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Harra: IT update caused HMRC phoneline meltdown

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An HMRC systems change caused the four-day outage of several key online services and the shuttering of phone lines resulting in 99,000 lost calls, according to its chief executive Jim Harra.

14th Dec 2022
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In a letter to MP Harriett Baldwin, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, HMRC chief executive Jim Harra explained that an IT update introduced overnight on Wednesday 30 November, followed by a high level of digital traffic affecting a particular part of the Revenue’s IT infrastructure, was the likely cause of a four-day drop-out. 

A number of HMRC’s online services were affected, and the Revenue was forced to close the majority of its phone helplines for four days. According to Harra’s letter, taxpayers experienced issues interacting with the Revenue between 8am on Thursday 1 December and 10.30am on Monday 5 December. 

Technical issues

The first signs of technical issues emerged on 1 December, when AccountingWEB readers reported difficulties in getting through to HMRC on the phone. Then on 2 December 2022, HMRC’s official Twitter account issued the following tweet: “Due to technical issues we have taken the decision to shut all of our phone lines apart from the National Clearance Hub helpline. Some online services are also impacted. We are sorry for any inconvenience and are working urgently to resolve this issue.”

Responding to Baldwin’s request for urgent answers about the outage, Harra told the select committee chair that HMRC had identified that a change introduced overnight on Wednesday 30 November had “altered the digital traffic management profile on our IT infrastructure” and that this was the likely cause of the service degradation. 

All telephone helplines closed

The main services affected on the morning of 1 December were the New Computerised Transit System (NCTS) used by traders when moving goods in and out of Great Britain under Customs Transit procedures. To restore the performance of NCTS and keep freight flowing across the border, HMRC shut PAYE Online and closed all its telephone helplines (with the exception of the National Clearance Hub helpline, which supports traders with Customs clearance). 

The steps taken by HMRC reduced digital traffic on its IT infrastructure and NCTS was fully restored at 4pm on Thursday 1 December. PAYE Online services were closed at 4.45pm on 1 December to protect the NCTS service and allow NCTS users to continue using it. PAYE Online was reopened to users at 9am on 2 December. 

Harra stated that phone helplines were closed from 5pm on Thursday 1 December due to poor call quality and the inability of advisers to access relevant information or records on their digital systems. Telephone lines remained closed for the whole of Friday 2 December.

Phone lines closed included the Agent Dedicated Line, Business Tax & Customs, Debt Management, Personal Tax, Self Assessment, the National Insurance Employer Helpline/Construction Industry Scheme and PAYE. On the Any Answers forum, AccountingWEB members reported issues accessing areas as diverse as agent services and AML renewals.

“At 13.04 on Friday 2 December, we regressed [the IT update] and thereafter saw service performance improve and stabilise,” Harra continued. “We carried out further housekeeping on our IT infrastructure at 20.00 on Friday 2 December. The services continued to perform well over the weekend, albeit with lower volumes of users and digital traffic than on weekdays, and with our telephone lines closed.” 

Normal service pattern

On Monday 5 December, HMRC reopened its telephone helplines gradually between 08.00 and 10.30 and monitored service performance as user and traffic volumes increased to usual weekday levels and have continued to operate to a normal service pattern.

“Throughout the incident, most of our customer-facing online services, such as self assessment online filing, were unaffected and remained available to users,” added Harra. “We estimate that we would normally have expected to handle around 99,000 customer calls during the time when our telephone helplines were temporarily closed. We will be carrying out a review of lessons from this incident.”

Replies (13)

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By anthonystorey
15th Dec 2022 09:13

And the more we digitalize . . . .

Thanks (7)
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By Moo
15th Dec 2022 09:49

Yup, clearly ready for the increased traffic hundreds of thousands more quarterly filings will bring under MTD ITSA.
Not to mention the strain on the phone lines from both taxpayers and agents.
On a slightly different note, presumably the New Computerised Transit System is part of the Brexit bonus?

Thanks (3)
Tornado
By Tornado
15th Dec 2022 10:16

What a bunch of clowns.

The HMRC push for Digitisation completely ignores the most modern of communication systems we have ever had (emails of course) which most of use use on a daily basis to efficiently run our businesses covering an almost limitless range of matters.

We should be able to communicate with HMRC this way and expect answers promptly and accurately but NO, this is not a service offered by HMRC for some unexplained reason, and is just another example of the muddled thinking that HMRC have of MTD and associated matters.

Not being able to provide a reliable and efficient postal and telephone service is also beyond belief in this world of instant communications.

HMRC may think that we and our clients are not up to speed with modern practices but I think the truth is that HMRC are actually way behind all of us and are about to get left behind in our dust.

We need a tax administration body that is practical and pragmatic and thinks about the needs of the people it serves, and not its own arrogant self.

Thanks (6)
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By Hugo Fair
15th Dec 2022 13:09

What a lot of weasel phrases Jim has to hand ... "the likely cause" ... "forced to close" ... "we regressed" and, when in doubt, he falls back on the obfuscation of FUD with "altered the digital traffic management profile on our IT infrastructure"!

He's obviously been busy learning these. Although "We will be carrying out a review of lessons from this incident" omitted the usual 'learned' after 'lessons' ... a Freudian slip?

But to say that "The services continued to perform well over the weekend" - as a description of the mid-point of this total meltdown of services - takes the biscuit.
Does this mean that the poor level of services whilst most were shut down is deemed adequate?
In which case why should they (or we) bother?

Thanks (4)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
Tornado
By Tornado
15th Dec 2022 13:43

I may be old fashioned but I was under the impression that standard practice was to thoroughly test IT updates before going live.

I suppose we can expect HMRC not to do the job properly, as there is a long history of botched IT projects, with MTD waiting in the wings to unleash its galactic chaos (part tested by 100 people so far, so what could possibly go wrong) on us, but should we really accept this?

HMRC should be accountable to us all, the people, and make our lives better and not more miserable by foisting poorly designed and untested IT systems on us. We should not put up with it. Any lessons to be learned will be from pre-launch testing, not an incompetent general launch supported only by a big group hug, a big group wish that it all works OK and a lot of drivel based explanations when it all goes wrong.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Tornado:
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By Moo
15th Dec 2022 17:34

Well actually I think that HMRC are accountable to Parliament and Parliament is accountable to us.
So we should all be bombarding our MPs with complaints about this but unfortunately there aren't enough professional accountants doing that for Parliament to take notice yet.
Most MPs won't start to take an interest until the sob stories from taxpayers about penalties start cropping up in their weekly surgeries.
You would think that there would be a few accountant MPs taking an interest but maybe they are just congratulating themselves on having got out of practice.

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Replying to Moo:
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By adjadj
16th Dec 2022 09:28

Bombarding MPs will not help much and most emails will just be ignored.

We need to lobby in a much more targeted way by focusing on the Shadow Treasury Team and the Treasury Select Committee. They have an interest in holding the Government/HMRC to account. The list is here: https://bit.ly/MTD-MPs-of-influence

I a working on a plan for this at the moment and will have more to say after Christmas.

Thanks (1)
Replying to Tornado:
Morph
By kevinringer
16th Dec 2022 13:14

Tornado wrote:

I may be old fashioned but I was under the impression that standard practice was to thoroughly test IT updates before going live.

Lord Carter recommended 12 months testing and HMRC accepted this way back in 2006, see https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/tax/business-tax/lord-carter-of-coles-re.... Problem is that we can tell from the photo of Jim Harra used by Accounting Web that he wasn't even born in 2006, so probably didn't realise HMRC had agreed to this. Seriously, HMRC agreed to this almost 20 years ago and I suspect many of HMRC's high-flying ITers aren't aware of previous commitments made by HMRC. The HMRC of old was run by experienced tax staff who had spent years rising from grass roots level, so understood tax and tax administration. Today HMRC is run by IT people who know nothing of tax or tax administration and have no collective historic knowledge of HMRC.

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Replying to kevinringer:
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By Moo
19th Dec 2022 10:36

Many of us would also say that accounting is also run by IT people who know nothing of accounting.

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By Open all hours
15th Dec 2022 15:20

Well that’s alright then. Thank you, Mr Harra for being so much on top of things that your explanation arrived after how long? Anyone else enjoying The Muppet show?

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By Semaphore
16th Dec 2022 08:39

Three notable omissions from Harra's letter - pinpointing who was personally responsible for the botched update, an apology to the affected users of HMRC's systems and a note of his resignation.

Thanks (4)
Morph
By kevinringer
16th Dec 2022 13:19

"The services continued to perform well over the weekend"

Of course their Helplines performed well when they were closed. Pre-Covid, HMRC Helplines were operational weekends. Also weekday evenings. HMRC have still not returned to pre-Covid operational hours. As a result, the same volume of callers now have to fit into the reduced opening hours, which means longer waiting times. This is exasperated by HMRC staff taking longer on each call because of their inferior new software. I spoke to someone on the ADL this week. I queued for over an hour. When I got through, the ADL said their new software crashes regularly and they have to reboot, and even when it doesn't crash, it works much slower, so takes far longer to deal with the call. I was speaking to the ADL for 50 minutes, so with queuing almost 2 hours in total for something that would take minutes pre-Covid.

Thanks (1)
Replying to kevinringer:
Tornado
By Tornado
16th Dec 2022 13:32

Yes Kevin, there was a time when you could phone the Agent Line, speak to someone about a wide range of matters and often the operator would be able to make changes there and then so that when the call ended, the matter had been sorted out and that was the end of it.

AI is all very well but you cannot get better than well trained and knowledgable people to sort things out quickly and efficiently.

The rot set in when the operator told you that they were sending an email to the appropriate department and you would be contacted within two days .......... which of course you never were.

You cannot even email for assistance now, a very odd situation for a Government whose ambitions are to deal with everyone electronically.

Thanks (2)