Firm makes six-figure profit by keeping you on hold on 41p-a-minute HMRC tax helplineCompany makes 'less than 1million' profit from premium 0845 numbers
Each year 16million callers will be kept waiting for longer than five minutesMPs tell HMRC chief Lin Homer the wait is 'unacceptable'
00:24 GMT, 29 January 2013
13:20 GMT, 29 January 2013
Lin Homer, chief executive of HMRC, admitted the target is to answer 80 per cent of calls in five minutes
A private phone company is making hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs premium rate helplines.
HMRC chief Lin Homer told a committee of MPs that Cable and Wireless has made 'less than 1million' from the 0845 number.
Yet, she said keeping millions of customers on hold for five minutes before they can speak to a tax official is 'acceptable' and admitted the target is to answer 80 per cent of calls within five minutes.
As HMRC receives 80million telephone calls each year, this means 16million callers will be kept waiting for longer than this.
Miss Homer said HMRC research showed customers believed such a wait was acceptable.
She told MPs: ‘If we can answer 90 per cent of the calls, which we have been doing for the last quarter, then we think people will wait up to five minutes.’
Giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, Miss Homer said: ‘We think real people start counting the call from when they pick up the phone so we are going to measure that and we reckon that will mean that we will be achieving a call of about five minutes to six minutes.’
But MPs said a similar target in the private sector is to answer calls within 20 seconds.
And Labour MP Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the committee, criticised HMRC for its ‘lack of ambition’, describing the target as ‘a disappointment’.
Miss Homer’s admission emerged after a damning report by the spending watchdog last month said taxpayers spent more than 30million last year waiting to speak to HMRC.
HUGE BACKLOG OF UNOPENED MAIL AT HMRC, BOSS ADMITS
A million letters from taxpayers lay unopened for weeks last year after a huge backlog of mail built up at HMRC offices up and down the country, boss Lin Homer admitted.
During questioning by MPs, she said: ‘We had one million pieces of post dotted about the organisation.
Once you get to that [position], you are getting the chaser letter before you have unpacked the [original] letter.’
She insisted its backlog of post has improved, saying it had dropped to fewer than 100,0000 by Christmas.
The report, by the National Audit Office, said the treatment of customers – many of whom waste hours trying to get through – was ‘unacceptable’.
Mrs Homer said HMRC did not take profits from the helplines, that can cost up to 41p a minute, but said they do receive some 'additional services' from Cable and Wireless, according The Telegraph.
She refused to disclose how much the telecoms company makes in profit on the calls, telling MPs the information was commercially sensitive.
She said the company was moving to cheaper 03 numbers this year and said profits should therefore fall.
Last year, the average waiting time more than doubled from 107 seconds to 282 seconds, and the NAO said that between April and September, nearly 6.5million people waited longer than ten minutes, excluding the time spent listening to the automated greeting.
The new five-minute target will include the time spent listening to the automated greeting.
HMRC has, however, revealed plans to scrap all its 0845 numbers – which cost up to 41p per minute from a mobile phone – by the end of the summer. Ruth Owen, director general of personal tax at HMRC, said it will switch to telephone numbers which begin 03, which cost the same as calling an 01 or 02 number.
Mrs Hodge said HMRC’s use of 0845 numbers was unacceptable.
HMRC does not receive a share of the money from 0845 numbers, which goes to telecoms giant Cable and Wireless.