Tax bodies raise concerns over HMRC service levels
by Richard Hattersley
Following pressure from their members, accountancy’s professional bodies have written a joint letter to HMRC highlighting “long-standing concerns” over the tax department’s service levels.
22nd Jun 2022
A letter, signed by ATT, CIOT, ICAEW and ICAS, calls attention to the frequent concerns raised by their members about “poor HMRC service levels”.
The professional bodies broke from their usual diplomacy, where they would typically not publicly express any concerns about HMRC’s performance standards, and published the letter after being continuously contacted by their members and faced with questions over what they’re going to do about it.
“We are under considerable pressure from our members to demonstrate what we are doing about poor HMRC performance levels and to raise the issues with government, parliamentary committees and the media,” said the letter. “The impact on individuals and businesses of these delays is considerable.”
The letter sent to HMRC’s director general customer services shared a number of issues that “should not come as a surprise” to the tax department.
The frequent issues raised by the professional bodies include self assessment registrations and refunds, correspondence about VAT grouping and the option to tax, section 455 refunds, responses to technical queries, corporation tax post and returns not processed.
The professional bodies also flagged the long-standing complaints stemming from the “erratic” agent dedicated line.
The agent line was withdrawn during the pandemic but, although HMRC restored access last summer, the professional bodies reported in the letter that accountants still face long waiting times, calls unexpectedly cut off and promised callbacks not actually happening.
When the priority helpline returned last year, HMRC committed to a 10-minute turnaround time. But the feedback from the professional bodies suggests that waiting times haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. The dedicated line returned under the proviso that agents were being encouraged to use digital services rather than use the phone lines as the first port of call.
Professional bodies seek more information
Ahead of the next representative bodies steering group on 5 July, the professional bodies asked for more information and updates on three areas key to HMRC’s customer service:
HMRC performance dashboard: The bodies want HMRC to confirm the expected timescale for the rollout of the performance dashboard. The dashboard was designed to give agents a better idea of the waiting times and postal progress, but as of the start of the year, it was still under trial.
Public Accounts Committee (PAC): In February, the influential group of MPs took HMRC to task earlier for their decade of “inadequate levels of customer service”. The committee saw improvement in 2016, but since then service levels had declined. In its recommendations, which the government agreed with, the PAC called on HMRC to explain the service levels it’s aiming to provide, how it has tested its customer service plans, and any contingency plans if taxpayer communication exceeds the forecasted levels. The professional bodies want to know if these plans are still on target, especially as these recommendations are expected to be covered in HMRC’s Treasury Minute response this month.
HMRC performance statistics: The professional bodies also asked HMRC when the latest performance statistics for January to March 2022 will be published.
HMRC confirmed to AccountingWEB that it will respond to the letter from professional bodies in due course.
Responding to the complaints raised in the letter, an HMRC spokesperson said: “We made solid progress last year and this will carry on in 2022/23.
“We continue to improve our helpline service and are currently recruiting extra staff. Average call waiting times (year to date) have fallen by seven minutes from April 2021 to February 2022 and we’ve also increased the proportion of correspondence cleared within 15 days by more than 20 percentage points over the same period.
“Overall customer satisfaction has remained above 80%.”
Not the first intervention
While professional bodies largely refrain from making public statements, they have intervened in recent years to call out poor service lines. In May last year, ICAEW published a catalogue of complaints about HMRC’s “poor service levels” and urged the tax department to restore its agent dedicated line.
HMRC has struggled to keep on top of its service levels since the tax department had to redirect frontline support to cope with the pressures of the Covid pandemic and the UK leaving the EU.
In February this year, HMRC cut back its VAT helplines to four days a week for two months to work through stocks of post built up over the past year.
Long delays from HMRC have become a regular topic on AccountingWEB’s Any Answers forum. In April, reader JRX said they had just received a letter from HMRC which began: “Thank you for your letter of 25th August 2021. I apologise for the delay in responding to you.'”
While this member waited eight months for a reply, other AccountingWEB users reported waiting times of over a year. AccountingWEB regular Snickersinatwist, for example, submitted a loss carry back claim for corporation tax on 12 October 2020 and HMRC finally processed it on 20 December 2021.
The criticism from the professional bodies follows an excoriating takedown of HMRC’s service levels from the public accounts committee in February this year.
The committee concluded that HMRC’s customer service had “collapsed” and their recovery plans were “not clear”. The report found that average waiting times were over 15 minutes and only 43% of post received a response within 15 days.