020, shortly after the UK went into its first national lockdown, HMRC has seen a marked increase in the time taken to answer phone calls. This problem was at its worst in May, when the average waiting time reached 15 minutes, and only 46% of calls were answered within 10 minutes.
Performance gradually improved over the following months, although even in the best-performing month – July, when the average wait was reduced to 8 minutes 21 seconds – the department still fell a long way short of the figure for the whole of 2019-20: 6 minutes 39 seconds.
Newly published data for November shows that not only did call-answering times shoot up again, but HMRC’s performance in responding to online and postal queries also saw a marked decline. This is in contrast to the rest of the year when, despite its call-handling issues, the department has maintained a strong performance in other customer service areas.
In November, it took HMRC an average of 12 minutes 45 seconds to answer customer telephone calls – more than three minutes longer than in the prior month. Almost half of the 2.45 million callers during the month – 48.4% – were kept waiting in excess of 10 minutes. This compares with 31.4% in October.
During the first half of 2020-21, HMRC dealt with 89.4% of online iForms submitted by citizens within a week. Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, this represented an improvement on the figure for the prior year of 87.6%.
But, after a dip in October – when the proportion of queries answered in seven days fell to 76.6% – performance fell off a cliff in November. The department managed to respond to less half (47.4%) of online inquiries within a week.
This is despite the number of iForms submitted during the month – 193,250 – begin almost 30,000 lower than the year-to-date monthly average.
HMRC also had issues with responding to post in November, the data indicates. Of the 936,638 items received that required a response, 60.3% were “cleared” within 15 days. Going into the month the year-to-date average was 81.8% – representing a marked improvement on the 70.3% figure of the 2019/20 year.
Speaking before MPs on the Treasury select committee last month, HMRC permanent secretary Jim Harra acknowledged that the department has had issues with call-waiting times – but claimed that steps have been taken to address this.
“Throughout this year we’ve not been able to answer calls as quickly as we would have liked,” he said. “That has improved since the summer for two key reasons. First of all, we have improved our ability to share our adviser resources and we’ve been able to introduce technology that sends calls out to people at home. Secondly, we’ve been able to reduce the amount of resource that we’ve deployed on those Covid-19 support schemes.”
He added: “Nevertheless, we’ve had to impose on the patience of our customers for much of this year and I am sure, given what remains to be done on Covid-19 and Brexit, we will continue to impose on that for the remainder of this year.”
The department’s performance update containing the November figures added: “The impact of, and our role in responding to coronavirus continues to have a significant impact both on the way we work and our immediate priorities. In light of the situation, HMRC has not set formal performance targets for customer service for 2020 to 2021.”
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared