MPs on the Treasury committee have written to the head of HM Revenue and Customs to ask if its working from home policy has caused a decline in its customer service helpline.
Jim Harra, chief executive, has been asked for explanations after 99,000 customers were shut out of helplines last month because of IT problems. There were also reports last week of callers being put on hold for hours and then being cut off.
A recent investigation found processing delays — some as long as a year — at more than half the tax office’s departments.
Staff have been able to work from home for two days a week since summer 2021, but since then, average call waiting times have risen from eight minutes and 45 seconds to 14 minutes and 36 seconds, according to HMRC’s own figures.
“Concerns have been expressed that HMRC’s working from home policy may have led to some of these issues,” Harriett Baldwin, who chairs the Treasury committee, wrote. “It is of serious concern that taxpayers are apparently unable to reach HMRC by telephone in the run-up to the January online self-assessment deadline.”
More than 12 million people have to complete tax returns online by the end of this month. HMRC helplines are always busy in January, as people ring up with questions. Last week the taxman said that 5.7 million people had still not filed their return.
Baldwin has asked Harra whether he recognised “concerns and issues” that had been reported with HMRC’s service levels; if demand is higher than usual; whether problems are linked to flexible working; and what steps are being taken to solve the problems.
She also asked whether the delays were caused by a repeat of IT problems the department had experienced at the end of last year, when Harra admitted that a botched upgrade had caused systems to malfunction and led to some telephone helplines being shut. In a letter of apology to the committee on December 7, Harra said: “We estimate that we would normally have expected to handle around 99,000 customer calls during the time when our telephone helplines were temporarily closed.”
Of the latest reports of delays Baldwin, Conservative MP for West Worcestershire, said: “These reports are seriously concerning, given that taxpayers are apparently unable to speak to HMRC by telephone as the online self-assessment deadline approaches.
“Our committee also awaits the outcome of HMRC’s review into December’s outages, in which 99,000 taxpayer calls were potentially missed. Lessons need to be learnt from these issues, and HMRC must learn them quickly.”
An HMRC spokesman denied working from home had any impact on staff performance, despite government data showing that its office attendance levels were only between 9 and 61 per cent last year, the lowest occupancy rates of any Whitehall department.
He added: “This is our busiest time of the year and we apologise to those waiting to speak to us. We strongly encourage customers to check online before calling. Many queries can be dealt with much more quickly through your personal tax account or the HMRC app.”