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phone off hook | accountingweb | Restrictions to HMRC’s helplines raises concerns
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Restrictions to HMRC’s helplines raise concerns

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From 11 December HMRC will be screening calls to its self assessment helpline and Agent Dedicated Line, answering only those deemed “priority”.

7th Dec 2023
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HMRC has today announced that it will be screening calls to its self assessment (SA) helpline and Agent Dedicated Line (ADL). It will be answering only those calls deemed “priority” in the run-up to the 31 January SA deadline. 

All queries that don’t make the cut to speak to an adviser will be directed online. This, insists the press release, will result in quicker resolution of simple queries and enable HMRC’s expert advisers to help the small number of customers with urgent and complicated queries and the digitally excluded.

This comes just three months after the SA helpline re-opened following a three-month summer break. With waiting times at an all-time high, it’s difficult to look at this latest move as anything other than a desperately under-resourced service buckling under the weight of a self-inflicted backlog. 

Planned changes to the ADL

Between 11 December and 31 January, calls to the ADL will be restricted to queries relating to SA filing, payments or repayments. For all other assistance, including PAYE queries, agents are encouraged to use alternative channels or call back in February. 

‘Highly rated’ online services

As ever, the tax authority is keen to funnel as many of its valued “customers” as possible towards its self-proclaimed “highly rated online services”. I’m not sure where it’s getting “highly rated” from but it sure as hell ain’t here or here or here. In fact, other than HMRC itself you’d be hard pushed to find anyone with a positive word to say about the online offerings currently available. 

Senga Prior, chair of the Association of Taxation Technicians (ATT) technical steering group, said: “There is a greater push to taxpayers self-serving from digital resources, and fewer ways for them to speak to an actual person at HMRC about their tax queries. Not only will some people be left behind in that journey, but the services available to taxpayers and professional advisers via digital channels are too often incomplete, disjointed and poorly designed even for those who can go digital. 

“From the agent perspective, we would be keen for more and better online services so that we could deal with more matters digitally. Agents still have to phone HMRC for simple tasks – for example correcting PAYE coding notices for their clients – as there is only a limited digital service for agents. Agents could also help to facilitate more digital interaction with HMRC if the process of getting authorisation from clients who can’t use computers was easier.”

Digital-first approach

HMRC maintains that the vast majority of calls to its helplines – two-thirds of all SA calls – could be resolved by customers themselves online. Encouraging those customers to use the online services as part of the “digital-first approach” will, it insists, free up expert advisers to help those who really need one-to-one support, the digitally excluded, those with complex queries, and the particularly vulnerable.  

Last year, HMRC claimed it received more than three million calls on just three things that can easily be done digitally:

  • resetting an online password
  • getting your tax code
  • getting your national insurance number.

That amounts to almost 500 people working full time to answer just those calls.

Victoria Todd, head of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group voiced uncertainty over this. “We do not disagree with HMRC’s ambition to have more people interact with them online, but we remain concerned that measures like this, and the temporary closure of the self assessment phone line this summer, are hindering, not helping, taxpayers,” she said.

“HMRC believes that many people contacting them via the telephone are doing so unnecessarily and that their issues can be dealt with quickly and easily online. If that is the case, we would like to see the evidence that supports this claim.”

Misguided, says the CIOT

Unsurprisingly, moments after HMRC’s announcement, the AccountingWEB editorial inbox was awash with reactions from concerned bodies, all with a similar message to share: reducing access to helplines for taxpayers and agents in the peak of the self assessment season (yes, that phrase again) is misguided and concerning. 

John Barnett, chair of the Chartered Institute of Taxation’s (CIOT’s) technical policy and oversight committee, said: “Reducing access to HMRC’s self assessment helpline is misguided.

“While we understand HMRC’s desire to prioritise where it puts its limited resources, we are concerned that in practice many of their customers will be unable to navigate HMRC’s digital services, and will simply give up. 

“Previous trials to limit calls to complex queries, or diverting people to online services, have proven either troublesome or inconclusive. There is a significant risk of increased non-compliance, resulting in more penalties and subsequent appeals, creating more work for HMRC and taxpayers in the long run.”

Treasury committee concerned

Echoing concerns from around the tax community, the Treasury Committee has written a detailed response to HMRC outlining its concerns. Chair of the Treasury Committee, Harriett Baldwin, said: “The Treasury Committee has repeatedly stressed our concern about the management of the self assessment helpline, particularly when it closed at such short notice over the summer leaving many struggling to access help with tax issues.

“Giving the public less than two working days’ notice of a significant reduction in service, while the deadline for self assessment returns looms, is yet another alarming development for an increasingly pressured government service. I have written to the CEO of HMRC in order to get much-needed answers about what this means for taxpayers.”

Impact on agents

The CIOT is also worried about the impact this could have on already over-stretched agents at this busy time of year. Barnett said: “Many agents will be working flat out over the next eight weeks to ensure that their clients meet their self assessment obligations by 31 January – working evenings and weekends in order to do so. Reducing access to HMRC support during this critical period does nothing to reassure agents that their efforts are appreciated.”

Extra funding misdirected?

There can be little doubt that this restriction of the helplines is at least in part a consequence of a critically under-resourced HMRC. There was a glimmer of hope in the Autumn Statement when the Chancellor hinted at extra funding for HMRC. A few of us pricked up our ears, naively optimistic that some much-needed extra investment might be funnelled to the ailing “customer” service provisions. Alas in this it was we who were misguided. The detail of the Green Book revealed that the £163m investment is entirely ring-fenced for debt management, including adding 700 full-time employees to HMRC’s debt management frontline team.

When questioned post-Autumn Statement on the lack of funding awarded to improving HMRC’s services, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt maintained that the tax authority “will be able to meet their customer service targets with the resources they have”.

This latest curtailment of services on offer suggests otherwise. 

Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s deputy chief executive and second permanent secretary, said: “This is a busy time for customers who want to get their taxes sorted. We want to help customers resolve any issues in the quickest and easiest way, which is often through our online services.”

Replies (37)

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By Tim Robinson
07th Dec 2023 16:44

Nothing surprises me about HMRC any more, but how exactly am I supposed to update a tax code for a client using HMRC's automated chatbot?

Client only set up a new PAYE scheme this week and as a high-earning director working through their own company they need a D0 tax code (previous self-employed earnings this year) and with an RTI submission today I have to wait a few days for HMRC's systems to update before I can make the call. So it seems that either I tell them to do it themselves or it waits until February?

Or how about this cunning plan - I will get the client's HMRC login and update the tax code that way (if that is possible) which is not what HMRC want but if we don't have the agent tools to service our clients what choice do we have?

I am sure other Awebbers will have loads of other examples of how this policy will actively hinder the running of the tax system and cause huge amounts of extra stress for us.

Thanks (8)
Replying to Tim Robinson:
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By Yossarian
08th Dec 2023 10:15

Its reached the point now that if I know for certain that a client needs a particular PAYE code I will sometimes just apply that code to the payroll and sod what HMRC's systems say the code should actually be. A friend of mine who ran a payroll bureau did that for years for her director clients with no comeback.

Thanks (17)
Replying to Yossarian:
By birdman
08th Dec 2023 11:03

That's my approach too - it does generate monthly additional codes where the unpaid tax to date is recalculated, but as long as you don't overlook any "genuine" codes for other employees, if relevant, it's not caused me any problems to date (now watch this space.....)

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Replying to Yossarian:
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By Ammie
08th Dec 2023 11:44

I have been applying the correct code for years irrespective of HMRCs input. After all what are the repercussions of applying the correct code? Maybe HMRC expect application of an incorrect code and for me to chase chase and chase for correction.

I have been chasing corrections of HMRC failures for months and AI has been ignoring my input and regurgitation the same old, non resolving, drivel time and time again. In many cases there seems to be very limited options to resolve issues.

I am out of ideas as to what to do next.

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By StephenGuy
07th Dec 2023 17:36

So HMRC won't be answering queries until February. Looks like a lot of tax returns will be filed with notes in the white space, and then amended in February.

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By AdamJones82
07th Dec 2023 21:26

You can’t self serve on their digital platform. They’re in the same La La Land as MTD if they think they have a comprehensive self serve platform in place

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By mbee1
08th Dec 2023 07:49

For agents who have clients dealt with in PD1 (and we have lots) you can't do anything digitally without phone calls backwards and forwards. No online 60 day CGT. No Income Record Viewer. The client has to make a call to HMRC. They have to call the client back. Then the agent has to call PD1 ust to get an authority in place that with a non PD1 client can just take minutes. A complete farce from start to finish.

Rather than spend over £1b on MTD ITSA why don't they spend the money on amking the systems they've already got work!

Thanks (7)
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By TB93
08th Dec 2023 09:34

Might be ok if the online service actually did more than 5% of what we need...

Thanks (8)
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By PAULLEWISFCCA
08th Dec 2023 09:37

lucky if they answer anyway - our agents are busy, on hold for 40 minutes and then line goes dead

Thanks (14)
Replying to PAULLEWISFCCA:
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By Jimess
08th Dec 2023 12:55

You did well at 40 minutes.
Last week I tried to ring HMRC VAT. The spiel at the beginning told me that the day before people were typically waiting for 25 minutes for their call to be answered. I answered all the bot questions and got frustrated with the voice bot that doesn't understand a Yorkshire accent, then waited - and got cut off at 25 minutes. So presumably that's why people had typically been waiting 25 minutes the day before......

Thanks (5)
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By PAULLEWISFCCA
08th Dec 2023 09:40

I think Rothbard was close to the truth "the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large"

Thanks (6)
Replying to PAULLEWISFCCA:
By Nick Graves
08th Dec 2023 12:14

PAULLEWISFCCA wrote:

I think Rothbard was close to the truth "the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large"

I'm coming to the conclusion that Rothbard was right about a lot of stuff.

I do enjoy wearing a MR 'Enemy of the State' T-shirt!

Pity we cannot d/w HMRC like they deal with us; shred inconvenient letters we CBA to answer, leave them on hold & cut off, play silly guessing games becuz Data Protection, etc...

They don't like it up 'em, Mr. Mainwaring.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Nick Graves:
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By PAULLEWISFCCA
08th Dec 2023 16:39

i reckon.

Mystery of Banking explained them well also, funny that the professional exams dont really cover how the banking/monetary system works....

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By johnjenkins
08th Dec 2023 09:46

HMRC helpline. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHARRA and that's only after one coffee.

Thanks (7)
By SteveHa
08th Dec 2023 10:01

Quote:
HMRC maintains that the vast majority of calls to its helplines – two-thirds of all SA calls – could be resolved by customers themselves online. Encouraging those customers to use the online services as part of the “digital-first approach” will, it insists, free up expert advisers to help those who really need one-to-one support, the digitally excluded, those with complex queries, and the particularly vulnerable.

There may be some truth in the "two thirds" part, where that is from individual taxpayers, but definitely not from agents.

And when was the last time any of us encountered a call handler at HMRC that we would refer to as, "expert advisors"? The only thing that they are "expert" at is deflecting the call.

EDIT: And my comments regarding "Expert advisors" is not simply me pontificating. I've been on the phone to these so called experts in the past where I've had to talk them through how to do something on their own systems (from 15-20 year old memory).

Thanks (11)
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By Self-Employed and Happy
08th Dec 2023 10:14

"Critically under resourced HMRC"?

What absolute carp.

They aren't under resourced, they're spending it all on MTD. That money right there would solve their staffing issues many times over.

Thanks (15)
Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By Open all hours
08th Dec 2023 10:57

Severely misdirected.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By Rgab1947
08th Dec 2023 14:21

No they are all WFH and in between watching sports, changing nappies they have no time to answer calls

Thanks (2)
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By DavidWinter
08th Dec 2023 10:15

Trust me, if I could do everything I needed digitally, I would never call them. I can't even change my own agent address on some services, which is frankly ridiculous.

Thanks (9)
Replying to DavidWinter:
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By Self-Employed and Happy
08th Dec 2023 11:05

Yeah...we moved house a few years ago, the biggest ball ache was changing agent address.

We finally after 18 months stopped paying for the Royal mail re-direct, we followed all the instructions, they then wrote to us and said we are unable to do this for (I think it was Corp Tax) and sent a list of all our Corp Tax clients and told us to include their UTRs on another letter, writing to multiple departments to change address. Well after this date we were still getting post through the redirect.

We think it's sorted finally, was very tempted to send HMRC the Re-Direct Bill for anything over 6 months (which I think is reasonable for a business to pay for).

An absolute shambles.

Thanks (6)
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By DavidWinter
08th Dec 2023 10:17

Here's a tip - just keep saying 'it's something else' (god I hate that robot with a passion) until you get put through to someone.

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By Hometing
08th Dec 2023 10:21

F****** joke.

Sick of this BS

Thanks (13)
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By DavidWinter
08th Dec 2023 10:28

3rd comment, sorry - just called the agent line, to let them know they've processed a tax return incorrectly, and they won't even put me through, basically saying 'please call another time ' and then hanging up. That's just after pressing 1 for self assessment. I had the same thing happen with the PAYE line yesterday but on the agent line? This really is a new low.

Thanks (8)
Replying to DavidWinter:
RedFive
By RedFive
08th Dec 2023 11:31

Happened to me just now. I had pressed 2 to opt out of the survey.

Tried again this time pressing 1 for the survey. Hey presto I'm now in a queue.

Thanks (5)
Replying to RedFive:
RedFive
By RedFive
08th Dec 2023 16:01

54 minute wait time then once through less than 5 minutes to complete the task. A task that could not be done by chat bots, AI, online personal tax accounts or even the sweet lord baby Jesus.

Either give us proper digital access or man the bloomin phone lines properly.

Thanks (2)
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By cydsmith
08th Dec 2023 10:45

This is just getting beyond a joke. If everyone is a 'customer' then where is the customer service. They are happy enough to charge penalties for any reason they can dream up but their own service is so totally inadequate we should be charging them penalties on the same basis. And expert advisors???? where are they. I've not spoken to one of them since about 1995. HMRC should stop wasting time and billions of taxpayers money on MTD, a system that is badly designed, nobody wants and just plain doesn't work and go back to basics and make sure their core service actually delivers. Once we get there - probably about 2051 - then they can progress to 'digital by default'.

Thanks (12)
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By seonaid anderson
08th Dec 2023 10:48

Absolute disgrace!

Thanks (7)
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By susanrenew
08th Dec 2023 11:34

I searched online for an answer to a question I had about a direct debit for self assessment without finding an answer so I rang them. After being on hold for nearly an hour I spoke to a person, who didn’t know the answer to my question and put me through to someone else, who again didn’t know the answer and put me through to someone else, who again didn’t know the answer and asked his ‘supervisor’ who also didn’t know the answer! If these ‘expert advisors’ can’t answer a simple question about direct debit what hope is there of them resolving more complicated queries.

Thanks (9)
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By Yossarian
08th Dec 2023 12:45

One day HMRC will make their numbers ex-directory and return all post as 'Not Known At This Address'. From then on HMRC will consist solely of a MTD chatbot-spacecraft, orbiting the Earth with Jim Harra at the controls, randomly issuing electronic penalties and firing lasers down to exterminate anyone who doesn't pay them within 30 days. I'm sure that's what Harra dreams of...

Thanks (4)
Replying to Yossarian:
boxfile
By spilly
08th Dec 2023 22:07

Nah, he’s too busy dreaming about ordering new business cards for when he gets his knighthood.
I wonder if he has nightmares about MTD?

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By Jimess
08th Dec 2023 13:09

I was starting to feel that self assessment was a bit more manageable this year - I just feel totally depressed now - how many of us have hours to waste waiting for HMRC to answer the phone at this time of the year only to find that the self assessment query you have does not fall into the criteria laid down for HMRC to deal with on the agent helpline before February 2024.
The lack of notice of this partial shutdown of the ADL is appalling. It wouldn't be so bad if the information they have online was actually there - I can't tell you how many times I have had to ring HMRC this year to find out what was included in the PAYE coding or whether a new client had any restrictions coming through in the code that we had no details of - purely because the PAYE coding service on the agent Gateway said "not available".

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By Mr J Andrews
08th Dec 2023 14:49

This announcement - like so many from HMRC can be summed up in three words. Academic , meaningless and ########. I guess another wave of tax officials have been drafted into a ''Priority Decision Making Department'', with scribes beavering away for yet another internal manual.
Interesting that Harriet Baldwin has written to HMRC's CEO for much needed answers. Will Harra ask her to navigate their digital services for the responses I wonder ?

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By NYB
08th Dec 2023 16:15

I have had the misfortune that my husband died leaving a sole trader accountancy firm where I Have been sorting out his VAT and SA. I must say using the word "bereaved" on the "reason for my call" has got me a magical person. The VAT was wonderful - have a direct number. Think I will use this for any future needs as I am still running a payroll practice and my on SA.

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By Homeworker
08th Dec 2023 16:19

Absolutely disgraceful!

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By buttinski
09th Dec 2023 10:31

Who in their right mind would phone a help line if the answer was on-line? The helpline is the last port of call not the first.

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By creepycrawly
11th Dec 2023 14:07

So if I want to call HMRC now to get a client's employment history, what do I do?!

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Replying to creepycrawly:
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By johnjenkins
11th Dec 2023 15:02

Pick up the phone, dial the number and wait patiently. Or hack into their computer system. Saves the wait.

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