Despite all the talk about being 'customer facing', HMRC's customer service remains shocking, says Simon Sweetman.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that HMRC is still in a mess, but it still sometimes brings me up short.
A client of mine made a disclosure under the original offshore disclosure initiative. There was rental income from the Isle of Man, but as it had been taxed there at 18% there was very little to pay. All the same she got selected as one of the ones to be looked at more closely under a process that was not quite an enquiry but didn’t seem entirely sure what it actually was. This was possibly because she is non-domiciled, and possibly because she was in fact late with her tax returns.
The pseudo-enquiry has plodded on without getting anyone very far, with the usual change of officer in midstream. That is not the point, though.
The 2006/7 return was finally submitted in July (on paper of course) and processed almost immediately. That processing took all the figures from the return except one, but that one was the tax suffered in the Isle of Man on the rental income. This was ‘passed to a higher grade officer to review’ because it was too difficult to be just part of the process. That was on 20 July (although we didn’t know that at the time).
On 12 August my client called, distressed by a demand for tax much larger than I had suggested. A little work on the HMRC website showed what the problem was - the offset for the Isle of Man tax had not been given. I had to make phone calls to the Debt Recovery and to the Self Assessment teams, which was when I found out what had happened. After some discussion it was agreed that Debt Recovery would hold off for 21 days while the ‘higher officer’ bestirred himself.
On 3 September my client called again. She had further paperwork with the same huge figures. In fact this was not Debt Recovery jumping the gun; they turned out to be surcharge notices (with an issue date of 13 August – batch processing again). This led me to check and I discovered that nothing had happened. So it was back on the phone again, where I discovered that the local tax office could not put me though to the right debt recovery office because nobody was answering the phone there, which meant that they could not do a ‘warm handover’ and were not allowed to give out the number. Then the local debt recovery office couldn’t put me through to the right one because they didn’t actually have the right number at all.
In the end I rang the officer dealing with the enquiry who turned out to be (after all) the ‘higher officer’ I needed. “No problem at all”, he said. He would authorise the adjustment and allow relief for the Isle of Man tax that afternoon. It wasn’t on screen the next day, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
What none of this does (despite all the talk about being ‘customer facing’) is take any account of the taxpayer’s state of mind. The trouble is that this is routine rather than exceptional. Today I got a briefing note apologising for the problems caused by centralising work on CT returns, not to mention a release saying that more than half of Britain’s university students do not realise that they have to pay tax if they earn money (but it would be hard to blame HMRC for that).
Now I don’t think that HMRC’s approach to its clients is unusual, and there are serial offenders among big companies whose record is probably much worse. There are so many big companies who don’t answer emails or give you a contact telephone number. However, I suspect the problem is the same: They’re trying to do the job with too few and inadequately trained people.