HM Revenue & Customs officials have been told by MPs that their staff’s call handling remains “completely unacceptable”.
Earlier this week, a report from the Public Accounts Committee said the tax office was “worse than abysmal” on customer service.
The report was published following an oral evidence session in which HMRC chief executive Lin Homer told MPs that roughly half of calls to HMRC were being answered between April and July.
Speaking to the Treasury Committee today, Homer said that call answering rates had climbed from roughly 50 per cent to 76 per cent.
However, committee member Mark Garnier stressed that such performance remains intolerable.
He said: “Anybody would agree that 24 per cent of calls not being answered is completely unacceptable. If that was a commercial service it would go bust.”
Homer said HMRC has changed staffing arrangements to bolster numbers outside of normal working hours and is installing new phone systems to allow calls to be answered at any HMRC call centre in the UK.
She said: “We’re very apologetic for that period of poor service.”
However, when pressed by Garnier on what level of calls being answered would provide satisfaction to HMRC, Homer noted that roughly one in four calls to HMRC are on routine issues, and that the tax office was hoping to allow people to access those services online.
She said: “What good would look like is giving people more choice about how they can contact us.”
Committee chair Andrew Tyrie also questioned the role of morale in the performance of HMRC, noting that a December 2014 survey of civil servants found that just 28 per cent of staff approved of the tax office’s senior management and their ability to handle change.
The score ranked HMRC at the bottom of all government departments taking part, although Homer played down its impact on the effectiveness of the department.
Despite Tyrie describing the viewpoint as “counterintuitive”, Homer argued HMRC staff are “uniquely productive and uniquely disengaged”.
She said: “There is definitely something in the HMRC psyche that means they are not as engaged with the public service as other government departments.
“But there is no evidence that they are less productive or less committed to the jobs that they do.”
Tyrie also called on HMRC to review how it publishes figures on the tax gap, arguing the figures are misunderstood by the public as “a synonym for nasty tax evaders”.
Tyrie said: “They [the public] don’t know that error is in the tax gap.
“I think it is important that we get some better information out there, and possibly consider using another number, that can be used and better understood by the public for what they think they’re seeing, which is an amount that people are doing their best to avoid paying.”
HMRC tax assurance commissioner Edward Troup admitted that HMRC could to a better job to publicise “what the tax gap is and what it is not”.