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HMRC tax letter

Is HMRC determined to be unhelpful?


As HMRC closes down the main self-assessment helpline until September, Philip Fisher wonders if disaster beckons.

22nd Jun 2023
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Sometimes it is good to get back to basics. For example, few would argue with the proposition that a tax system is a necessity, should operate effectively to prevent avoidance and evasion and cause minimum fuss to all involved.

If a nation starts out with a window tax, all it requires is somebody to count the windows, multiply them by a few farthings or groats and, lo and behold, you can collect the tax from the owners with no impediments.

The role of HMRC

Somewhere along the way, things have gone badly wrong so that we currently have a tax system that even HMRC, expert advisers and sometimes even the courts struggle to interpret, comprising thousands of complicated and sometimes conflicting elements and laden with loopholes.

There are also many questions regarding the role of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Is this merely a policing authority that should be wielding a big stick when victims fail to pay all of the tax that it believes is due? Alternatively, since it is funded by taxpayers (aka “customers”), should it be regarded as a public service body?

News this week suggests that those in power at the Treasury, which has overall charge of HMRC, have given up even a pretence of offering a workable public service.

The impact of cutting costs

As we have known for years, the Treasury’s main concern is to cut HMRC costs, even if the consequence is a loss of overall income for the Exchequer, as a result of reduced revenues. Any sane person would know that this is madness, but perhaps the Treasury is short of sane people?

Its latest cunning plan is to close down the main self assessment helpline (0300 200 3310) over the summer.

Apparently, HMRC wants to “redeploy” staff and feels that prospective taxpayers will enjoy the experience of dealing with chatbots rather than human beings.

It is unclear whether there will be any way of reaching specialist advisers or the extra support team, though the cynical might wonder whether bots might be instructed to “manage their workloads”, ie, keep referrals to a minimum or refuse them completely.

Will mistakes be picked up?

Some might regard this latest move as part of a worrying trend. Our parents would have dealt with local tax inspectors, who understood the game and the needs of people whom they would never have dreamt of calling “customers” and were able to provide dedicated help for the benefit of all.

The likely consequence would be accurately completed tax returns that would need no adjustment unless someone was attempting to pull a fast one.

Nowadays, even if someone in the assistance can manage to get through on the phone which is by no means certain, the human equivalents to bots sitting in call centres often have no more understanding of the UK tax system than callers.

It follows that many people will innocently be completing tax returns incorrectly, some paying too much and others too little.

Given the lack of investigative resource available at HMRC, many of the mistakes will never be picked up.

While one might think that, overall, the amount of tax paid would even out, there has to be a possibility that, understanding HMRC’s limitations, some ne’er-do-wells might be tempted to game the system under-declaring taxes in the hope that they will never be caught or maybe even citing incorrect or vague advice received from an HMRC helpline as a defence.

The consequence of closing the helpline

That situation is bad enough, but closing the helpline completely until 4 September 2023 will seem callous and could cause a great deal of heartache for those seeking to complete tax returns during relatively quiet summer season.

It will also lead to greater demand in the autumn and maybe even beyond, as those who might naturally have filed returns while the sun was shining, leave it until there is real pressure on helplines.

Predictably, the Taxpayers Alliance anticipates that “Taxpayers will be furious”, even if some might be pleased by the response from HMRC that, as a result, 350 advisers will be able to take urgent calls on other lines and answer customer correspondence.

You might have thought that HMRC would have additional staff to answer customer correspondence and take urgent calls but then again…

Chair of Treasury Committee raises concerns

The idiocy of this decision can be seen from the fact that the Conservative Chair of the House of Commons Treasury Committee, Harriet Baldwin, is as perplexed and angry as the rest of us: "Given the potentially significant impact closing the self-assessment helpline may have on taxpayers, we're looking for clarification that HMRC has fully considered the costs and benefits of this decision.

"There are also concerns around the short notice with which this was announced. HMRC must be open, upfront and transparent when making decisions which could impact so many individuals."

She has taken additional positive action, writing to HMRC to query the impact of the closure on taxpayers and asking whether any analysis or consultation took place in advance of the closure.

Replies (14)

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By stepurhan
22nd Jun 2023 13:13

The headline says it all. Whilst there are definitely helpful individuals in their ranks, it does seem more and more often that HMRC as a whole is determined to be as unhelpful as possible.

Thanks (3)
Replying to stepurhan:
By Hugo Fair
22nd Jun 2023 16:18

"There are also concerns around the short notice with which this was announced. HMRC must be open, upfront and transparent when making decisions which could impact so many individuals."

Oh dear, Baldwin obviously didn't watch the Harra Bot at the PAC a few days ago.
According to him ... no notice was needed because avoiding reliance on phone-calls is what they want to consider BAU (and anyway it's only a trial)!
[He also admitted they were fearful of a 'rush' to make calls if prior notice of closure had been given ... which rather suggests they know there's a demand out there!]

He also mentioned that it would be extended/expanded if successful, whilst admitting that there was no effective means of measuring any 'success' during the 'pause'.

Thanks (4)
By Hometing
22nd Jun 2023 13:29

I see HMRC as the organisation that governs the UK. It speaks volumes that it is underfunded.

Thanks (0)
By Tornado
22nd Jun 2023 17:19



Thanks (15)
By michael2022A
23rd Jun 2023 09:49

On the plus side, the agent dedicated line has reopened...... and I'm now reminded constantly that there is lots of advise about useful information on their website. As I have said before no agent wants to spend 20 mins listening to the same music whilst on hold everytime they need to speak to HMRC on behalf of a client. I'd happily do everything online as this would be much more efficient unfortunately the systems aren't in place for this to be workable at present and I doubt if ever.

Thanks (9)
Replying to michael2022A:
By Nick Graves
23rd Jun 2023 12:30

I'm pleased they keep reminding me the helpline is for agents only. But I've usually hung on so long, I cannot remember if I'm an agent, or not. That's the problem.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Nick Graves:
By Tornado
23rd Jun 2023 12:56

Yes, this is a problem as if you do not have an immediate answer to a question when the HMRC operative eventually answers, you will be cut off immediately as a time waster.

Thanks (1)
By markabacus
23rd Jun 2023 10:06

And as for Web Chat .............. Only tried it once, that was enough for me. Only a simple tax code change re dividends. 30 mins in a webchat going round in circles, I gave up and ..
Rang agent line expecting longish wait but only a minute or so plus 2-3mins talking to HMRC officer, sorted

Thanks (2)
Replying to markabacus:
By tim_g
23rd Jun 2023 13:27

I’ve found the webchat in the past very useful as you can keep working on other things at the same time, you have a written record of the conversation, you can copy and paste details into the chat box making it quicker and there was no hold music. Then HMRC took it away. It’s come back again recently, although advisers are rarely available. When they are available they’re surly and try to cut you off or just cut you off telling you to call. I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences on the phone, most of the time they are very helpful, it’s just the hold music, patronising announcements and waiting in limbo. Top tip, if you go to the loo whilst on hold they pick up as soon as you’re out of laptop reach!

Thanks (0)
Replying to tim_g:
Pile of Stones
By Beach Accountancy
23rd Jun 2023 15:58

You mean you don't take your laptop with you?

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By johnjenkins
23rd Jun 2023 10:44

Although this is an interesting article it really is nothing most of us who deal (ir)regularly with HMRC don't already know.
There is only one way out for HMRC and that is to re-ignite "Agent Strategy" so that we effectively take over the admin and then HMRC are free to do what they are supposed to do and that is investigate and collect. I shudder to think how much time they spend on "creative taxation (IR35 and re-classifying employment status)".
Let's get real, there is nothing on HMRC computers these days that would cause problems if we were allowed in. Investigation files could be kept completely separate.

Thanks (2)
By indomitable
23rd Jun 2023 15:42

"She has taken additional positive action, writing to HMRC to query the impact of the closure on taxpayers and asking whether any analysis or consultation took place in advance of the closure"

Really!!! When will these politicians get it, there needs a whole attitude change amongst the political class

If civil servants aren't up to the job, they need to be replaced, full stop. Get capable people with a history of delivery and give them the resources to do the job, no if's no but's, measure them on delivery replace them if the deliverables are not met.

So she has 'written to HMRC querying' Wow!! that really is going to work!!

Or maybe our politicians haven't got a clue themselves regarding what a decent civil service with outcomes that serve the public look like any more.

Thanks (4)
Replying to indomitable:
Pile of Stones
By Beach Accountancy
23rd Jun 2023 15:59

Given that HMRC are taking about two years to respond to letters, probably not the best ploy...

Thanks (2)
Replying to indomitable:
By Rgab1947
26th Jun 2023 09:55

"If civil servants aren't up to the job, they need to be replaced.."

House of Lords is full.

Thanks (0)