How accountants are coping with HMRC’s call screening

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HMRC is limiting the kinds of issues it will discuss on its helplines, leaving bookkeepers and accountants in the lurch on difficult issues.

HMRC are prioritising complex self-assessment queries to its Self Assessment (SA) helpline until the end of January in a bid to reduce demand during one of its busiest tax periods, while encouraging more people to use HMRC’s online services.

HMRC say that two-thirds of queries to the helpline can be resolved online. SA-related queries to the helpline which are now being treated as priority are those which cannot be resolved easily online and/or from ‘vulnerable’ customers who struggle to access online facilities.

Although a short-term solution, the decision was only announced in December, giving very little time for accountants and agents to prepare for the changes and find workarounds.

HMRC phonelines are already beset with issues from hour-long delays and callers being disconnected.

It’s not the first time HMRC have restricted their phonelines. HMRC temporarily closed their helpline between June and September last year as part of trial to redirect customers to use online digital services.

According to HMRC, the most common calls to the SA helpline – and which can be easily dealt with online – include:

  • Do I need to fill in a tax return?
  • How do I fill in my online tax return?
  • How do I check how much tax I owe?
  • Where’s my self assessment tax refund?
  • What happens if I can’t pay my tax bill?

But what impact has HMRC’s sudden decision to restrict calls to the SA helpline had on accountants and their clients? And what are their concerns?

Frustrating experiences with HMRC helplines are common

Louise Healy MAAT, Owner Clarity Accounting

I’ve had to call HMRC for a client very recently and it was a frustrating experience. I called the agent helpline and there was an automated message which said if I tried to query anything other than SA, I’d get sent back to the main helpline. I got through after 20 minutes but they didn’t manage to sort out my query. They weren’t able to give me much information or advice due to data protection even though I’m the authorised agent. I now have to write a letter and file a paper return for the client.

When I tried to call the PAYE number for another client query, I was on hold for over an hour and then got cut off.

I also have one particular client who is worrying about their tax code potentially being incorrect for the new year but they can’t sort it yet due to HMRC only focusing on specific SA-related queries.

I often dread when I have to call HMRC – it’s usually very frustrating. HMRC don’t make it very easy for us accountants to do our job!

Verdict: I often have frustrating experiences with HMRC helplines and the recent restrictions are not helping.

Accountants can help alleviate SA-related queries

Sharon Wray FMAAT, Director, Sharon Wray Accountancy Services

It’s not really a surprise that HMRC are only taking priority calls during the run-up to the self-assessment filing deadline as this has been happening for some years now.

In our practice, we have sent our reminders to clients with the amount to pay, how to pay and their tax reference number, which has helped alleviate direct queries to us. We also included a link to set up a time to pay arrangement if they are struggling to pay their tax bill.

We often tell our clients to download the HMRC app as it’s secure and they can pay their tax via the app.

With HMRC plans to move to a 24 hour ‘digital-first’ service, it’s our aim to drive our clients to become fully digital by the end of this year so that client queries can be addressed directly on the digital platform rather than coming to us, it’s just a matter of education.

Verdict: Accountants have a role to play in helping to alleviate SA-related queries and can send reminders to clients specific to their circumstances.

Many callers just want reassurance from a person

Clare Bowen, Partner, Monahans

Although I understand the logic behind these changes, many callers don’t have an accountant and need support. They won’t necessarily know where to look for certain information online or they may have a question specific to their circumstances. HMRC has a responsibility to speak to these people.

Information and explanations HMRC provides around certain topics is challenging enough for accountants – and we do it all day every day.

This is especially important as we are seeing the number of fake HMRC calls increase. If an individual receives one of these calls and cannot get through to HMRC, they may give away information they shouldn’t.

I’m also not convinced that HMRC is prioritising criteria is fit for purpose. Who’s to say that a 50-year-old builder who has been a doing tax returns for 30 years doesn’t also need help?

A lot of people want reassurance from a person rather than seeing it on a screen. This allows individuals to say, for example: “Sorry I didn’t understand that part” and the person can explain in a different way – which isn’t something they can get on a website.

Professionally, HMRC’s current system is reflecting badly on us as accountants. Some operators haven’t received the training they need and don’t have the knowledge necessary to help. As a result, clients may view us as incompetent if we haven’t been able to get required answer or advice.

We’re advising clients:

Contact HMRC earlier in the morning and give yourself a big window time.

Cut your losses: if one representative doesn’t have necessary knowledge to help with a query, you may have to put down the phone and start again. You need to get the right person at the end of the phone, otherwise it’s a waste of your time.

I believe HMRC would benefit from creating a comprehensive FAQ section to make it easier for people to find the answer they need, which would also head off a number of calls.

Also proactive communications will help: if a particular topic is trending in the media, get ahead and put out something on the website to address it.

Verdict: Many people want reassurance from a person rather than a screen. HMRC should consider creating comprehensive FAQs section to make it easier for people to find the answer they need.

Would you like to contribute to future articles like this one? If so, please get in touch with Annie Makoff-Clark at annie@hackcreative.co.uk.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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