HMRC slow to switch to low cost phone numbers

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HMRC remains on the list of the top three government departments making most use of higher rate phone numbers according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), although its planned moves to introduce lower cost numbers is having an impact, states chartered accountant Harris & Co.

The NAO report Charges for customer telephone lines says government is continuing to make extensive use of higher rate telephone numbers for customer telephone lines, while the approach towards the replacement of 0845 numbers with lower cost 03 alternatives is ‘inconsistent’.

In March 2013, the Department for Work & Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and HMRC had the highest proportion of higher rate numbers, which made up more than 50% of their telephone support lines. Only the Department of Health has ruled out using numbers which cost more than the geographic rate.

In 2012-13, HMRC received 68m calls, but has announced plans to introduce cheaper 03 numbers on helplines. According to NAO’s report, between April and June 2013 HMRC had introduced 15 new 03 numbers to run in parallel with higher rate numbers on its busiest lines, and they account for 20m of the overall total. Once these lines have been replaced, the proportion of lines which only have higher rate telephone numbers will reduce from 76% to 40%.

HMRC intends to have added alternative 03 numbers for all personal tax, debt management and banking telephone lines by September 2013. The department will phase out the use of higher rate numbers on these lines over 18 months as current stationery and signage is replaced with the new numbers.

NAO says HMRC is also currently running a call back trial for child benefit enquiries and is due to disclose its findings later this month.

The NAO report shows that DWP and HMRC have the busiest customer telephone lines measured by call minutes connected. While other departments are answering the phones to callers in under a minute, the average wait for a caller to HMRC to speak to an advisor about a self assessment query is nine minutes. Queries on child benefit take an average of five-and-a-half minutes to be answered, while calls about tax credits wait an average of seven minutes for a response.

The NAO found callers to government higher rate lines paid £56m in call charges in total in 2012-13. Callers spent a total of 880m minutes on calls, of which 402m minutes were spent waiting to speak to an adviser at a cost of £26m. The watchdog estimates that changing all of government’s higher rate numbers to 03 numbers would save callers £29m a year, and cost government £7m a year including loss of implied revenue share.


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