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Making forms and guidance easier to obtain and understand should help to reduce the unintentional errors by taxpayers and result in more accurate tax assessments. A report from the National Audit Office today proposes improvements which build on changes already introduced by HM Revenue & Customs.

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Taxpayers can obtain forms and guidance from HM Revenue & Customs’ website, by post or telephone or in person at local enquiry offices. The Department is encouraging taxpayers to use the method of contact which meets their need at lowest cost. Today’s report shows that it could make it easier for taxpayers to find the forms and information they need, including improving the specialist help available to people with disabilities or whose first language is not English. HM Revenue & Customs is considering plans to improve its website, taking account of a recent cross-government review on transforming delivery of public services. This review identified scope for substantial savings across government from improving telephone contact centre operations and making the web the primary source for all simple information and advice.

The Department has improved its telephone helpline service by reducing the average time it takes to answer calls to 43 seconds during 2006-07, compared to 80 seconds in 2005-06 and 28 seconds achieved by a number of other organisations. 73 per cent of calls were answered within 20 seconds compared with a general industry benchmark of 80 per cent. The numbers of callers who get an engaged tone or “all advisers are busy” message also reduced from over 60 million in 2005-06 to 10 million in the first 10 months of 2006-07. 95 per cent of callers got through on the same day they first called.

HM Revenue &Customs has improved its forms and guidance by introducing shorter forms for people with simple tax affairs and simplifying tax statements and other information. However, the NAO found that some guidance requires a reading age of 16 to 17 years old to understand, whereas less than half the adult population reach this level.

The Department’s monitoring of the quality of telephone call handling shows it provides complete and correct advice to taxpayers on 94 per cent of calls. It also has arrangements for ensuring forms and guidance are kept up to date, and to check advice provided at enquiry centres. Today’s report nevertheless identified some examples of out-of-date leaflets and incorrect or incomplete advice by telephone contact and enquiry centres.

The Department could build on the improvements made to help taxpayers find and understand the information they need and reduce the level of unintentional errors they make. Recent work by the Department suggests that unintentional errors by taxpayers in completing their Income Tax forms results in over £300 million in underpaid tax. It has no corresponding estimate of the amount of tax overpaid by individual taxpayers.

Recommendations by the NAO include redesigning the Department’s website to make information more accessible; advertising contact details and services more widely including those for people with disabilities; exploring the possibility of a single telephone orderline for guidance; continuing to reduce the time taken to answer calls; and developing methods for assessing the quality of face to face advice. The Department should also identify the main types of error that taxpayers make and where they do not understand their tax obligations to inform the redesign of forms and guidance and alert taxpayers where particular care is needed.

"Tax can be a complicated matter so it is important to make it as easy as possible for taxpayers to understand and comply with their tax obligations. My report shows how forms and guidance can be made more accessible and the importance of grasping opportunities to simplify the complex rules and procedures."

Sir John Bourn


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