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The Continued Decline Of HMRC Customer Service – Part 1

26th April 2013

Dealing with HMRC brings out strong emotions in the vast majority of people – and frustration, annoyance, stress and anger tend to be at the top of the list.

Some of these reactions are understandable – after all, this bureaucratic behemoth is responsible for taking our hard-earned money in the form of taxes and NI payments.

However, a continued decline in customer service has blighted the last few years – resulting in a scathing report published by the National Audit Office in December 2012 and widespread criticism from MPs after a Public Accounts Committee report in March.

Having canvassed some of the older and supposedly wiser heads in the office I’ve compiled some examples of HMRC’s more recent shortfalls:-

Requesting Statements of Account

Many of our clients lose track of how much tax they have paid and how much they still owe.

Previously, as their agents, we could request up-to-date statements sent directly to our clients – or figures over the phone. Those were the days!

This is no longer possible and statements must now be requested in writing. However, letters often fall between the cracks and receive no response.

Software updates

HMRC update their online system every six months. However the most recent update was particularly poorly timed.

It was in effect from April 3 to the April 6 this year, meaning during this time nothing could be filed online – personal or corporation tax returns, authorisation code requests or VAT returns.

The deadline for VAT submissions was April 7 – a Sunday – and many of our clients bring the documents we need at the last minute. Despite this inconvenience, HMRC would not extend the deadline to the next day.

Interdepartmental communication

It’s hard enough getting members of the same HMRC department to communicate between themselves if they are based in different offices. Imagine what it’s like trying to get two entirely different departments to speak to each other.

On countless occasions we have received letters from two departments regarding the same thing – only to find out the content of the letters don’t match. This often happens with employment income figures for example.

In one memorable example, due to a misplaced decimal point a client was recorded as receiving £650,000 as opposed to what they actually received: £6,500. If only…

Unnecessary paperwork

One of our main jobs as accountants is to deal with HMRC so our clients don’t have to. To do this, as mentioned above, we need to be authorised by the client.

For some services, such as submitting self-assessment or corporation tax returns, this is the end of it. For VAT and PAYE, however, a second department needs to be informed of the authorisation.

It would appear a central system that can cut through the red tape is too much to ask.

Keeping hold of your money

Ask anybody who has dealt with HMRC: They insist on receiving any money owed to them on time – on pain of death. OK, death is a slight exaggeration but penalties.

However if you ask them to return any money they owe you, concrete evidence just won’t cut it. They still require you to jump through a series of hoops before they return it.

The NAO report referenced above shows they failed to answer 20m out of a total of 79m phone calls last year. I wonder if any statistics are available for their payment phone line as opposed to other lines?

Ultimately, ‘customers’ – taxpayers and claimants – need to deal with HMRC and the number of calls to them from people trying to understand their situations is only going to increase, especially with the introduction of the new Real Time Information system.

HMRC are making moves to improve the situation – making more investment in infrastructure and changing from costly 0845 numbers to cheaper local alternatives but we aren’t holding our breath. We suggest you don’t either.

We have a lurking suspicion the points above might just be the tip of the iceberg and feel it is high time HMRC be held to account.

To that end we’d love to hear your stories about your interactions with HMRC – good or bad – so please get in touch on 0207 488 3614 or email info@howladerandco.com