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no answer from helpline | accountingweb | HMRC closes helpline
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And now for something completely the same

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HMRC is closing its self assessment helpline until after the deadline for filing returns. Even Monty Python couldn’t have come up with something so ludicrous.

14th Dec 2023
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Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse as the self assessment deadline looms, HMRC has thrown an additional spanner into the tax return works.

On 7 December, the department announced – with just four days’ notice – that it was going to restrict access to its self assessment helpline until after the 31 January deadline for filing returns. In simple language, restricting access means abandoning.

If last year is anything to go by, then by doing so they would miss out on 1.2m calls. Given the helpline’s summer holiday, this year the figure might have been even higher.

For some, this could be a relief, given that the average time for answering the phone was 24 minutes in October, approximately 250% worse than during some of the toughest periods of the pandemic.

The feeble justification is that HMRC would rather that prospective taxpayers use its online services, which are often confusing and inappropriate.

Alarming development

The situation is so bad that Harriett Baldwin, chair of the Commons Treasury committee and a Conservative MP no less, has apparently sent an angry letter to HMRC’s chief executive and first permanent secretary Jim Harra in which she referred to the announcement as “yet another alarming development for increasingly pressured government service”.

Glenn Collins, head of strategic and technical engagement at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) was equally damning: “The dramatically reduced service will be a worry for taxpayers and financial professionals alike. At a time when queries around self assessment go up significantly, this move by HMRC once again demonstrates it lacks the proper resources that it desperately needs.” 

Apparently, the self assessment helpline will now exclusively deal with “priority” calls, whatever that means. In reality, the likelihood is that no calls will fall within the priority category – in other words to all intents and purposes the lines are closed.

Although the closure is supposed to only run from the beginning of this week until 31 January, it may not be wise to assume that all will be fine and dandy come 1 February with the lines fully manned and calls answered in seconds.

A more probable scenario sees the closure extending through the spring until the point where we all forget that HMRC ever offered helplines to its “customers” and we realise that they no longer exist.

Likely to backfire

HMRC got away with closing down phone lines in the summer on the basis that there would be relatively few urgent calls. Making the same assumption during the period when people are panicking about filling in their tax returns would seem to be naïve at best, cynical at worst.

This approach is highly likely to backfire on the Treasury.

Who could blame frustrated customers for assuming that their taxes were no longer needed? They certainly aren’t paying for even a barely acceptable service level from HMRC.

While some taxpayers will undoubtedly take a prudent view about income or expenditure where there is uncertainty, others may decide to be a little more positive or even aggressive. As a result, taxes that should have been paid will disappear into the ether.

Given the rarity of serious investigations into underpayment of tax, the chances of getting caught out while taking account are likely to be slim.

Similarly, if someone is uncertain as to whether they have an obligation to file a tax return, they will presumably give up having discovered that it is impossible to get a firm decision from HMRC. The phone lines are closed, they can’t easily find an answer online and nobody has even thought about revenue offices dealing with letters any longer.

Forgotten mission

HMRC and its masters at the Treasury seem to have forgotten its mission to be user-friendly, highlighted by the dubious use of the term “customers” for taxpayers. Rather than treating us as valuable providers of much-needed income to the Exchequer, it is apparent that we are now little more than irritants getting in the way of cutting costs and staff.

It will be interesting to see the view that the courts take in the fullness of time.

If a taxpayer has diligently attempted to get a definitive answer about whether or not they needed to complete a return or include certain items and ultimately made a wrong decision, would a tribunal judge take a very practical view that the impossibility of making contact with HMRC constituted a reasonable excuse for their failure? At the very least, HMRC may not feel in too strong a position to force the point if penalties are disputed on these grounds.

There may be one small saving grace. If HMRC is not willing to help taxpayers, then some may be reduced to consulting esteemed members of our own profession and paying fees for guidance that would, in the past, have been available at no cost from HMRC.

Replies (3)

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By SteveHa
14th Dec 2023 12:41

Oddly, I have a client who has received simple assessments for several years, tax code current year, and an (old) notice to file SA for 2017/18, all in respect of income that is NOT taxable (I won't go into details).

Since the ADL is barred from these right now, I jumped on webchat this morning, got through, had the tax code corrected, and the assessments referred (I was expecting a fight re the SA penalties).

Surprisingly, HMRC have already called me back, cancelled the SA penalties, and arranged for the simple assessments to be vacated. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been as fast if I'd been able to call, so I'm mildy impressed (and I told the HMRC officer that I was impressed), so it may not be bad news after all.

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By richard thomas
14th Dec 2023 13:36

It is impossible to say what a (hypothetical) FTT Judge or presiding member (there is as far as I know still one member who is ticketed to hear cases like this would be) would do in any individual case, but a finding that the appellant sought repeatedly and unsuccessfully to communicate with HMRC by phone and did so before the deadline would be a powerful factor (but not a decisive one) to be included in the scales of justice. If for example the answer was clear from other guidance on gov.uk it would not be so powerful. As ever it depends on the actual fact pattern and exactly what the appellant did or didn't do.

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By ralan
18th Dec 2023 10:16

HMRC want us to use online systems so used online to set up a PAYE scheme for November payment and when I chase them was told it could be end of December before we received tax references to be able to file RTI.
Oh to be able to speak to a human and be given the references immediately as in the old days ( May 2023 that is)

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