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Red Telephone In Waste Basket | AccountingWEB | Helpline havoc to digital delight

Helpline havoc to digital delight: In defence of HMRC


After HMRC reversed plans to close self assessment helplines only 24 hours after making the announcement, Amy Chin steps away from the chaos of the past week and suggests: is digital by default really such a bad thing?

21st Mar 2024
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The accountancy profession was thrown into a fury this week when HMRC decreed that the ‘summer’ (April to September - six months of summer in the UK, unheard of!) closure of its self assessment (SA) helpline was so successful last year they were making it permanent.

There followed a screeching U-turn, HMRC’s current signature move, and the suspension is on ice, for now. But make no mistake, digital by default is coming and we need to get onboard.

The minutes after HMRC’s announcement saw taxpayers, agents and professional bodies charging to their keyboards with responses ranging from incredulous to concerned to downright furious. At least one accountant channelled his outrage into penning a few bars of rap.

AccountingWEB’s breaking news article was flooded with almost 200 comments within a few hours. While a few optimistic souls suggested that perhaps this was just an early April Fools joke from the tax authority, the majority of readers shared a sense of despair and disgust at yet another curtailment of HMRC’s ‘customer’ services.

It’s safe to say the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, but as anyone who’s booked a holiday and then fallen into the trap of checking reviews on TripAdvisor will attest, it’s usually the ones who have had a bad experience who sing the loudest, and – at least when it comes to the all-inclusive on the Costa del Sol – more often than not they turn out to be the anomaly.

Success of the pilot

Let’s face facts: this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The suspension of the SA helpline last summer was always billed as a pilot for a potential permanent seasonal model and according to HMRC’s evaluation of the results, it was a success!

  • The personal tax account and business tax account self assessment service were accessed 3.86 million times during the closure, an increase of 0.80 million, up 26% on the same period in 2022.
  • The HMRC App was used by SA customers 7.18 million times during the closure, an increase of 2.97 million, up 71% on the same period in 2022.

The goal, they say, is “directing more of them [customers] to self-serve online because it is quicker and easier for them. This allows HMRC to focus more phone support on those with more complex queries and those who are vulnerable.” 

Much has been written, and no doubt there is more to come, on the cons of HMRC’s digital by default aspirations. I hope to focus on the positives. Disgruntled accountants, read on at your peril.

Big up the app

I was lucky enough to attend a panel discussion between HMRC’s Rob Jones and industry experts Emma Rawson, Paul Aplin and Rebecca Benneyworth at the Festival of Accounting and Bookkeeping last week.

Discussion turned to HMRC’s advancement of the ‘digital by default’ model and Benneyworth grabbed the opportunity to praise the HMRC app. “It’s darn brilliant!” she said, addressing the accountants in the audience, “not only should you get it, get all your clients to get it because then they won’t be ringing you up asking what their NI number is and they won’t be ringing up HMRC.”

Benneyworth cited HMRC statistics on the volume of calls made to the SA helpline that could have been dealt with far more efficiently on the app.

Corroborating this, an HMRC spokesperson told AccountingWEB: “In the last tax year, we received more than three million phone calls on just three things that can easily be done digitally – resetting an online password, getting your tax code, and getting your National Insurance number. That’s almost 500 people working full-time to answer just those calls. They’d spend the equivalent of 95 years on those calls.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg of calls received that could have been sorted online, but it gives a sense of why HMRC is so keen to get more people to use its online services – which are much quicker to use than waiting over the phone.

I’ve got the app and I have to agree with Rebecca. It was seamless to install, it’s slick to operate, so much quicker than the website and I can log in with my fingerprint. I now wouldn’t dream of picking up the phone and enduring that queue without first attempting to find the answer to my query via the app.

Admittedly, though, I only downloaded the app for the purpose of research. Until then it was all too easy to ignore its existence and join the baying crowds bemoaning the curtailment of the phoneline. A big part of HMRC’s challenge is persuading people to step out of their comfort zone and try a new route to query resolution.

Getting it right

Paul Aplin shared some sage advice with the panel on how to achieve digital by default. “There are really bad ways of doing it which drive people mad and make them hate you, and there are absolutely brilliant ways of using technology” he said, urging HMRC to go out and look at what’s being done already in the market.

“The important thing is recognising when you need to get through to a human being. [HMRC] needs to look at it through the eyes of the taxpayer, the agent, the small business” Aplin concluded.

Engage with the process

The resounding cry from the coal face is that HMRC’s current digital offering is not fit for purpose. HMRC’s Rob Jones assured the panel that the Revenue is working hard to improve this. Speaking to him, Craig Ogilvie, director of Making Tax Digital, and other HMRC representatives at FAB we at AccountingWEB got the impression that they are keen to listen and work together, but there is significant work to be done.

So how can taxpayers and agents harness their frustration and take positive action to ensure this?

  • Engage with digital services and encourage clients to
  • Respond to consultations
  • Feedback on the app via the review function
  • Attend events such as FAB where HMRC representatives are keen to hear experiences and ideas from key stakeholders

The reversal of helpline closure announcement is probably on balance the right decision for now. But with wait times at an all time high and phonelines unable to support the sheer volume of calls, the current model is clearly not sustainable.

HMRC will plough ahead with digital by default and, if done right, it will benefit us all.


Replies (25)

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By AdamJones82
21st Mar 2024 11:43

"digital by default is coming and we need to get onboard"

This is SO patronising and makes out accounting professionals are the problem.

HMRCs digital services aren't fit for purpose. Do you think we actually enjoy sitting on hold for 1 hour plus?! It's because their digital services aren't self-serving.

Thanks (26)
Replying to AdamJones82:
By Tornado
21st Mar 2024 13:34

As someone who has been preparing Accounts on a Desktop Computer for over 40 years, accessing clients records online for over 20 years, submitting Tax Returns online for some 10 years and filing everything at Companies House digitally for over 8 years and communicating with clients by email for over 20 years, I do not need to be told the advantages of digital transactions.

What I do object to is HMRC forcing everyone to try and use their digital services when they do not work, unlike some of the other services that I have quoted that generally do work very well.

The most basic of Digital Services is the email. We should able to at least send an email to an HMRC digital address explaining our query and then either receive an email answer or a phone call of explanation by return.

Digital by Default is just a soundbite with no substance at all.

As Adam says, "digital by default is coming and we need to get onboard" is disgracefully patronising, especially to those of us who know what we are talking about.

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Replying to Tornado:
By FactChecker
21st Mar 2024 19:36

Patronising indeed ... in the light of the evidence of advanced thinking output from the solitary remaining brain cell at HMRC capable of functioning (currently lost but no-one has yet noticed).

A tiny snippet in today's Agent Update sums up the way in which HMRC logic now drives operational decisions - which just happened to become particularly visible when they stupidly rush announced their 'solution' to phone-calls on a slow news day.

CT and SA repayment letters (to taxpayer and/or agent) often arrive after the repayment has been made, which results in more calls from the confused.
Stop sending the letters!

Or as HMRC put it:
"We’re changing how we let you and your clients know we’ve issued a Corporation Tax or Self Assessment repayment.
There is no change to the repayment process itself, so customers will still receive any monies owed to them as normal.
From 8 April 2024, we’ll no longer send a letter notifying you or your client of a repayment, as these letters often arrive after the repayment has been made, leading to confusion and increased contact from customers.
Customers will still receive repayments into their chosen bank account or credit card balance as usual and can see any transactions in their online account."

No attempt to tackle the underlying processes that lead to dreadfully slow (and often inaccurate) data transfers between systems or the inability to bring the mailroom out of the 1950s ... nor even an attempt to use the beloved 'everything digital' to provide an alternative 'push' service (via texts or whatever) to inform a taxpayer that it might be worth checking their 'online account'!

Just a 'walk away from the problem' approach that (in their eyes) means 'job done (everything else is the punter's problem)'!

Thanks (10)
Replying to FactChecker:
By FactChecker
21st Mar 2024 19:51

FWIW the 'missing brain cell' that I mentioned earlier has probably been taken into protective custody and is awaiting repatriation by the top dogs as they depart with their gongs.

It took nearly a decade to get the PAC to realise just how endemic is the flaw that I've mentioned within HMRC (in every aspect of its remit), which IIRC was better and more viciously expressed in their report - but could be summed up as:

Consultant to HMRC: "If you were to introduce X then you could save £NNNm p.a."
HMRC to Consultant: "Wow, tremendous ... I'll have 5 of those then"
HMRC to Treasury: "I've ordered X, so we can cut £YYY from staff budgets now"
HMRC to Staff: "We don't need your skills now, so who wants voluntary redundancy?"
Taxpayers/Agents: "when is X due? when will it work? what do we do for now? aaargh!!!"
HMRC to world: "FIIK (and don't care so long as I'm well away from here shortly"

HMRC's, apparently honest, belief in 'everything digital' (not merely MTD and various other projects that are slowly going backwards) is so dis-connected from reality and lacking in any quantified sense-check of the foundations ... that they are in danger of usurping the Flat Earth Society from the top of the Crazies chart.

Thanks (7)
Replying to Tornado:
By djtax
22nd Mar 2024 12:59

The article above praises the new HMRC app but does not point out that it is only of use to taxpayers re their own tax matters . HMRC have no plans to expand the app for use by agents re their clients tax matters.

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Replying to AdamJones82:
By GDavidson
22nd Mar 2024 10:45

The issue is about the self assessment call line. Maybe you are held up by the 3 million ringing up to ask what their password or NI number is.

Thanks (2)
Replying to GDavidson:
By AdamJones82
22nd Mar 2024 10:50

Nothing to do with that as I use the Agent Dedicated Line

Thanks (2)
Ivor Windybottom
By Ivor Windybottom
21st Mar 2024 12:11

When Covid came and we all had to become even more digital.
HMRC finally accepted email for a number of services, which worked well.

While I accept email is not secure, surely HMRC should accept that digital messaging is the minimum required and set-up a true portal for messages both ways, with visibility of what is happening.

I have used solicitors for property conveyancing that have managed this effectively, so surely HMRC should be able to do the same with their huge IT budget.

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By Paul Crowley
21st Mar 2024 12:56

Did you read Alex's scam article?
You must really despise people that expect the human touch.
When the HMRC do their usual thing and mess up or fail in their obligations, a person is needed to fix it.
HMRC do not accept emails yet.
When they join the 20th Century then a discussion could be possible.
This is just another wind up, trying to get traction for the site.

Thanks (7)
Replying to Postingcomments:
By Lesser Tax
22nd Mar 2024 08:24

I think rather than you comment on articles someone with half a brain cell should instead

Thanks (4)
By taxadvisercarlisle
21st Mar 2024 16:31

Digital by default would be fine if a) they had a decent webchat facility for all tax functions (no chance trying to speak to anyone about trusts or IHT) and b) you could contact them via email. No one wants to have to call HMRC but their current digital services offering is really not fit for purpose.

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By Jason Croke
21st Mar 2024 17:32

"Corroborating this, an HMRC spokesperson told AccountingWEB: “In the last tax year, we received more than three million phone calls on just three things that can easily be done digitally – resetting an online password, getting your tax code, and getting your National Insurance number. That’s almost 500 people working full-time to answer just those calls. They’d spend the equivalent of 95 years on those calls.”

You cannot reset the password online easily. If you know your ID but not your password then yes, can be done online. Almost all of my queries I deal with are taxpayers who don't know their ID or password, can only be done by calling HMRC and passing security tests.

I appreciate that calling for your tax code or NI are annoying calls but remember HMRC is there to provide a service, taxpayers are not an inconvenience. These things can be done online but requires the taxpayer to have an online account with HMRC.

Take my wife (someone, please), PAYE, only knows her NI number because she keeps her paperwork and still has that little blue/red credit card. She has no reason to interact with HMRC and has no government gateway. Not everyone keeps paperwork as carefully as my wife, so how else does a 21 year old or 50yr old find out their NI when starting a new job? Calling HMRC, enrolling for a gateway makes no sense.

The bigger elephant is that none of these online systems works as well for agents. If HMRC did things right, agents would be able to message or text HMRC within the gateway environment, but HMRC took that away and now we have to call, spend 15 minutes going through security checks when we are already the clients agent via digital handshake, so a perfectly simple way to deal with millions of agents quickly and digitally, instead we have to call, we have to get a letter of authority in writing, a 64-8 even though we're filing their VAT returns or CT returns, etc.

HMRC do not even like emails, on the occasion they do reply, you have to send a written statement confirming how insecure emails are before HMRC will respond to you. It is utterly ridiculous, no other agency or business interacts like this and its nothing to do with security, its hanging onto old processes for comfort.

I use online banking loads, HSBC and Starling bank apps, I can do everything in the app, any queries I can have a webchat with a person in a few minutes, issues sorted. That is the model HMRC should be aiming for, instead they've gone for tart up our old website, stick on a few online forms and then job done, "we've gone digital".

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By Jason Croke
21st Mar 2024 17:38

...and lets be clear here, all this talk of digital, its a smoke screen.

Yes, you can enter details onto an online form and press submit, you can change an address, bank details, all sorts of stuff BUT none of this is processed digitally by HMRC, they're literally printing out your data that you have input onscreen and manually typing it into a computer.

When you call debt management, they are having to look at 2 or 3 different databases if you are querying something from before 2022. They have databases that don't talk to each other, it's 4 different legacy systems cobbled together. Several times I'm dealing with VAT debts, and debt management can't help as "the debt is on a legacy system" and only a higher grade person can access those so I'll get them to call you back (they never call back).

HMRC's digital is no more digital than my cutting a square into a cardboard box and putting it on my head and saying "Hey everyone, look, I'm on the TV". I might look like I am on TV in glorious (and it would be glorious) HD, but I'm kidding myself, I'm a very analogue guy with a box on his head. Much like HMRC.

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By timothyvogel
22nd Mar 2024 09:47

So an increase of 0.8 million uses of the digital channel shows it was a success. But if that would have been 0.1 million uses of the alternative channel it is actually a failure. Their measure for success is designed to always show success even if it was a total failure. I am not saying the app is always bad. It is great for very simple things but is totally usable to deal with complex things and to remove the only alternative is just arrogant and stupid

Thanks (3)
By Open all hours
22nd Mar 2024 09:52

If you insist on ‘ploughing ahead’ you cannot automatically expect to take your customers with you.
I assume this article was written as some sort of click bait exercise.
All that HMRC customers want is to be treated with respect and for HMRC to adhere to their charter which says in effect that they will accommodate the customers needs and desires.

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By ArianBloodwood
22nd Mar 2024 10:16

Paul Aplin quoted in the article says it all: “There are really bad ways of doing it which drive people mad and make them hate you, and there are absolutely brilliant ways of using technology”.

It is widely known in professional circles what those brilliant ways are. That information is without question accessible to HMRC. In addition HMRC is very clearly getting the feedback that it is driving ppl mad and making them hate it. The only possible conclusion to draw is that HMRC is f*#king it up.

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By HamishMackrell
22nd Mar 2024 10:31

In the same way that professional comedians say that jokes work best if told three at a time you can reasonably expect that Hunt’s joke tax giveaway will be accompanied by joke announcements from the Bank of England and Sunak’s Joke claims that the sunlit uplands are just around the corner.

Maybe someone thought to beam a little sunlight on the poor benighted H M RC helpline staff?

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By Swimmingagainstthe Tide
22nd Mar 2024 10:33

HMRC could and should learn from the Post Office's fiasco with the Futitsu Horizon system. Digital systems are great and will be used when people trust them and get the service they need. When they are flawed and the humans are incapable of interceding it is a recipe for disaster.

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By GDavidson
22nd Mar 2024 10:50

Debates on here about HMRC always make me despair as to the quality of the - accounting profession.

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By dmmarler
22nd Mar 2024 11:00

We are all corresponding as agents or working accountants with full access to up to date systems, etc., which we can fully expense. We also know roughly what we are talking about and are fully experienced with computer systems.
I still remember a new client who had got himself in a complete mess using an HMRC system, and he had to pay us to sort it all out with HMRC. This was someone in business who should have known what they were doing ...
What about those who do not have computers, printers, or smartphones (assuming they roughly know their tax)? What about these people? To pay for our services will cost them. Why should they have to pay someone else to do their tax return? HMRC needs to think about the little person, just as the Post Office should have done ...

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By Retrocanary
22nd Mar 2024 11:04

No, sorry, but if you're going to insist on everything being done digitally, then the digital platform needs to work and not be diffcult to use. HMRC's digital platforms fail this basic test routinely, as do the existing phonelines.

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Ruth Corkin
By Ruth Corkin
22nd Mar 2024 11:35

I'm a VAT and customs Practitioner and the app has no use whatsoever. I'm also an SA tax payer and the app is refusing to accept my PIN number, having previously accepted it. I now have to psych myself up to log in fully again.

I do engage regularly with HMRC on all things digital and have done for years, but they a) focus on direct tax solutions that don't work for VAT and b) seem to ignore the input anyway. As an example, the alphabetical list of VAT notices is not done in the way that most people search. I know a lot of the numbers for the notices so it is merely irritating for mebut for a taxpayer trying to find the information it is infuriating and they resort to ringing the helpline.
Closing the VAT helpline for al but 5 working days in the month excludes those that may want to file earlier (e.g. payments on account returns or those wanting a refund). The agent dedicated line does not cover VAT. You can ring it, but the query is then passed to the team that you would have called in the first place had it been open.
Customs guidance is, by and large headed up, "this is under review and may be withdrawn" and trying to get an answer if you are a taxpayer is virtually impossible.

I'm all for digital solutions, but the offering from HMRC needs to be much easier to access and HMRC really does need to listen to its "customers" and their agents as to what they need, rather than the Digital Teams that have a completely different view and never access the content again!

AS an example, I attended a research session for the new Customs Single Trade Window. A very laudable concept with 3 different layouts. One was simple to use and took you to the page you wanted to get to i.e. prepare an export declaration. The other two options took you through at least 3 additional links to get to the same place. Then you had several links to get the information into the system. The HMRC preferred option seems to be to follow link after link because it looks simpler on a dashboard, but the reality is the "customer" will get click fatigue before they can even start a declaration.

Sorry to rant, but I am one of the people who has engaged with the process and still sees no difference in the information that is accessible. I only ring the helplines as a last resource, a do my clients. No one wants to sit on a helpline for an hour if hey can avoid it and find the information elsewhere!

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By Mr J Andrews
22nd Mar 2024 15:16

Quite a few flaws with this article.
The heading shows HMRC's evaluation [of the suspension and online referral] a success. But HMRC's Rob Jones admits to the panel that the Revenue are working hard to improve a digital service which is unfit for purpose. Thank you Rob for being truthful. So much for HMRC's 'Evaluation' - yet another statistical load of crap.
Notice the information conveyed by a HMRC spokesperson to Accounting Web. ANOTHER nameless HMRC spokesperson. How many more times are AW going to report these nameless snippets from unknown people who could be Tom the Filing Clerk , Dick the First Aid Officer or Harry the Admin Assistant. How about telling us where these gems of apparent misinformation actually come from.
HMRC spokesperson indeed. In this respect , this unamed, unknown spokesperson told AW that HMRC received 3 Million + phone calls in 2023 on just 3 topics { passwords , coding notices, NiNos}.
The same unnamed HMRC spokesperson told AW that 500 full time workers would take 95 years to respond to these three topics. If the phone calls weren't answered , how did the unnamed HMRC spokesperson know how many phone calls were made and how the topics were those three specifically named ? Or are the poor sods still working to that 95 year target ?
..........Craig Ogilvie, director of Making Tax Digital, and other HMRC representatives at FAB we at AccountingWEB got the impression that they are keen to listen and work together..............
''Working Together'' was kicked into touch when a certain James Harra came on the scene. So why do anything to assist a failing Govt. Dept. with a failed one track leadership ?
............HMRC are keen to hear experiences and ideas from key stakeholders............
I'm certain these financial benefactors would love to offer such advice. But give proper and prior consideration to the accountancy service and their clients - your ####### customers.
Why invite these HMRC representatives along to spread such propaganda ?
Sorry Amy - but your anomaly was not the best. Did you expect the majority of Trip Advisor reviews to favour this particular stretch of resorts ?

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By mumpin
24th Mar 2024 19:04

Amy doesn't mention this which, assuming that it works, seems a step forward for Agents:

"You can now access the following information in the Income Record Viewer, your client’s:

·         PAYE information for the current year plus the 4 previous tax years

·         employment records, including time in employment, their PAYE reference, the pay and tax details for each of their employment

·         student loan repayments, if any, collected through payroll

·         latest tax code for the current tax year including all allowances and deductions..."

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Replying to mumpin:
By Jo Nokes
25th Mar 2024 12:25

But that only works if a client has a gov gateway and can deal with the digital handshake. And you have to set this up for each client. It’s just too laborious to be useful

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