Responding to the National Audit Office (NAO)’s report on HMRC’s customer service levels, Tina McKenzie, Policy Chair, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “The finding by the NAO that nearly half of all calls to HMRC go unanswered says a lot. Tax compliance is a huge headache for small firms, who spend on average 52 hours a year trying to sort out how much they need to pay, at a collective cost to small firms of £25 billion, an eyewatering sum.

“The long delays, troubles getting through, and struggle to speak to someone who can actually help rather than read from a script compound the stress for small business owners who have received letters from the tax authority saying there is a problem with their taxes.

“We have previously criticised HMRC’s ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach to its communications with small firms, which can leave business owners in a state of panic. Every minute they’re unable to get through to someone who can help them sort things out means more worry and more alarm, which is why investment in HMRC’s customer service resources is so vital.

“Digital avenues for support certainly have their place, and many small business owners are perfectly happy to use them. But there are some times when speaking to a real person is the only way to get something sorted, especially for queries which are anything other than totally straightforward.

“The UK tax code is 10 million words long, and it’s impossible for small firms to match the in-house tax and finance expertise of their larger rivals. As well as improving customer service levels, HMRC should focus on ensuring that the guidance it provides is clear and as simple as possible to digest.

“We welcome the NAO’s report, with its emphasis on the need for HMRC to make ‘realistic plans’ and take a ‘more customer-focused approach’. Small firms come in all shapes and sizes, but they all need to know they can get tax queries sorted without delay – something that HMRC needs to ensure is the case for everyone.”