Britons waste a collective £136m a year attempting to get through to the taxman – with HM Revenue and Customs failing to answer nearly a quarter of all calls it receives.
And HMRC's "disgraceful" service is set to get even worse if plans to close 281 tax inquiry centres go ahead, MPs have warned. In total, about 20 million of the 79 million calls received by HMRC each year go unanswered. That is despite it spending £900m on improving customer service.
Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "Just how the department is going to improve standards of customer service, given the prospect of its having fewer staff and receiving a higher volume of calls, is open to question."
Ms Hodge attacked HMRC's new target of answering 80 per cent of calls within five minutes as "woefully inadequate and unambitious", pointing out that it was below industry standards. She was speaking after a major restructuring plan was announced, bringing in a call-back sys- tem and moving away from expensive 0845 numbers.
HMRC has opened a consultation on closing all of its face-to-face centres in favour of a targeted "mobile" service in homes, businesses or community locations. It claims the move will save customers almost £12m a year in lost time and travel costs and slash its running costs by more than £13m a year.
Ms Hodge said it was "disgraceful" that taxpayers who had no choice but to deal with HMRC were subjected to unacceptable levels of service when they phoned or wrote.
"We are pleased to see signs that HMRC is changing its attitude," she said. "Officials are beginning to realise that good customer service lies at the heart of any strategy to maximise revenues while cutting costs."
But she added: "The department should set a more demanding target in the short term, and a long-term target that is much closer to the industry standard of answering 80 per cent of calls within 20 seconds."
The new target would still leave 16 million people waiting more than five minutes to be answered, the Public Accounts Committee pointed out.
An HMRC spokesman said: "This report criticises a previous poor standard of service from which HMRC has already recovered.
"In the past three months, HMRC has been answering more than 90 per cent of calls to our contact centres and during the current year we have replied to 84.5 per cent of the 16 million pieces of post we have received within 15 working days.
The spokesman said: "We are investing an extra £34m in our contact centres to maintain this industry-standard level of performance."