Contacting HMRC: Why is it so difficult?

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It’s as predictable as Britons moaning about the weather. Why, accountants ask, is it so hard to get through to the right person at HMRC?

In December, an investigation by Which? found that nearly a third of calls to HMRC’s helplines were cut off because the system was too busy.

For those who did get through, the wait was as long as 41 minutes. 

AccountingWEB subscribers recently complained about problems with HMRC’s helpline for tax agents, including taking weeks to contact the right expert at HMRC or being told a helpline was unobtainable.

Rebecca Benneyworth, a tax lecturer and AccountingWEB contributor, says anecdotal evidence from accountants suggests HMRC’s phone service is worsening.

 “My personal view is that when there’s a problem HMRC shifts staff to deal with the problem and when something else fails over they start to shift people to deal with that,” she says. “There’s an element of fire-fighting. When there’s a surge in work, for example, when tax credit renewals start heating up not a lot of point ringing up about something else.”

HMRC hopes that moving help and advice online will help it deal with questions more effectively.

New digital services include:

  • Your Tax AccountA homepage designed to let businesses file, review and pay their liabilities. This is the successor of the business tax dashboard.
  • Digital Self Assessment: A portal for filing personal tax data. It has been used by 1.2m individuals so far and could be the basis of the personal tax account that has caused so much debate in recent weeks. Once your email has been confirmed and validated, all your tax information will be held online and notices will be sent via email rather than post.
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE) for employees: A new mechanism allowing employees to check their tax codes. Currently it appears to set up to only accept data about company car use.

Some of these changes may benefit accountants.

Benneyworth says that giving accountants access to more online PAYE information could the sort customer queries quicker (such as if a business gets letters from HMRC saying it owes national insurance contributions even though the client says it has paid the right amount).

It’s not just about ‘self-service’; HMRC encouraging taxpayers and their clients to answer their own questions).

HMRC also wants tax advisers to focus on helping clients sort the more complex tax problems. Not just helping them file tax returns on time each year.

“[Taxpayers] won’t need to rely so much on agents just to manage the basic administration, but will instead look to agents to help them to deal with the more complex issues and actively help them to stay on the right side of compliance,” Jim Harra, HMRC’s director general for business tax, told Tax Journal in March.

“We want to be able to differentiate between the agents that do offer value-added services and those that don’t, and to incentivise all agents to provide these services – and adhere to high standards. Part of this incentive would be making sure that those agents that provide more get the credit for doing so – whether that involves being able to take on a wider range of functions for their clients via our online services, or by receiving fewer low value interventions from HMRC.”

It’ll take at least a couple of years to work this out. “I think agents are quite frustrated with the standard of customer service,” Benneyworth says. “It’s a creaking gate. But some of HMRC stuff doing digitally is fantastic.”

About Nick Huber

Nick Huber profile image

I’m a specialist business journalist and have a particular interest in tax and technology. 

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By NH
27th May 2015 11:33

fantastic digital services?

I am sure like all accountants in practice we are not alone in being baffled by the HMRC position taken towards agents and online services.

An organisation that cannot get such basic simple things right should fix these issues before making bold statements about the future.

For example - why on earth can the VAT and PAYE for agents not show the same information that the client sees if they setup their own account?  This in itself makes the current PAYE for agents next to useless, and the VAT for agents just a way of filing VAT returns.

Another example, when a client is owed a substantial PAYE refund due to CIS suffered, why does it take months to get the refund, countless letters and phone calls that can last an hour or more.  In every other organisation an email to the relevant department would suffice, or a letter that would at least be opened in less than a month.

Why can an agent not see what has been filed for their client by the contractor, I thought it was all filed electronically on a monthly basis.

Agents have been crying out for the ability to change tax codes, again this surely is a simple matter if HMRC are putting so much resource into digital services.  At present the long wait for the phone to be answered seems to be the only way.

I could go on, but do the powers that be realise that at the end of the day this is just costing the client extra money.  Surely these are easy fixes.

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27th May 2015 17:02

New dgital service

Could the down sizing and deskilling of the work force be the main factor.  No doubt this will be accelerated further.

This I suspect is not the fault of HMRC civil servants but that of the politicians in Westminster.

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29th May 2015 10:51

My tip would be, if your going to call HMRC do it early around 8.50am, leave it late and you'll be left in a state.  

 

Beware some of the hours HMRC advises it will answer the phone are not correct.  Mainly 8 in the morning and again at 8 at night/

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By hpyatt
29th May 2015 10:54

Quasi Tax Inspectors

is basically what HMRC wants us to become. Shift assessment to the taxpayer, shift compliance to the agent and hammer them with fines and penalties for failure.

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29th May 2015 11:02

AOSS and ADL

I agree with NH that agents should be able to see at least as much as clients themselves can see. Whilst it's frustrating until we can, this problem (and others) will be solved by AOSS.

As for calls to HMRC, the Agents' Dedicated Line (ADL) service is excellent for SA, but they urgently need to roll out an ADL for CT, PAYE and VAT.

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29th May 2015 11:31

@NH

You ask why, as so many of us do.

The answer is simple, HMRC do not trust us and will never allow us very much leeway. The main reason they don't trust us is because now they don't have enough competent staff to deal with us.

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29th May 2015 11:57

is it because

If you work for HMRC and are any good you get headhunted by firms of accountants...so theres no one left?

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29th May 2015 12:18

Why!!

I think I'm starting to unravel when it comes to the HMRC. Day in day out, the customer service gets worse. When they do try and change something, they do it half arsed!

Take for example that employees can now change their company car details online. Wonderful idea! That is, until one takes in to account that there is no data exchange back to the employer. Therefore, the employee is free to make changes to fuel, list price etc etc direct with HMRC and the employer is left in the dark.

The employer then sends in the annual P11D and everything hits the fan and the employee is taxed massively because they have missed crucial info such as the fuel benefit. The employer is then frantically trying to find out what has happened, and why the P11D is not tieing back to the tax code.

Speaking of contacting the HMRC, I have an issue with RTI for 3 companies that is the HMRC's fault. Trying to resolve this has been nothing short of a nightmare with them like it's some cryptic puzzle that is slowly taking over my life!

To start of HMRC provide enough information to figure out why the RTI is understated after months of figuring out who to speak to, and what information they can send. I find the differences. I speak to a robot and wait 40 minutes on hold to HMRC to fix, they tell me to do an EYU even though it's their fault. I get info from HMRC on how to do EYU and head off to sort it out. EYU needs information on what HMRC currently hold on file (i.e NI YTD's and bands). HMRC did not provide this to start with. Wait on hold for another 40 minutes. Speak to another person who says they cannot provide NI YTD's. Told to speak to main helpline. Manage to speak to main helpline after another 40 minutes on hold. Informed that I need the permission of each of the 500 employees to obtain the NI YTD's for individuals. Tell HMRC where to go. Informed that they will send this out. Still no sign....and this is company number 1 of 3!

For the first time in 12 years, I am considering leaving the profession. The HMRC that we rely on for our jobs is now detroying it, piece by piece. No ownership, no clue.

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29th May 2015 13:56

Why?

I recall the halcyon days when I walked over the road (literally) and sorted tax problems out.

Tax was just as confusing then (1966) but there was a willingness to resolve the problem  within HMRC and HMRC were treated as demi Gods because they knew their stuff.

Fast forward , No local offices , call centres staffed by  people with 3 weeks of training , Rogue Inspectors , YES , I know of many in the Bootle Office who would and should be classed as that , bonus driven tax officers who care only  about raising any old assessment , does not matter if its right or wrong.

Then DM& Banking - what a bunch of jobs worths - not in the real world and not even connected to HMRC Main Frames.

Cosying up to Big Business , Diners Club Dave et al

If we look back just 30 years the change in their performance is very marked. We used to know who we dealing with and how to contact them which HMRC have now restricted to Big Business Access Only. The public is losing respect for HMRC , together with most working accountants and the Goverment in their present guise. It has become the lap dog of Big Business and the Corporate World while providing ever decreasing levels of service to ordinary taxpayers.

It has spent billions on IT white elephants  wile the new awesome powers that are constantly being handed to HMRC as this Enforcement Agency has become to powerful which has upset the very delicate balance between the Public and the State.

And what of our various Institutes ? We only pay our fees to them so we can sign off accounts and mortgage letters.Why are they not at the throat of the Beast ?

Pushing , cajoling and threatening to improve the abject performance of HMRC.

Do Something soon or  all will be dust , smoke and broken mirrors.

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29th May 2015 12:18

recorded phone message

"...please call back later"

What is the guarantee that someone will be available later?

The entire issue of IT within government needs to be given the highest priority, not just HMRC........it's absolutely disgusting how much money must have been wasted already; and gov depts should provide free phone numbers.

Now, which minister has the testicular fortitude to do something about all the IT shortfalls in Gov?

The whole issue about IT within Gov now beginning to anger me.......

 

 

 

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29th May 2015 12:20

Few things to say on this

The agents' line is great, and the staff really good, in my experience.  If they make a mistake it is rectified, and staff are pleasant about it.

I recently had to ring in about my own affairs on the individual taxpayer's line - what a hideous experience.  I have a handsfree phone just for long waits such as these (40 minutes? Pah! My wait was 1 hour 10 minutes!) and I can then get on with other work.  However the ghastly "music" on wait - some awful tune punctuated with a "wah wah wah-wah wah" - sounding like those scary martians from the film Mars Attacks! practically left me with a nervous tic.

The good thing about the long wait is that clients really appreciate being able to leave me to make the call, and I don't mind as it's part of the service.  Those who don't use accountants are, I reckon, more likely to having been through HMRC's phone lines.

Unrelated to the phone lines - the website www.gov.uk is a fabulous resource (hopeless search engine though - search through an external search engine then follow the link via that to the www.gov.uk/ page) which I use myself all the time, and also send links to clients who wish or require a deeper understanding of anything for whatever reason.

 

 

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29th May 2015 12:53

be an agent to yourself

I am an agent for me - that way I can ring about my own personal affairs via the ADL.

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29th May 2015 14:10

You love GOV.UK???

Ermintrude wrote:

Unrelated to the phone lines - the website www.gov.uk is a fabulous resource (hopeless search engine though - search through an external search engine then follow the link via that to the www.gov.uk/ page) which I use myself all the time, and also send links to clients who wish or require a deeper understanding of anything for whatever reason.

Really??

Are you sure the information on that site, which you sending to clients, is correct? I have found many many mistakes on the HMRC parts of Gov.uk and on other sections as well.  Some of the tax errors are seriously misleading and would lead to taxpayers making invalid claims.

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31st May 2015 12:13

YES I LOVE GOV.UK!!!

I haven't found any errors myself, and I'm not talking areas of specialism here - I know the answers myself, it's just quicker for me, so cheaper for clients, if they read up about it themselves.  Plus that does serve to verify what I have advised and explained (albeit briefly).  For more complicated stuff I'll use my consultant.

And BTW, tax writers can be wrong too - a very well known one had a blunder in her text recently - my own consultant pointed it out to me when I asked her about it.  I went back to said writer informing her of error and asking for a freebie for flagging it up (disappointingly I didn't even get a response, let alone thanks or freebie).

 

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31st May 2015 13:38

Everyone makes mistakes

I agree that even tax writers make mistakes. If you find a valid error in one of my books would certainly send you a free book.

However, the tax information on GOv.Uk should be double and triple checked by a tax expert or team of experts, it is not. I understand that even HMRC does not have the final say on the GOv.UK tax content and cannot correct  the text themsleves.

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01st Jun 2015 13:10

Manuals and Links

They also of course only show HMRC's view of matters that from numerous court cases we can learn are not to be relied on and do not commit HMRC to any particular line. Oh well teabreak/lunch over and back to work on this dreich Monday morning. Looks like HMRC are having a particularly bad day for responding by phones as now had 4 potential customers looking for the magic number to get HMRC to respond. Who do they think I am -  Maureen 115 115?

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29th May 2015 13:14

Agent to self

Sally - me too, but I was ticked off by a pleasant chap on the agents' line recently, and told that I was not allowed to use that number if enquiring about myself, even if I was my own agent!  He was kind enough to help me out (SA302s, anyone?), but next time I may need to claim to be someone else from my firm ...

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By NYB
29th May 2015 13:31

I was told off too & they refused to deal with me

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29th May 2015 13:32

Frustrating

I have been trying to obtain a tax residency certificate for a client since Feb 2015.  Wife, no problem, received within a month.  Husband is a different matter.  First, HMRC could not locate our client on their systems.  We double checked all their details and they were correct.  we resubmitted and it was rejected again but no reason was given.  HMRC said to write in.  So we did.  Called the helpline 20 times, each hmrc agent saying different things.  One says letter received and made an urgent request to the department.  Another saying no letter has been received.  Another saying it has been rejected but cannot see why. 

There is no way to contact the relevant department and understand what is going on.  Such a waste of valuable time.

Client is getting frustrated also.

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29th May 2015 15:47

AAM

I would suggest that you do a referral through AAM to get it sorted

 

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By Briar
29th May 2015 14:08

I was told off too but ...

when they refused to deal with me, I asked to speak with a supervisor. I explained that I didn't want to waste my time waiting and preferred to help HMRC to sort out other taxpayers in the time I was saving by using the ADL. I also explained that my firm was the agent and that I was speaking for the firm for a client (non-paying!!) who happened to have the same name as me.

The supervisor was very understanding and dealt my matter.

If I don't get the right answer on the first call (or an obvious idiot), I call again. Sometimes one has to take the best of 5 answers. The worst call centre staff are those who start to read out their manual at you - I always cut them off because it is obvious they don't know the answer or how to deal with the issue.

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29th May 2015 16:06

No reply

Rang HMRC today to chase up a 'no reply' to a letter sent to them in April 2015. The officer 'found' the letter within the file which had not been answered. This inefficiency duplicates the work of both HMRC and the advisers. We have to justify our time spent with dealing with HMRC to our clients in order to get paid. Pity HMRC are not subject to the same criteria.

Malcolm McFarlin

http://www.mandrtaxadvisers.com 

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30th May 2015 22:22

4,month backlog?
You did extremely well to get through. Do they still use files? I thought they scanned and shredded correspondence now because they don't have enough office space left to store the unanswered mail?

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By adagen
29th May 2015 17:42

HMRC have no intention of providing a service, despite the amount of public money they suck in. The callcentre, like most of today's callcentres, is designed to frustrate the caller till they give up.

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30th May 2015 13:00

Protest

I have said this many times but I will say it again here. HMRC will not listen to us - why would they? Unless we give them a reason to listen they will do whatever they like!  We as agents should refuse to use the electronic filing where ever possible. Swamp them in paper so that they drown in work and we will quickly see an improvement in service. In my view a "paper protest" is the only way to get them to wake up and listen to common sense

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31st May 2015 08:45

Avoid phoning

With few tax clients I rarely deal with HMRC (happy smile) but every now and then we get the normal cockup. Payments not accurately recorded. I write as life is too short to hang on the phone and as I have had it they denied a phone call was made. Well I never get a reply but the problem goes away and DM stops phoning. 

Not the best way. They do lose letters as well (or just have a shredder attached to the postbox)

But when a tax inspector phones (yes they do) for a compliance check its all quickly sorted by phone (direct line) and email and therefore a piece of cake even where the client has made errors (not deliberate).

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By rainbow
31st May 2015 16:56

PAYE 'helpline'.

Is there  human at the end of the PAYE helpline?   My wife wrote to HMRC on 17 March because a change to her tax code was needed.  After 2 months of waiting for a reply, she phoned the magic number.  Of course the call was answered (by a machine) within 10 seconds which means HMRC can claim that calls are answered promptly.   After three minutes of which can only be described as automated tripe, she was told that they were very busy and were receiving a lot of letters and telephone calls, but that the call would be answered as soon as someone was free.   She was also told that they would be unable to answer any questions about letters which had been sent to them - presumably because they are stored in a vault somewhere waiting to be opened.  No indication was given as to how long the answer to her call would be, nor how many were in a queue before her.   After waiting 30 minutes (she is, it seems, less patient than some of your correspondence) she got fed up and ended the call.   Taking the advice of one of the previous posts, she called again a 8.45 but the same happened.   This time she got bored after a 15 minute wait.   As she completes SA returns, I am in the process of registering myself as her agent and will have to try to get an answer through the agents SA helpline.  I feel sorry for employees who have the same problem as my wife but who do not have recourse to this possible course of action.

 

 

 

 

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By djtax
01st Jun 2015 10:48

Stuck on hold....

On Friday (29 May) I tried to phone the HMRC online services helpdesk at 3.30pm in the afternoon. I gave up after 45 mins on hold (fortunately I had the foresight to have some other work readily to hand so the time was not wasted). I would normally use HMRC online without needing to speak to anyone but the purpose of my call was to identify why one particular corporate tax client was not showing in my online client list (despite a valid 64-8 in place, as proved by receipt of sundry CT correspondence for the client). I  then did get through to the ADL but as I feared they cannot access anything other than SA/PAYE matters. Why can't we have an ADL type service for all tax enquiries not just SA/PAYE?

I fully agree with one of the other comments here that HMRC disregard constructive feedback volunteered by the tax profession - my conclusion of ten years involvement in our local Working Together group! I flagged up issues only to see the same types of HMRC systematic mistakes repeated again and again.

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18th Jun 2015 11:10

Hidden webchat

For online services help, rather than phone, if you go to https://online.hmrc.gov.uk/information/helpdesk and then just wait - don't do anything at all, after about 5 minutes an offer of assistance will pop up. Click yes and you'll connect via webchat to the online services helpdesk. Much faster than the phone.

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18th Jun 2015 12:15

Hidden webchat

Is this a chat service or type?

 

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18th Jun 2015 12:23

Hidden webchat

It's typed, but the one time I've used it it works.

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02nd Jun 2015 07:32

Untrained staff
Main issue is that staff at end of general helplines are untrained, and have little or no basic knowledge of either tax issues or HMRC's own systems. They read from crib sheets and anything outside of the norm throws them completely.
I recently registered a partnership and wanted to register PAYE, was told twice I didn't need the partnership UTR for PAYE registration on-line - rubbish!! It was a compulsory item but as it wasn't on their list they were reading, they refused to believe me. On third attempt someone kindly registered it over the phone for me.
Each occasion waiting time was 40 minutes, and I got sick of hearing the phrase 'you will find plenty of help on-line'. Do they think we would waste precious time holding to speak to someone we know is unlikely to be able to help if we could find what we wanted on-line!

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02nd Jun 2015 12:23

Optimism abounds

I will retire probably next year and nothing will improve before then because there is no one to coordinate it but the only way to make HMRC do something about their appalling service is to hit them where it hurts. We need a "paper protest". Send everything possible in on paper and simply force hem to do something abut their service that way

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07th Jun 2015 09:39

More cuts
Good news guys, the £80 m of cuts announced this week will help address our problems

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07th Jun 2015 11:25

How about VAT

I tried to phone the VAT registration section a total of 28 times over 5 days. Engaged every time. Just for a laugh I tried phoning at 11.00 at night - guess what - engaged! Now that is what I call dedication they were still working at 11.00 at night or is there a remote possibility that the phone is "off the hook"? Surely not? Not our dedicated tax support line?

 

Dream on!

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By adagen
07th Jun 2015 21:22

Trouble is that HMRC management are in denial up to the highest level. Ever tried raising a complaint? You get a standard response saying how unusual the long time on hold was and that (unbelievable number) % of calls are answered in whatever the current target time is.

Maybe there's a need for a concerted effort to make the problem more visible in a way that can be flagged to MPs as well. For all it's decried, twitter would be one way of doing this - when on hold, post the occasional tweet highlighting how long the hold has been so far, using a hashtag to make the tweet searchable - something like #STILLonholdtoHMRC

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19th Jun 2015 11:30

Hidden webchat

Did not pop up when I tried it

 

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19th Jun 2015 12:28

Hidden webchat

It doesn't appear to work with Firefox, so maybe IE only, and you do have to wait about five minutes. They clearly don't want people to actually know about it.

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23rd Jun 2015 10:06

Confirmation from HMRC re. web chat service

Hi all,

I've been in touch with the Revenue to try and find out how to access the web chat service and got the following reply back:

"We are constantly looking at ways to improve our customer service. We are currently trialling the web chat service for a small number of customers and we are actively working to extend the offering"

Cheers,

Rob

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