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HMRC’s helplines take Fridays off

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Faced with an increasing mountain of post to deal with, HMRC has taken the seemingly unprecedented decision to close several telephone helplines for three days in December to allow staff to clear the backlog.

9th Dec 2021
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The services affected will be the Corporation Tax (CT) and VAT lines, with the bereavement line being specifically stated to be remaining open. Presumably all other helplines will be similarly unaffected (for the moment), which is a relief as we come up to the personal tax deadline.

To this end, HMRC will not be taking calls to the CT or VAT lines on Friday 3, 10 and 17 December and will be reallocating staff to focus on the unprocessed forms and letters built up over the previous 12 months.

Processing or advice

Depending on your needs, this could be good or bad news. The only occasions I have needed to call the VAT helpline in 2021 was to chase up forms or letters I have sent in to HMRC. I am content to have reduced access to HMRC support if it means the forms I would have called about get processed more quickly (especially if it is so quick that I don’t need to call about them in the first place!).

However, if my query wasn’t related to a form I had sent in, the loss of the helplines would be a bigger concern. Unrepresented taxpayers are likely to be most affected by these closures, given they may rely on these HMRC helplines for advice.

It isn’t clear whether the extra processing in question will be limited to VAT and CT forms or whether it will be all areas. From my experience, and those of tax people I have spoken to, VAT forms in general, as well as CT repayment claims, seem to have fallen by the wayside in particular this past year. It therefore seems logical that VAT/CT helpline staff will be processing VAT/CT forms.

Growing backlogs

I try to remain optimistic as to HMRC’s efficiency, however I am not sure how much extra processing will be done by the re-purposed helpline staff over the three days. But something definitely has to be done and this is a step in the right direction at the very least.

I know of several advisers, myself included, who have sent in ‘paper’ VAT forms to HMRC, either via the post or by email to the registration department. In my case, I made numerous follow-up calls over the second half of 2021 and on every occasion HMRC said it was processing post from a date very slightly closer to the time my form was submitted. The progress per day slowed as time went on, often I would ring several weeks apart to find HMRC had moved a few days further in their post backlog. At the end of November I was finally told my forms were being processed; I had submitted them in March.

This wasn’t my experience for every VAT form (and the above was the worst of my experiences in this regard), but it happened enough times to make me dread making group registrations in particular.

Test run

HMRC has described the December helpline closures as a ‘test’ and so future helpline closures in 2022 are a definite possibility, unless some huge issue transpires before then.

Assuming HMRC continue to close lines each Friday, this would mean the VAT helpline would be closed on the 7 January, ie the November VAT quarter filing deadline. This would be a particularly worrying event, as the closure of HMRC lines in general over Christmas, perhaps coupled with the closure of client premises and accounting practices at the end of December to early January, means that the first week in January is not an ideal time to be losing a day’s access to HMRC’s helpline.

Hopefully HMRC will keep the VAT helpline open on the key date of 7 January and start any new closure plans the following week.

The future

HMRC said it will be back on top of their post in April 2022, which will be a huge relief to say the least, but I won’t be holding my breath just yet.

Replies (15)

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By Paul Crowley
09th Dec 2021 19:06

Back in Sept I had two matters for the CT helpline
Advised that both had to go to the "backroom" and not to phone again for three weeks
Neither dealt with yet
No sign of any CT refunds from losses carried back this year
No sign of any s455 repayments yet this year

Clients just assume we are useless
Who can blame them?

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
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By Hugo Fair
11th Dec 2021 13:04

Although the article headline makes it easy (and fun) to take shots along the lines of "Will we even notice?" ... the real issue is:

* HMRC continuing to fail to notice that their (lack of) 'efficiency' issues are due to the Quality not the Quantity of resources.

If the typically uninformed/clueless response on the Helpline is applied to written documents then a) most of the 'handling' will consist only of passing it on down the chain, and b) those that respond will contain incorrect instructions.

In a curious way, the current lack of response to many submitted forms/letters at least means that the taxpayer/agent has NOT received a wrong response ... so is in some ways better off without any response!

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By SteveHa
10th Dec 2021 08:47

A better solution to the intolerable backlogs in HMRC would be to undo some of the rather severe staffing cuts that they have suffered over the years.

Sacrificing support for taxpayers for what will amount to a negligible catchup is not the way to address these problems.

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By lesley.barnes
10th Dec 2021 09:26

I wondered how this would fit in with the working from home that is due to come in on Monday. Will staff be taking bundles of paperwork home to process, have the documents already been scanned and will they be able to access them on their computers at home. Only time will tell if this will help clear the backlogs or if more will build up.

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By mwalker
10th Dec 2021 10:30

Or perhaps the staff could come in on Saturdays and do some overtime instead.

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Replying to mwalker:
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By Open all hours
10th Dec 2021 18:20

Brave

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Replying to mwalker:
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By Paul Crowley
13th Dec 2021 14:19

And the staff would get their travel costs refunded tax free
Travel to work (on overtime, so includes going home for tea and coming back during the week as well) is a tax free reimbursement

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
10th Dec 2021 10:59

HMRC are in an utter mess.

Many of the calls we make are to sort out problems of their own making.

Many more are to follow up earlier calls which have not been actioned.

When it takes 4 or 5 contact points to get the simplest thing done, or undo something that have done wrong it is no surprise they are in such a mess.

The constant deskilling of the phone operators means they cant really do anything about anything. Most calls seem to consist of the phone monkeys we speak to, calling someone else to fix something, and relaying (badly) the information and often getting it wrong. I mentioned yesterday when I was told I was getting a "call back" that he might as well not bother as the chances of us getting the call back was so low. The operator sounded genuinely surprised.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
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By Paul Crowley
10th Dec 2021 13:20

They just do not know how bad it is because they never call HMRC

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By North East Accountant
10th Dec 2021 12:36

Headline "HMRC helplines take Fridays off"......I thought they did anyway.

It would be interesting to see the stats of how many HMRC actually work past 2.30pm Monday to Thursday .

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By euanjohn
10th Dec 2021 13:55

I suspect much of the unanswered correspondence consists of appeals against penalties churned out by HMRC for alleged late RTI's, late payment penalties when a time to pay arrangement had already been agreed, and so on. I propose that HMRC be instructed to scrap all penalties (apart from fraud) until they have caught up with their work. After all, why should the taxpayer be penalised for failing to do something within a strict timetable if HMRC have no intention of doing likewise? I have had a number of appeals outstanding since last March.

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By Mr J Andrews
11th Dec 2021 09:54

You really have to feel some empathy for the remaining HMRC staff. No sooner one whimsical legislative idea is introduced by the higher echelon, who haven't a clue what happens in the real world of business or how to implement such crap , than another Mindless Tax Disaster is thrust upon them.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
12th Dec 2021 17:33

Seemed to be shut on Saturday too. Was doing some personal paperwork at my desk over the weekend and thought I would put in call to the public line so as to avoid the wait on Monday for a straight forward matter and just went round in circles on prerecorded tosh and no operators.

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Morph
By kevinringer
14th Dec 2021 06:57

HMRC helplines have been part-time since the start of Covid: they used to be open weekends and evenings, now it's just weekdays 8 am to 6 pm which is no good for most self-employed. That means the helplines were already operating about 20 less a week than in pre-Covid times. That's been the case for 18 months. What have those staff been doing these last 18 months? HMRC must be in a real mess if they need to reduce their helpline service levels by another 10 hours a week. That's a reduction of 30 hours a week compared to pre-Covid times. That's getting on for a full time post transferred from helplines to the post backlog. HMRC are fortunate that they can reduce front line service to deal with their processing. Us agents don't have that luxury yet HMRC still expect us to meet HMRC deadlines whereas HMRC can take as long as they like. All very one-sided. But I guess there's no surprise there.

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Morph
By kevinringer
14th Dec 2021 06:53

Pre-Covid, HMRC's helplines were open at the weekends. Now they're closed all weekend which means Monday is the first day they're open after a few days closure. Now that the helplines are closed Friday too the demand on Monday is even higher. So much so that I struggle to get through on a Monday at all. If HMRC feels the need to close one day a week, why choose Friday? Wouldn't it make more sense to close mid-week so that they're only shut for one day and not 3?

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