CALLERS to key government tax and benefit helplines are waiting twice as long to get through as last year, latest official records show.
Average waiting times for HM Revenue and Customs contact centre telephone queues reached 10 minutes and 53 seconds in September, more than double the five minutes 21 seconds registered at the same point in 2013. But the organisation’s suggestion to callers to tweet instead has been branded “laughable” by politicians.
Some 34.5 per cent of calls were cut off, significantly up from the 20.5 per cent recorded last year while the number answered in under two minutes dropped from half to a quarter, according to the HMRC figures.
Waiting times for callers to tax inquiry lines went up from four minutes 42 seconds to 11 minutes 51 seconds, while tax credit queues rose from seven minutes 13 seconds to 14 minutes 28 seconds.
Callers seeking child benefit help waited an average of nine minutes nine seconds compared to five minutes 48 seconds in September 2013.
Shadow exchequer secretary Shabana Mahmood criticised the delays.
He said: “This is an unacceptable level of service to taxpayers. At a time when people are paying more in tax and have seen their tax credits cut under this Tory-led government it simply isn’t good enough.
“Long waits and poor service are particularly frustrating when many people are facing difficult times for the personal finances.
“Ministers need to get a grip on this chaos and ensure HMRC is providing a decent service for taxpayers. The Government shouldn’t be leaving people hanging on the telephone.”
A HMRC spokesman said action was being taken to improve the situation.
He said: “We are working hard to improve our handling of customer calls and are moving up to 1,500 extra people on to the phones during January, as the Self Assessment deadline approaches.
“This year we are introducing new technology to help us answer more calls quicker at busy times, and we are improving the digital services we offer so that more customers can find all they need online. Customers can get help with general self assessment queries by tweeting us @HMRCcustomers.”
After the Twitter proposal emerged, shadow Treasury minister Shabana Mahmood said it “beggars belief”, while Margaret Hodge, the Labour chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, said it was “laughable”.
Tory MP Mark Garnier said he was unable to think of even a simple tax query which could be expressed within Twitter’s 140 character limit.