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istock_dusty-phone_Tobias-Schottstaedt

HMRC: Use online services and wait times will fall

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With the average HMRC helpline wait time in January increasing from 12 minutes last year to 27 minutes, chief executive Jim Harra suggests that if taxpayers used online services instead, the wait time would fall.

25th Jan 2023
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HMRC’s chief executive defended the tax authority’s customer service and phone line issues in a letter to the Treasury Committee, following reports earlier this month of taxpayers waiting on hold before being cut off and the outage of HMRC phone lines in December

Harra acknowledged that wait times this year have increased to 27 minutes, compared to 12 minutes last January, but he contended that around 65% of the calls to the self assessment helpline during the two weeks ending 8 January 2023 could have been resolved if the taxpayer used HMRC online services instead. 

“When more customers use our online services, this frees up our helpline advisers to offer a better service for those customers who have more complex queries or are unable to use online services,” wrote Harra. 

Wait times up compared to last January

The wait time in January has so far dipped slightly from December’s 28 minutes, but Harra went on to explain that the call volume to the self assessment helpline was 9% higher than the equivalent fortnight last year and call handling was up 17 minutes compared with 13 minutes. 

Harra put this year’s higher wait time down to the tax authority’s decision in January 2022 to waive late filing penalties until 28 February after the Covid workload and the sudden spike in infections caused pressure on agents and taxpayers. 

By effectively extending the period taxpayers could file tax returns without risk of a penalty, Harra said the number of taxpayers wanting to contact HMRC was “spread over a longer time period” which explains the spike in wait times this January.  

Harra added that taxpayers have a “generous 10 months after the end of the tax year” to file their return and pay their tax and that HMRC encourages them to “not to leave it until the last minute to do so”. 

With one week to go until the self assessment deadline, HMRC has reported that almost 8.7m taxpayers have filed their tax return while 3.4m still need to get theirs done. 

HMRC has restricted use of the agent dedicated line during January to only ‘complex queries’ and Harra explained that this capacity has been reserved “to support agents who need one-to-one support to help them file their clients’ returns”. He added that HMRC staff members have been redeployed from other areas to assist self assessment taxpayers.   

Helpline outages

Harra’s response to the Treasury committee was prompted following the disruption to some of HMRC’s online services and telephone helplines on 1 December which saw taxpayers and agents unable to contact the tax authority until 5 December. 

The Treasury committee also raised other concerns raised in the Daily Telegraph of taxpayers calling HMRC in early January only to be kept on hold for several hours before being cut off without ever getting through to an HMRC operative. 

Harra blamed the early December telephone outage on “abnormally high traffic on IT firewalls” which he said “exceeded processing capacity and consequently degraded the performance of our digital services”.

The root cause is still under investigation, but he admitted that the incident likely had an effect on the helpline call demand and service levels in the days after. 

Working from home

The committee asked whether the long wait times were linked to call centre staff working from home - a concern some AccountingWEB readers have frequently raised on Any Answers as they attempt to speak to an HMRC call handler. 

Harra dismissed any assertions that longer wait times had anything to do with advisers working from home. He said that since the Covid lockdown rules were lifted, HMRC helpline workers have moved to a hybrid working pattern where they have the option to work from home two days a week. 

“Colleagues are only permitted to work at home if they can carry out their duties effectively there. We are able to monitor and manage helpline adviser performance whether they are working at home or in the office, and the evidence we have on adviser productivity at home compared with the office shows that the number of callers served per adviser is similar no matter where they are working,” said Harra.  

New ways of engagement

With the phone lines rammed with taxpayers querying self assessment issues, HMRC is keen to push people towards their digital services instead. In the letter, Harra championed the 105,000 interactions HMRC’s digital assistant has handled in December and January so far and the 81% satisfaction rate taxpayers have scored for the webchat service.  

HMRC is also piloting an automated SMS service to shorten wait times that would redirect callers to the relevant page on gov.uk and free up call handlers. 

However, not all online services have received rave reviews from accountants; the HMRC forum has also left some in the community frustrated, while the the added hindrance of the agent dedicated line restrictions have heightened the pressure of self assessment season for some AccountingWEB readers this January.

Replies (39)

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Tornado
By Tornado
26th Jan 2023 13:20

My reply to moo

This is the reason why clients do not embrace Personal Tax Accounts

https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/tech/tech-pulse/stalling-self-assessment...

"I will be encouraging all personal tax clients to set up an HMRC personal tax account "

Great idea. I suggested this to all of my clients a long time ago and the result was that a very small proportion jumped through the application hoops and set up accounts. The down side is that many of them quickly forgot their log in details (and ask me what they are, which of course I do not know) and have never gone back in, those that do look at these Accounts, cannot understand the figures because many of them change daily, and then ask me to interpret the tax liabilities and payments which I cannot do as it is too time consuming and the client would not understand anyway.

So suggest to your clients to open up Personal Tax Accounts if you like, but do not be surprised if there is little enthusiasm for this and many are likely to say that you are their Accountant and can provide them with most tax information, which of course you can do, and ask why they need a Personal Tax Account.

As with MTD, the Government's arrogant belief that everyone is gagging to keep their records digitally and everyone will want to deal with their taxes through a Personal Tax Account is just that, - ARROGANCE - resulting in a total misunderstanding about how the real world works.

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Replying to Tornado:
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By Pam Moreland
27th Jan 2023 12:32

100% agree. I did the same and suggested setting personal tax accounts. A few set them up and then exactly the same happened - what's my log in and password - do you know? Hardly surprising as I get frequent cries for help 'what's my tax reference' 'what's my NINO' etc
I get exactly the same response -' you are my agent, why do I need this?'
I despair. People can't even understand their PAYE codes so why will they understand what is on the personal tax account?
I suppose it is too simplistic to ask why HRC cannot live in the real world and see how real people react to tax (ie don't want to know).

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
26th Jan 2023 14:03

Wow.

That really is a big "F you" to tax payers and agents alike. Most of the calls we make to HMRC are attempting to correct HMRC's errors. We never ring for fun, just for a nice chat.

We do however make multiple calls where HMRC just cant fix stuff for months on end, if they did it right first time there would be no calls.

I think Jim needs to retire and stop embarrassing himself like this.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
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By Catherine Newman
26th Jan 2023 14:27

Very succinctly put. I thought that when Tom sent me the link earlier this week.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
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By Open all hours
26th Jan 2023 21:30

You’re too kind. The time for allowing JH to retire gracefully passed long ago. In what other organisation would he be allowed to continue to show such arrogance (you were spot on, Tornado), contempt and complacency? If he won’t resign he should surely be sacked.

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By CJaneH
26th Jan 2023 14:04

The only time I used my personal tax account to look at the tax due etc I found it difficult to understand and did not like the menu. As an agent I have find the presentation and information provided much easier to use. If I as an accountant (qualified for 48 years) find the personal tax account unfriendly heaven help Joe Public.

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Replying to CJaneH:
Tornado
By Tornado
26th Jan 2023 14:39

I am completely with you on this one. I set up a Person Tax Account a long time ago and found that I could see a lot of information, but none of it related to my tax.

I have since tried to get in, but although I have all the right codes and access passwords that I set it up with, I was unable to gain access and have not bothered again.

I can see all my own tax information through my Agent Online Services Account as Agent for myself, so I do not see why I should bang my head against a brick wall trying to get into my Personal Tax Account if I do not need to.

If HMRC want to contact me then they can send me an email or letter but one thing is for sure, I will not be looking at my Personal Tax Account regularly to see what exciting news there is.

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By Catherine Newman
26th Jan 2023 14:22

This has been superseded by the PAC today. Unfortunately a certain Minister's tax affairs were discussed for 1/2 hour but the best bit is around 11.45 when an MP had a rant and Jim Harra came up with the incorrect phone line bit. The MP cited her constituents wouldn't agree with him and that you wouldn't fill in a customer satisfaction form because you don't have the time to do.

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By Catherine Newman
26th Jan 2023 14:35

I've just taken on a client. He is a director of 2 limited companies. I do the books for one of them but not the one causing the issue. Luckily he does have a PTA. I told him there should have been a PAYE scheme (he thought his old accountant, who has let him down, filed as Self Employment. I said it couldn't have been as there would have been Class 2 and Class 4. I told him to look up his state pension forecast. There are 7 years not full.

In this instance the PTA helped me to rescue him today but has thrown up a major can of worms.

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Replying to Catherine Newman:
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By CJaneH
26th Jan 2023 15:38

My approach to new clients was(I am now in process of retiring) that unless their is good reason I acted for all the taxes, Company, sole trader, personal tax return and often Payroll, VAT |& Companies House. You cannot give correct advice and keep them out of trouble with incomplete information.
I agree that the personal tax account is useful to check the NI record for pension purposes.

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Replying to CJaneH:
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By Catherine Newman
26th Jan 2023 17:12

This is going to happen as of tomorrow. This client came to me through a buyout from an existing client.

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By GHarr497688
26th Jan 2023 17:16

This man is a complete Moron. To get a written reply from HMRC to a VAT query its taken two letters of complaint from my Local MP and two year wait. The other tax refunds I haven't got the time to chase. HMRC are dreadful and letter's covering their tracks is becoming normal .

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By ABC12
26th Jan 2023 20:36

Ok Harra why not reinstate the online chat facility , that will save people ringing. Found that so much better than having to endure the godawful music while on hold now

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Replying to ABC12:
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By PennyPincher
26th Jan 2023 20:38

+1 to this, really liked using the chat service as you could also get on with work whilst waiting

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By PennyPincher
26th Jan 2023 20:43

the problem is, for a department that wants everyone to go digital you can't actually do a lot of things with them that are digital above the basics such as changing address etc.

spent 2 hours on the phone today after being cut off the first attempt to get a tax return cancelled that was wrongly issued, why not have something online via the agent services account that you can tick the button to say this client doesn't actually need a return which would also have saved me taking up a space in the call list!

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Replying to PennyPincher:
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By johnjenkins
27th Jan 2023 11:25

"Agent Strategy" would have sorted all those and many more problems out. Instead we are saddled with MTD.

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the sea otter
By memyself-eye
27th Jan 2023 09:43

I actually managed to get straight through on the CT phone line at 8:05am yesterday morning (after trying all day during the day, the day before).
The gentleman on the other end of the phone was actually very helpful! Job done as they say.
Did I say HMRC being helpful?
Better lie down until the feeling goes away......

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By JCresswellTax
27th Jan 2023 09:49

This guy's got to be at the wind up.

He's a chief exec and his solution is to tell everyone else to do something, rather than be responsible for the mess of his own department?

Absolute joker.

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By JamesDS
27th Jan 2023 09:56

Harra: By every measurable metric, we're terrible. It must be the "customers".
The "customers":

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By Brodders
27th Jan 2023 10:06

HMRC online services are dreadful, so people are (very reluctantly) forced to phone and endure all the misery/costs that entails.

But it's the taxpayers fault it's got worse?!

I think this guy missed his rightful place working for Boris Johnson!

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By listerramjet
27th Jan 2023 10:50

it is quaint how they insist on referring to taxpayers as customers!

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By indomitable
27th Jan 2023 10:53

Once again complete and utter 'delusion' from HMRC.

Has anyone told them their 'digital services' DONT WORK,

IT systems cobbled together, a complete lack of integration, completely illogical. I can sight 100's of examples of a 'not fit for purpose service'.

This is typical of the civil service and government, trying to find excuses regarding their failures rather than accepting reality. Here's one example

Harra blamed the early December telephone outage on “abnormally high traffic on IT firewalls” which he said “exceeded processing capacity and consequently degraded the performance of our digital services”.

What? What? what does it even mean? Complete nonsense

Government has lost control of the civil service, and most things in the country don't work. We are being let down by our politicians (and that's all political parties)

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By mydoghasfleas
27th Jan 2023 10:53

I guess Sir Jim will become Lord Jim (Conrad's fictional character who abandoned ship in questionable circumstances) eventually. The difference between our Jim and Conrad's is that we will celebrate his departure.

On the nautical theme, the only useful thing he has done recently is publicly torpedoing Zahawi.
Z probably accepted careless in preference to deliberate and now claims innocent error is the same as careless. At least we understand the nuance, "Hey Z, that's deliberate and offshore, 200% penalty in the offing". Presumably he had accountants advising him and "innocent error" would have been nonsense.

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By SteveHa
27th Jan 2023 10:58

If I didn't NEED to speak to HMRC (ie. If what I needed was available without a 20 minute long telephone call, and then speaking to a chimp with no clue), then why would I even try?

Pretty much ALL calls to the ADL are likely to be because there are no other avenues. When will HMRC get this?

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By listerramjet
27th Jan 2023 10:59

it is about time government got real. Our tax system is a byzantine muddle of incomprehensible nonsense. They should scrap most of the taxes and keep a small core, which should be simplified, with all tax law written in no more than 25 A4 pages in 12 point courier. I know they gave up trying to match taxes to spending many moons ago, but this should be another issue that government deals with. Ultimately it is people who pay taxes. Obfustication and confusion might allow the politicians to hide their grubby fingers, but it isn't good enough. Journalists and opposition MPs might get excited when a cabinet minister has problems with HMRC, but unfortunately this is a situation that many many ordinary people also get caught up in.

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By listerramjet
27th Jan 2023 11:04

MTD may well be keeping HMRC excited, but surely it would be better to work on MTU - making tax understandable! Or even MTW - making tax workable!!!

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By raybackler
27th Jan 2023 11:35

Who would want to call HMRC unless it is absolutely necessary? They have all the data but can't even get a tax code right. If you have a benefit in the tax code that needs amending, you can only do that by phoning up. The Personal Tax Account has the ability to delete a benefit, not amend it. If HMRC can't even get this right, no one will bother using the Account. Others have made excellent points, so I won't repeat them, save to say, I would rather have a hole in the head than phone HMRC unnecessarily.

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Morph
By kevinringer
27th Jan 2023 11:59

Richard, who leaked the photo of HMRC's CT Helpline phone?

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Morph
By kevinringer
27th Jan 2023 12:04

Harra says we must self-serve online. I submitted a SA Return for a client April 2021. HMRC have still not captured it. It's on a worklist with a 24-month backlog and will be captured April 2023. Client needs an SA302 for mortgage application. I have done everything 100% digital but HMRC can't handle it and has to resort to manual processing. Come on Harra, your IT is broke, your helplines are broke, your processing of documents is broke. Every conversation I have with experienced HMRC staff they tell me the same thing: HMRC is a shambles because all HMRC resources have been diverted into MTD ITSA: the pipedream that will never happen. If HMRC formally cancelled MTD it would free up masses of resources which could then be used to fix the myriad of HMRC problems. We all know MTD will never happen. The sooner Harra admits this, the sooner those resources can be put to better use.

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Replying to kevinringer:
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By 4b4
27th Jan 2023 12:34

kevinringer wrote:

Harra says we must self-serve online. I submitted a SA Return for a client April 2021. HMRC have still not captured it.


Same here - oh, and the client is due a repayment of over £1,000 - keep having to explain 'what's the problem' to the client :-(
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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
27th Jan 2023 13:00

I have to steel myself to make a phone call to HMRC, get a mug of strong coffee, hit the hands free and wait - usually its a 30 - 45 minute hanging on the line.

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Replying to Jennifer Adams:
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By Ian McTernan CTA
27th Jan 2023 13:25

I find put it on speaker phone, turn volume down, work on something else. When HMRC finally cut me off or answer (equal chance) then I have to remember what I called about...

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By Ian McTernan CTA
27th Jan 2023 13:31

I'd like to see the professional Institutes much more involved in this, on the side of agents, pointing out how bad it is and publishing many more stories of how bad it is, rather than the current rather cosy relationship.

I guess it all starts with allowing HMRC to get away with calling taxpayers 'customers'.

I'd also echo others: even clients who manage to get a PTA set up forget their log in details and then expect me to have them: or even worse, wnat me to have their Govt Gateway IDs and passwords (no thanks!).

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By Barry E
27th Jan 2023 18:20

Does Harra actually know how his department works or what they actually do when working from home? We've all heard from advisors that their laptop at home has 1 screen, whereas in the office they can access up to 4 screens at once. Could a certain man (JH) actually run a bath? I suspect that somebody would actually have to explain taps to him. The enquiry sections complicate things because they hide in a cupboard somewhere and cannot be contacted, even by advisors who can only send emails, which receive no responses. How would this survive in the real world ?????? When HMRC are failing so regularly and dramatically why aren't capable managers appointed to run it ? Apologies for being naive.......

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By raybackler
27th Jan 2023 23:33

I have thought more about this ridiculous comment from Harra. I spent 11 years of my life working for Pillsbury, the American food group. Their quality systems were based on getting it right first time. Their systems were taken up by NASA, because the last thing you want is food poisoning in a space suit. Also, much of our Food Safety Act in 1990 was based on the same principles known as HACCP - Hazards Analysis of Critical Control Points.

Which brings me to HMRC and the total failure to get anything done first time, that then manifests itself in overloaded phone lines and huge waits for correspondence to be answered. It ain’t rocket science, just ask NASA.

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By Mr J Andrews
28th Jan 2023 09:50

If Harra was head of the Ministry of Transport , I guess he would come out with knowledgeable advice such as :-

''........If people stopped driving cars , there would be less road accidents........''

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RLI
By lionofludesch
28th Jan 2023 16:03

I used my PTA to get my coding changed. I got a message saying my request would be dealt with in 20 working days. After the 20th day, the PTA said that the query was resolved.

Had my code been changed ? No.

What do I think happened ? HMRC just go through queries on deadline day and mark them as "resolved" to improve their performance figures.

They are not honest people.

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By markabacus
31st Jan 2023 19:06

Hi, well I rang the 'agent' helpline twice just before Christmas, both client paye coding issues. 33 & 58mins in the queue but dealt with inside 5mins talking to the officer.
Mid Jan and another client coding issue, I'll try the webchat, service not available. Tried on/off over several days always the same. Um I wonder, ah works in MS Edge but not Firefox, grrrrrr
Within 10 mins chatting to officer, 30mns going round in circles, gave up
Rang 'agent' line within 10 mins talking to officer who was very apologetci re webchat, fixed in 5 mins
Won't bother with webchat

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By Jabers
12th Feb 2023 08:08

So we are urged to use digital services? They are totally inadequate. Submitted claim for large amount of CIS refund online. Form said 20 days response time. After long wait called appropriate help line and sent round various other departments, being lost and cut off several times. To cut a painfully long story short eventually found a really helpful guy in Wales who admitted form had been received on the day I’d submitted it but was sitting awaiting processing. He actually went above and beyond and called me back after 6pm to tell me how to move forward but this all took a total of 9 months to actually receive the refund!

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