HMRC performance shows need for overhaul

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Accountants say HMRC’s problems run deeper than devising a plan to clear the backlog of post from the pandemic.

HMRC Corporation Tax and VAT helplines will be closed every Friday for a month until 25 March in order to help staff deal with a work backlog. In a statement, HMRC said their test pilot in December where they closed these telephone lines across three Fridays enabled staff to clear more than 4,000 additional pieces of work and saw increased productivity. Stakeholders, they said, were ‘broadly supportive’ of the approach.

HMRC says the March closures will still allow them to maintain customer service levels throughout the rest of the week and expect to see ‘significant improvements’ in service levels.

A February update by the department revealed there had been ‘solid progress’ during the previous year in which HMRC had prioritised ‘essential services’, Covid-19 support schemes and the UK’s transition from the EU.

According to the update:

  • HMRC stabilised its phone service, tax credits and Child Benefits services.
  • Maintained customs services ‘well within’ targets.
  • Supported running of Covid-19 support schemes.
  • Re-allocate resources back into core tax activities following winding down of Covid-19 schemes.

But what do accountants think about HMRC performance? We spoke to a cross-section to find out. 

HMRC need to review and update their systems and increase headcount to meet demand

Penny Lowe, MAAT, founder and Director, Wellington Consulting

I was not aware of the Friday helpline closures until getting through to the HMRC agent phoneline for another issue last week and I was told the helpline would be closed for the next few Fridays, so I found out by accident.

Although most of the staff I speak to on the agent’s line are very good, helpful and cheerful, HMRC response times are atrocious. I recently received a letter dated 21 February apologising for the delay to a letter sent in April last year.

I’ve been informed by staff on the phonelines that while some issues used to take four days to resolve, it’s now a 9-10 month turnaround. So closing helplines for one day a week may might be one way of dealing with backlogs, but the problem is a lot bigger, especially if they’re working on a 10 month delay.

Staff themselves have done a sterling job during the pandemic in very difficult circumstances, but it’s the HMRC systems which need to change. There needs to be a system review and there need to be enough staff in order to provide the service they’re expected to provide.

Verdict: HMRC need to urgently review and update systems and increase headcount to meet demand.

HMRC needs to recognise that recovery is not a one-size-fits-all approach

Andrew Parkes, national technical director, Andersen

When it comes to public services, the UK Government has a habit of promising champagne, but will only pay for someone’s homebrew. This is shown in the service HMRC is able to give the general public. If you are a large business, you get champagne, but if you are Joe Public, then you are left with a cheap wine hangover.

HMRC delivered much needed help to many businesses as quickly as it could, and this must be celebrated. They have shown remarkable common sense when Covid-19 caused business interruptions and provided support payments to businesses much faster then expected. However, the speed did result in some people falling through cracks and the help they received could have been better.

Many good businesses have failed and some people have lost everything, whilst others are teetering on the edge. Businesses need understanding from HMRC that the recovery from Covid is not one size fits all and some good viable businesses are still really suffering, even if others have gone from strength to strength.

Verdict: HMRC needs to acknowledge that recovery is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Having a dedicated HMRC minister would help drive change

Tom Walker, Partner at Wellers

HMRC’s service is unreliable. I’ve experienced HMRC taking four weeks to process certain claims but then also seen first-hand delays of four months. It’s been inconsistent at best and terrible at worst. 

Yet HMRC inspectors working on enquiries with us have been pragmatic and understanding of the disruption caused by Covid. However, attempting to call is very frustrating with significant delays in getting through to HMRC helplines and sometimes not being able to get through at all.

Currently, an important service – online ERS notifications – appears to be down (as confirmed over the phone with HMRC) and there has been little-to-no advice on this from HMRC to agents. This is terribly frustrating for us and for clients.

Unfortunately, HMRC isn’t accountable to anyone specific in Parliament. The department is looped into the Treasury, which is already a huge structure. We have a Secretary of State for technology, for culture, and for transport to name a few, but we don’t have one for HMRC. It is not the Chancellor because the Treasury is effectively a different department.

Verdict: Having a dedicated Minister would help drive change, deliver a better service, and generally make the department more efficient.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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