VAT helpline performance slump highlights MTD pressures

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Accountants and their representative bodies have labelled the performance of HMRC’s VAT helpline ‘very worrying’ after the Revenue failed to answer more than 58% of calls in May.

Figures recently released by the tax authority show that in May 2019, HMRC answered only 9% of calls to the VAT helpline within 10 minutes and failed to answer more than 58% of all calls.   

The statistics show a sharp downward trend from the beginning of the year. In January 2019, 64% of all calls were answered within 10 minutes, with 72% of calls answered, but as demand increased in the run-up to Making Tax Digital going live, the percentage of helpline calls fielded dramatically fell.

vat helpline stats

Responding to a query from Treasury Select Committee chair Nicky Morgan, HMRC chief John Thompson said that he was “aware that some callers have experienced extended waiting times on our VAT helpline”. Thompson acknowledged that this “falls short of the standards of service we want our customers to experience” and said that the Revenue has been working hard to bring the waiting times down and improve performance.

An HMRC spokesperson told AccountingWEB that it had doubled the number of people taking VAT helpline calls from 100 in March to more than 200 now, and since doing so has met their five-minute target for answering calls for many weeks.

MTD and Brexit perfect storm

In a tax faculty update, the ICAEW labelled the performance of HMRC’s helpline as “very worrying”.

“It would appear that HMRC had not allocated any additional resource to the VAT helpline to deal with MTD queries as it answered fewer calls in May 2019 than it did in each of January, February and March 2019,” stated the ICAEW’s update.

The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) and Association of Taxation Technicians (ATT) put the collapse in service levels down to the lack of an adequate pilot for the roll-out of Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT and the pressures of Brexit on HMRC resources.

Tina Riches, chair of the joint CIOT and ATT Digitalisation and Agent Strategy Working Group, commented that it was “no surprise” there has been a peak in demand for help from HMRC as we moved towards quarterly digital reporting for VAT.

“While this is natural for any deadline,” continued Riches, “it has been exacerbated both by the inadequate period allowed for proper testing of the MTD for VAT systems and software, and the pressures of preparation for Brexit meaning HMRC diverted resources away from other areas including MTD.”

In his letter to the Treasury Select Committee, John Thompson acknowledged that Brexit had contributed to the department’s helpline woes. “Recruitment for a no deal EU exit was slower than expected, and so we had to divert resource from business as usual in February and March,” said Thompson. “This meant that some of the people earmarked for training on MTD were diverted onto the government’s operational priority of no deal.”

Agent experience

The CIOT flagged accountants’ experience as “particularly problematic”, with many agents writing off days’ worth of time trying to help their clients become compliant.

“There are many glitches in the current process,” said Tina Riches. “Clearer guidance on the various sign-up journeys, how to prevent things going wrong, and the steps to take if they do, is vital to a smooth roll-out. In the absence of these, HMRC’s phone lines will continue to be swamped.

“Even though we are not yet through the implementation of MTD for VAT, important lessons can already be learned,” continued Riches. “Not only is it clear that a much longer period of thorough public testing is needed to roll out new systems, but the increased support that businesses and their agents need to make the transition must be planned and provided.

Responding to the CIOT’s claims, a source at HMRC told AccountingWEB that they “simply don’t recognise the picture being painted”.

Where there have been issues, continued the source, they have affected only small numbers of taxpayers.

“It’s disappointing that the CIOT has chosen to vent in this way about concerns that have been addressed with them directly. We’ll always value their input but scaremongering like this doesn’t help anybody.

“Over 550,000 businesses have successfully joined the service and many agents have set up their agent account and signed up their clients.”

About Tom Herbert

Tom is editor at AccountingWEB, responsible for all editorial content on the site. If you have a story that might interest us or wish to comment on the site's coverage get in touch via the site's private message function or Twitter DM (@AWebTom)


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By djtax
08th Jul 2019 11:06

'lack of an adequate pilot for the roll-out of Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT and the pressures of Brexit on HMRC resources'

Wow - big surprise there. Who would have thought it! Its not as if accountants and tax advisers have been warning HMRC for most of the last two years let alone a comprehensive report issued by the House of Lords Select committee last Autumn. Should we now conclude that HMRC are wholly disinterested in any feedback from us on any topic as they so obviously 'know best'?

Thanks (6)
08th Jul 2019 11:46

just wait until the VAT take due on 7th August falls off a cliff
I can see the headlines now......

Dear HMRC,

Thanks (5)
to memyself-eye
08th Jul 2019 12:08

why will the VAT take decline ?

Thanks (0)
to nodrogbir
08th Jul 2019 12:30

1. HMRC will [***] up the new direct debits
2. Many VAT businesses will fail to get their ducks in line in time
3. Many more will de-register rather than go through MTD

Thanks (4)
to memyself-eye
08th Jul 2019 12:33

Ah yes and I guess many may have signed up without using MTD compliant software . We can live in hope.
Why do you think HMRC have ignored all the warning and speak like a lame duck when questioned "how can you be so horrible to us CIOT " ?

Thanks (4)
By Tornado
to nodrogbir
09th Jul 2019 10:17

nodrogbir wrote:

why will the VAT take decline ?

Direct Debits not being transferred to MTD Accounts is one reason and examples I have seen (not my clients) of a complete lack of understanding of how VAT works in accounting software is another.

Thanks (1)
to Tornado
09th Jul 2019 10:22

Tornado wrote:

Direct Debits not being transferred to MTD Accounts is one reason and examples I have seen (not my clients) of a complete lack of understanding of how VAT works in accounting software is another.

I'd say a lack of interest, rather than understanding.

Thanks (1)
By Tornado
to lionofludesch
09th Jul 2019 12:48

Yes indeed ..................a lack of interest in accounting software is probably more like it.

Thanks (1)
By RobertD
08th Jul 2019 12:10

“simply don’t recognise the picture being painted”

There's none so blind as those who don't want to see.

Thanks (6)
to RobertD
08th Jul 2019 12:18

I signed up and now cant get my own Accounts done as no longer anyone to delegate too. 40 years we did our sales on Sage and inputs in a manual cash book. Put it all onto Sage now and its a shambles. Glad I kept my original methods going. I have just applied for exemption for myself but with no way out of MTD system the reply will be interested. Ive done my best and failed.

Thanks (0)
By RedFive
08th Jul 2019 12:44

On the whole out of 40 clients transitioned to MTD only 3 with issues.


Trying to get HMRC to fix those three is near impossible. Daily phone calls to VAT helpline and being continually fobbed off.

It is a relatively simple problem. The three clients in question have the wrong obligation (or VAT Stagger) dates at HMRC side. (Confirmed via MTD software and client Business Tax Account).

So HMRC have 'lost' April / May/ June VAT request and are asking for July to Sep.

My software simply states to amend the dates to match HMRC – brilliant, so all three clients miss a quarters VAT (about £15k).

How many 'customers' would just do this and plead ignorance. Of course as an Accountant I'm hounding HMRC to fix it so I can actually submit a return, but they don't seem that bothered.

Thanks (3)
to RedFive
08th Jul 2019 14:58

But in the "old" days when a VAT return was missed HMRC would often allow a later return for a longer period. Surely here the thing to do is file for two quarters at once. Just write to HMRC and confirm on the basis that if they don't fix or object your assumption is that they are OK with that.

Thanks (0)
By RedFive
to coolmanwithbeard
08th Jul 2019 16:10

Ah, but that is a BIG problem if MTD.

MTD pushes the obligation dates to your software.

In the past you could amend the dates in the software to cover the full six months then submit.

Or use the gateway and type your 6 month figures in.

But now the software dates must match the hmrc stagger dates otherwise you are blocked from filing.

Hence phone calls to get hmrc to firstly recognise the problem (which they have now done) and then amend the dates on their side.

‘No timescale on that Sir, but good news is there is a soft landing on penalties’. He said that without any tone of sarcasm.

Of course I could use a bridge product, type in the 9 boxes to excel then file but then that would mean the whole MTD transition has been utterly pointless as they aren’t getting transaction level data.

Oh, wait......

Thanks (2)
to coolmanwithbeard
09th Jul 2019 13:25

I was specifcally told (when trying to get them to pay a VAT rebate) by the VAT office that you cannot write to them anymore under MTD as "that's the whole idea of MTD"

(I'm not sure I believe it though, the bloke also told me all 64-8's are now cancelled and we need to re-authorise everybody through the ASA)

Thanks (0)
to kenny achampong
09th Jul 2019 16:53

Wow. I only like to deal with officials by email or letter. I am holding off registering for now and seeing what happens.

Thanks (0)
10th Jul 2019 13:48

A good article. H M Revenue & Customs may seem surprised by what they are receiving as feedback and from their own statistics. I am sure that none of us, as accountants, are at all surprised. It is what we have been saying the months.

I can completely accept that 58% of calls are not answered. I have lost count of the number of times I have been on the telephone for 20 minutes or more and lost the will to live and have therefore abandoned the call.

Eventually if you do get through and spoke to somebody I have been cut off several times.

I also have found so often if I ring the VAT helpline and ask about VAT for the MTD that the assistant mumbles something about ‘yes, we have heard of VAT for MTD but have not really receive much training on it.’.

I have also heard that ‘this is a new system and we are still learning our way and there are teething problems’. It appears that we, accountants, know far more about the system than the VAT helpdesk does.

I also find that the helpline people do not even know what the screen shots look like when we are presented with them once logged in to various parts of the new VAT system. I have had numerous conversations will the online VAT helpline where I essentially say ‘if I am ringing the online helpdesk for the VAT system and you do not know what the screens actually looks like then how on earth are you going to help me?’. You do not really gets an answer!

If you ask for the problem to be escalated (to get an answer) then you can expect at least several days before anybody telephone you back and often the message has been garbled. However, where you do get put through to the special MTD team they do seem to be well trained and can assist with some very practical matters.

I find the way that H M Revenue & Customs are treating their ‘customers’ diabolically. If I were really a customer and paying for a service then I would have left that organization many months ago!

Thanks (1)
09th Jul 2019 09:27

That Sir Kim Darroch's got a bit of a cheek calling Trump's administration dysfunctional and inept.

He wants to have a look at HMRC.

Thanks (4)
09th Jul 2019 12:33

I waste no time pratting around with the helplines, just dash off a standard letter in 5 minutes flat.

My standard letter on MTD muck-ups - 2 so far with around 10 successful submissions:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Making Tax Digital (MTD) Failure

The new system has failed to accept a submission from the above business, so I am filing VAT returns using the portal as per previous VAT quarters. The principal cause of this is the way MTD was rushed in so incompetently, flying in the face of reservations expressed by all the main accountancy bodies and Parliamentary Committees.

I am not willing to waste any time chasing up such submission failures by phone. Once again, HMRC refused to accept advice and set up a dedicated MTD phone line, expecting victims of their poor systems implementation to simply wait for 10 or 15 minutes for the phone to be answered on the normal lines, probably by someone with little or no detailed MTD knowledge.

However, if HMRC wishes to call me to attempt to find the root cause of the problem in the database with regard to the above VAT number, I will do all I can to assist.

My client accepts no legal liability for any problems which may arise from using the portal, or for any penalties for not using the MTD filing method as, with 95% or more probability, the failure for this lies with HMRC and not my client.

Thanks (1)
to mr. mischief
09th Jul 2019 16:30

This is exactly the correct thing to do.

Thanks (0)
to mr. mischief
09th Jul 2019 16:57

Well said.
On the same basis I am not registering for MTD. I will when they force me. For now I am sticking with my impeccable paper reords. (I don't even use excel).

Thanks (0)
09th Jul 2019 13:54

I found they did start answering the calls a bit more frequently more recently. I presume they got more people in, but they hadnt taught them anything about MTD, and so it made the problem far, far worse.

And the 'source' is an idiot. No wonder they wouldnt let their name be used.

Thanks (0)
to kenny achampong
09th Jul 2019 16:28

phoned yesterday - went to immediate we are busy please call back. Bet they where all having a nap. I just hope that taxpayers and Accountants stop ringing and instead write in , when they fail to reply in the usual 30 days - a. send a written complaint and b. claim for costs etc . If you are pro MTD or against MTD at least it makes them look idiots, because lets face it they haven't a clue what they are doing to innocent people.

Thanks (1)