Failure of HMRC to answer the phone costs us £136m

Taxpayers are facing a bill of £136m a year because of the inability of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs officials to answer the phone, a damning report from the Government's spending watchdog reveals today.

An investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that last year 20 million calls to HMRC's premium-rate 0845 hotlines went unanswered. Those that did get through had to wait for an average of five minutes – with some 6.5 million people left holding for longer than 10 minutes.

The report concluded that the cost to taxpayers of delays in answering the phone was £33m in unnecessary call charges and £103m in customer time. If HMRC improved its performance to answer 90 per cent of calls and reduced waiting times, it could save customers around £52m a year.

Last night the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) ¬described HMRC's "sluggish" performance as "unacceptable" and said disproportionately high call charges would hit those least able to pay the hardest. It said customer service had been "too poor for too long" and called for a radical change in approach.

The NAO analysed the performance of HMRC in handling questions, complaints and requests for advice both by post and phone during the last financial year. It found that despite spending around £900m a year interacting with taxpayers, it was still answering only 75 per cent of calls.

Commenting on the report, Margaret Hodge, chairman of the PAC, described its findings as "unacceptable". An HMRC spokesman said that they were "well aware" that in the past they had not delivered a good enough standard of service, but added: "We are determined to build on this progress."