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  1. The Staggers
15 May 2024

HMRC’s hold music has become our unofficial national anthem

Taxpayers spent 800 years listening to the chirpy, hotel-lobby jazz last year; it is driving our country to distraction.

By Will Dunn

Hopefully this is the most depressing statistic you will read today: in 2022-23, people in the UK spent a cumulative total of seven million hours, or 798 years, on hold to HMRC, according to a report published this week by the National Audit Office (NAO). This is a torment Dante could not have imagined. Eight centuries of hot-eared boredom, an epoch of chirpy jazz riffs that would, laid end to end, stretch back to the time of Genghis Khan.

HMRC’s hold music was created from samples in 2007 by the Telephony Standards Team, a group that has since disbanded. Its members remain anonymous but they are, according to some estimates I made using Spotify, now a larger part of the UK’s musical life than Abba or the Beatles.

Even the biggest artists in the world cannot compete. Taylor Swift’s “Is It Over Now? (Taylor’s Version)” has been streamed nearly 400 million times on Spotify since it was released seven months ago. If we estimate that 20 million of those were in the UK (the UK accounts for about 5 per cent of Spotify traffic) and account for the fact that roughly half the music streamed in the UK is on Spotify, we can estimate that the UK has spent five and a half times as long listening to the HMRC hold music, hearing the brief pause in the Premier Inn-lobby synthetic jazz and asking “Is It Over Now?” than it has listening to Taylor Swift singing the same question. (The answer is almost always no: the pause is just for a robot to tell you that one of our advisers will be with you as soon as possible.)

This is the sort of nightmare from which artificial intelligence is supposed to relieve us, although it also seems likely that after eight centuries of hanging around to clarify why its student loan deductions haven’t been factored into its P800 calculation, a machine intelligence would decide to destroy either itself, or us, or both.

And in fact, the 798-year headache our nation has endured at the mercy of HMRC’s hold music is the result of enforced technological change. Since 2019 the Revenue has removed 1,800 front-line customer service workforce staff, and it plans to remove 2,600 more by the end of the current financial year. The public received 300,000 fewer hours of advice from HMRC staff (who are usually very nice when, having crossed an ocean of time to find them, you at last make contact) as a result. The reason for this is that HMRC wants to “move customers to digital channels” (get them to answer their own questions, using a computer). But the digital services don’t sufficiently answer the public’s questions, so HMRC has begun removing a service it hasn’t actually replaced. 

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The consequences detailed in the NAO report are terrifying. After 70 minutes of waiting, the Revenue plays its longest-suffering “customers” a “busy message”, and cuts them off. The report says people were played “busy messages” up to 4.7 million times per year. Several million times a year, members of the public are primed with an hour and ten minutes of rage and frustration, and then released on to our roads, into our offices and pubs and A&E departments.

It is not only the taxman that is at fault, however. The most recent UK Customer Satisfaction Index finds customer satisfaction at its lowest point – and falling at the fastest-ever rate – since the index began in 2015. The HMRC hold music has become our true national anthem: the tooth-grindingly irritating muzak of a country that just wants to get its finances sorted out, but instead is waiting, waiting, waiting.

[See also: In defence of the King Charles portrait]

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