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HMRC customer service - what next?

22nd Jun 2023
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We last considered HMRC customer service back in January, concluding that HMRC is failing in its duty to provide an adequate service to taxpayers. Since then there have been further developments...

empty call centre
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At the time, we suggested that it might take a tribunal decision that penalties cannot be charged in the absence of an adequate support service to shake HMRC out of its complacency. In the light of HMRC’s recent announcement that it has closed its self-assessment helpline for three months, here are some further thoughts.

  • HMRC has decided to redeploy all 350 helpline staff because demand is lower in the summer months. This does not make sense. By all means redeploy an appropriate proportion of helpline staff, so that if, say, demand is only 10% of peak levels, 35 staff remain to cover that demand. Shutting down the helpline altogether suggests that even 350 people would not provide an adequate service, so why have any?
  • HMRC is advising its “customers” to file as early as possible in the tax year and then withdrawing the support that such early filing so often needs.
  • Taxpayers are urged to use online alternatives to find what they need but are online services themselves adequate? HMRC issued a revised version of its VAT Guide on 9 June. One of the two main strands of updating related to the new late filing and payment penalties, which were introduced on 1 January 2023. It appears, therefore, that for five months and eight days, the VAT Guide had been providing out-of-date information on this vital topic. How are taxpayers to have any confidence that what they read online is both accurate and up-to-date?
  • Anecdotally, the type of query the self-assessment helpline deals with came in a recent letter to the Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, which related the experience of trying to complete a tax return online but being baffled by a question that the form said was optional. The taxpayer was not allowed by the online return to proceed to the next page of the form without answering this apparently optional question. Doubtless there was a simple explanation and a simple solution but the taxpayer needed to speak to a person to find all that out. By calling as the helpline opened, the taxpayer only had to wait half an hour with the helpline fully staffed but with the helpline closed, the return would have had to wait at least three months to be completed.
  • While all of the above is going on, Making Tax Digital for Income Tax Self-assessment has been postponed four times and has gone over budget by a factor of nearly five already (a £1 billion overspend on current figures). There has still been no plausible explanation why this branch of MTD is needed – the claim that careless mistakes only go in favour of the taxpayer does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny, nor does the claim that digital record-keeping is more accurate than the paper version – and yet HMRC is said to be under-resourced.