Is HMRC failing us?

Asks Ryan Harrison from Leathers LLP

It’s a situation we have all encountered – hours spent on the phone to a call centre, being transferred from department to department, struggling to get anywhere fast with your query. It is certainly a frustrating process and one that often results in you giving up and resolving to try again another day.

While this is what we have come to expect in dealing with broadband or utility providers, worryingly, it is now also becoming the ‘norm’ in dealing with HMRC.

Many years ago (or so I’m reliably informed!) there was a local tax inspector at a local tax office, who accountants in the area would know and have on-hand to answer any queries. Now, taxpayers and accountants alike are finding it increasingly difficult to get a personal service from HMRC.

This could be for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s clearly a greater demand on HMRC than ever before; around 10 million people now complete an annual self-assessment tax returns. Secondly, we live in a society where information is now available in an instant at the touch of a button, and so our expectation levels of HMRC have no doubt increased.  However, the simple truth is that HMRC are underfunded and lacking in resources.

Recent figures released in the press suggest that 18 million calls went unanswered in 2014. Possibly as a consequence of this, in June, it was reported that HMRC had diverted £45million to improving their call centres and hiring 3,000 new staff.

We can only hope this additional funding will help in the long term, although, the benefits are yet to be seen.

We as accountants are certainly experiencing greater difficulties when contacting HMRC.  Perhaps most worryingly, we are now simply having to accept that there will be lengthy delays when corresponding with HMRC. The average call waiting time was estimated to be 14 minutes 22 seconds (in March 2015); I can confirm from experience that the ‘pleasant’ holding tune becomes irritating after less than a minute!

In light of our own difficulties, we are also becoming increasingly aware of the problems faced by individual taxpayers when dealing with HMRC. Clearly, not all taxpayers have the support of an accountant or the technical knowledge required to navigate HMRC’s systems.

In the worst case scenarios, we have been approached for help by individual taxpayers who have received a deeply impersonal brown envelope demanding an unexpected tax payment. Individuals who have previously dealt directly with HMRC for decades have found it impossible to resolve certain issues on their own. HMRC’s use of computer automated responses further removes the personal service and can include unhelpful references to penalties of up to 100% of underpaid tax!

Even the process of submitting your tax return or other documents to HMRC can cause problems and uncertainties. While HMRC’s website is quite accessible, it is often a case of ‘it’s easy if you know how’. For people who aren’t used to filling in these types of documents online, it is not uncommon to face technical difficulties or response problems. But when the options are to have a go at filling it in, or trying to negotiate the HMRC telephone system, many people will opt for the former.

At Leathers we are a people-focused firm.  We take pride in our accessibility; we are always available at the end of a phone or in person for our clients.  I’m often told how reassuring it is for clients to be able to speak with one of the Leathers team about their HMRC queries. We all want something which is supposed to be simple and clear, to be just that. Indeed, several of our long-standing private clients came to us initially for a one-off piece of tax advice, which speaks volumes about the quality of our service.

We would encourage anyone who is struggling to deal with HMRC not to suffer in silence and leave yourself open to penalties or an incorrect tax bill. Help and advice is available, and it need not be the lengthy and frustrating process that many have come to expect from HMRC.

For advice in dealing with HMRC matters, contact Ryan Harrison at Leathers LLP on r.harrison@leathersllp.co.uk or on 0191 224 6760

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