Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice


Publication of the Committee's 20th Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"Completing a tax form should be made much simpler. Too many people are unintentionally making mistakes, resulting in an estimated underpayment of tax each year of some £330 million. It is puzzling to say the least that no similar estimate has been attempted of the amount overpaid to the taxman as a result of such mistakes. HMRC should produce such an estimate as soon as possible and also publicize common errors leading to underpayments and overpayments.

"The more accurate, timely and accessible the guidance to taxpayers, the less time and money the Department has to spend asking for more information and chasing up and correcting forms. There is a lot of room for improvement here. The Department is falling short of industry standards in how quickly phone enquiries are picked up and dealt with. Too many callers are still being shunted round the system rather than directed straightaway to the staff with the right knowledge. The Department's website is still a bit of a maze. And some information leaflets are pitched in language which goes over the head of those whose reading age is less than average."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 20th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from HM Revenue and Customs, examined its providing information to taxpayers by telephone and online, making information easy to understand and obtain, and helping taxpayers get their tax right.

Each year millions of people submit a tax return or other forms to HM Revenue & Customs. Helping people to provide accurate information about their tax affairs is essential if they are to pay the right amount of tax. Accurate and timely information also helps to reduce the cost to the Department of seeking information or correcting errors.

The Department spends £35 million a year on producing and distributing printed forms and other guidance. It also spends £55 million a year answering 12.5 million enquiries on how to complete forms through 13 telephone helplines, face to face meetings at 279 enquiry centres or via its website.

The Department handles over 20 million telephone calls a year from taxpayers who have specific queries about their tax affairs or need general information. Its performance in answering telephone calls has improved with 72% of calls answered within 20 seconds in 2006-07, compared with 45% in 2005-06. But it is still below the general industry benchmark of 80%.

The Department is encouraging people to use the most cost-effective method of contact that meets their needs. It plans to reduce the number of avoidable calls by improving its forms and guidance, as well as its website. This will enable more people to find information online rather than having to contact the Department directly. It estimates that it could save over £100 million by encouraging more people to use its website and online services.

The Department offers specialist help for people with disabilities and translation services for its printed material. But these services are not well-advertised and the Department's staff are not always aware of them. Some enquiry centres do not have adequate wheelchair access or facilities for people with hearing difficulties.

The Department estimates that 3.3 million taxpayers filing Income Tax Self Assessment returns understated their tax by £2.8 billion in the 2001-02 tax year. Of this, around £330 million arose from unintentional mistakes by taxpayers. The Department has not estimated the amount of tax overpaid.

The Department provides accurate and complete advice in 95% of telephone enquiries. But taxpayers sometimes receive inaccurate or incomplete advice because more complicated enquiries are not always referred to expert staff. The Department does not measure the quality of advice provided face to face at enquiry centres.