Customer service staff numbers in decline at HMRC

10 January 2023

In HMRC’s latest annual report, it was noted that they are on a recruitment drive with the target of recruiting 2,000 staff in the year to 31 March 2023, filling existing vacancies at the time of the report as well as looking to deploy £62 million to fund 500 additional Debt Management staff over three years. Based on the figures released to RSM UK following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, it seems customer service staff numbers are heading in the wrong direction.

HMRC has recently come under criticism, with call waiting times in particular increasing since the start of the pandemic and taxpayers facing delays to obtain answers to the queries they might have to complete their tax return ahead of the 31 January deadline. Those using different channels such as HMRC’s Community Forums can potentially wait several days for a response, only to find that answers are fairly brief and represent general guidance rather than advice specific to their circumstances. In response to this, recent reports highlight that MPs on the Treasury Committee have written to Jim Harra, chief executive officer of HMRC for an explanation.

The official response remains to be heard but it seems reasonable to assume that some of the difficulties faced by taxpayers are due to resourcing pressures at HMRC. Similarly, there may be challenges in providing staff with the technical expertise required if they are having to recruit large numbers quickly and rotate existing staff to different roles to address whatever might be the pressing issue of the day.

In relation to training staff on customer service phone lines, information released under the FOI request outlines that:

'HMRC staff receive a mixture of tax training before being put on customer service phonelines with the public, which ranges from two to ten weeks dependent on the type and complexity of work. Staff also receive on the job learning, observe live calls with an experienced call advisor, an opportunity for learning consolidation, plus ongoing support and coaching from their manager, and access to tax subject matter experts if required.

No formal tests are required. Quality checks are carried out and if standards are not met then peer/formal coaching will be given to raise them, otherwise it will go through normal performance management channels.'

Clearly there are constraints on how much investment can be made into training staff at HMRC. Professional tax qualifications can involve years of study and the associated financial costs can be substantial. This, then, may be a factor in why HMRC is seemingly struggling to attract and retain talent which in turn is likely to impact on performance.

Further details provided in the FOI request highlight that rather than customer service staff numbers increasing, they have in fact dropped in April 2021 from 21,220 staff to 20,178 in November 2022. The lowest month for customer service staff numbers in this period was August 2022 when staff numbers dropped to 19,853. The average monthly staff retention percentage over this period was a little over 98%.

So, it seems HMRC is losing people in its customer service team faster than it can recruit or redeploy them from other departments. This may be in part due to the widely badged ‘great resignation’ following the pandemic and perhaps this will settle down with the wider economic difficulties. Equally, with more HMRC staff working from home, it can be challenging to retain and build a workplace culture that can help to prevent talented staff leaving for pastures new. With challenges on resourcing and constraints on training staff, there is a sense of inevitability that taxpayers will not receive the level of service they might expect from HMRC for some time.