HMRC help for tax agents falls short
Tax agents are finding the HMRC agent helpline is not answering their questions and the HMRC twitter account doesn’t understand basic points. Where else can tax agents go for help?
It's January and tax agents need urgent answers from HMRC where their client is at risk of a penalty if tax forms can’t be submitted accurately or on time. In such cases they may reach for the phone and dial the Agent Helpline, or perhaps ask the HMRC Customer Support twitter feed.
The Agent dedicated helpline (0300 200 3311) is supposed to be reserved for tax agents who need to sort out issues relating to self assessment or PAYE for their clients. It's open on weekdays from 8am to 6pm, but recently there have been long waits of 30 minutes or more to have a call answered.
"I spent 46 minutes in a call queue the other day," said AccountingWEB member Mark Peters of the lengthy wait times.
The ICAEW has asked HMRC to extend the opening hours for all HMRC helplines for the remainder of January.
The bug-bear for many tax agents is not just the wait to be answered, but when the call is picked up it has been transferred to the general SA helpline for taxpayers. The HMRC staff then seem unable to cope with the type of questions agents are asking. AccountingWEB member Cat's whiskers commented in a recent Any Answers Live session. "Operators have no idea you're an agent when they take the call."
HMRC confirmed to AccountingWEB that it has removed preferential treatment of the Agent dedicated line as part of its reprioritisation exercise to help it manage the staff available to answer phones during the pandemic.
An HMRC spokesperson said: “Like other service organisations, we have been impacted by the pandemic and we’re doing all we can to offer the best possible service. Wait times on some of our helplines are longer than we would like, and we’re sorry about the inconvenience this causes agents at busy times.”
A top tip from Kirsty McGregor is to call HMRC as soon as the lines open at 8am, if you really have to.
The HMRC twitter feed is open from 8am to 8pm on Monday to Saturday, and from 9am to at least 5pm on Sunday, so it may be a good place to ask a quick question if you can’t find the answer on gov.uk. But be aware, you will need to explain what you need in simple language as the HMRC employee may not understand basic tax terms.
On Friday evening my friend Patricia was trying to register a client on the online ATED service in order to submit a return for the Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings (ATED). These returns are due by 30 April within the year (1 April to 31 March) the charge refers to, or within 30 days of acquisition of the property for the first year. Penalties apply where the ATED return is late, even by one day, whether or not any tax is payable.
The ATED online service has been developed in isolation from the Agent Service Account (ASA), and has a separate agent authorisation procedure. In order to submit a client’s ATED return, that client must first register for the service and request that the agent is authorised to act in respect of ATED returns. Only when the request to authorise has been accepted by the agent can the ATED return be submitted.
Patricia couldn’t get accept the client’s electronic request for her to act for ATED, so asked HMRC Customer Support twitter. The account hilariously replied:
“Hi Patricia, Can you tell me what ATED stands for so I can look into this for you.”
If you type “ATED tax” into google the first hit is the HMRC overview guidance on ATED.
HMRC commented "Our customer service twitter account is for basic queries from taxpayers and is not appropriate for more technical queries."
The exchange sent #taxtwitter bemoaning the quality of training for HMRC operatives and how it was different in their day. However, Keith Gordon raised a serious point:
“What makes this particularly shocking is the regularity of HMRC issuing penalties on the basis that taxpayers are expected to know about arcane laws and that (somewhere) the relevant information is on HMRC's website had they known to look there in the first place.”
If you have a more complicated question about a HMRC procedure, a good place to ask may be the HMRC Agent Forum. You need to be a member of a professional accounting or tax body to be accepted on to the forum.
There are separate topic groups, including one dedicated to SA 2021. The HMRC admin will forward your question to the appropriate department and come back with an answer, but that can take days. In the meantime, other Agent Forum users may chip in with useful advice.
Other sources of help
If you are stuck with a technical tax or accounting query try asking your professional body; they all have technical officers who may be receiving similar queries from many members.
Also don’t be shy about asking on our very own Any Answers, as someone else may well have come across the same issue.
Record and preserve
As a final tip, when you do get through to one of the HMRC helplines, record what was said and by whom. This evidence could be vital should the issue ever get as far as the tax tribunal, so record and preserve the question and the answer in a form you can access in years to come.