Like most businesses, accountants have peaks and troughs throughout the year. In our case, as one of Scotland’s very few experts on US tax, we move from US tax deadlines to UK tax deadlines... It does mean that the December/January period is probably our two busiest months of the year and it can be frantic at times. With that in mind we are pretty sure that our staff enjoy their well-earned Christmas and New Year break.
Over the years, we have stressed the importance to our clients of getting their tax returns done as early as possible, and certainly well before January. Despite this, for quite a few clients, for a wide variety of reasons, it can be difficult to do this. Often they will have questions about their tax returns and in certain circumstances will, due to restrictions introduced by HMRC on how information is provided to tax advisers in recent years will have the misfortune to contact HMRC directly by phone.
Unfortunately, for many years now, HMRC has made it increasingly difficult to do this. In 2013 it was announced that all 281 Enquiry Centres (which helped 2.5 million people face-to-face during the previous year) were to be closed. Then in 2015, further closures were announced, specifically HMRC’s plan to close 137 local offices and replace them with 13 ‘super’ regional centres. This is intended to take many years and will not be completed until 2027.
In today’s multi-channel world, where millennials are often more comfortable than baby boomers with chat bots and online forms (to say nothing of the AI that’s coming down the road), it’s incumbent on HMRC to offer a range of different methods of communication. However, for all the improvements to technology (see our previous blogs about Making Tax Digital!) it’s invariably best to talk directly with another human being if you want to get your tax problems sorted out. But, if you’ve spent some time recently hanging on the telephone to HMRC then you have our sympathy. Never fear though: you shouldn’t have to wait too long as HMRC claims that it’s hitting its own target of callers only waiting four minutes before being put through to someone who can help.
Consequently, it’s disconcerting, to say the least, to read a report in last Friday’s papers that “HMRC has been accused of "misleading" taxpayers and treating them like "fools" after it emerged that waiting times for its helpline are up to twice as long as it claims.”
More specifically, HMRC’s claim it is actually hitting its own performance targets have been dismissed by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. The politicians on this committee have revealed that HMRC’s official figures don’t include the time people spend listening to automated messages (which is generally another four minutes) and if you hang up with boredom while listening to these messages then HMRC counts this as a “successfully handled” call. Like the politicians, we beg to differ. At this time of year, HMRC will, naturally, be under pressure – just like tax advisers. It’s not as if we don’t all know there will be more demands on our time in January. We accept that there will be problems as HRMC changes the ways it communicates with taxpayers, but massaging the figures on waiting times for callers hardly improves tempers when they do get through and doesn’t help anyone. After all, what would HMRC’s views be of taxpayers ‘massaging’ their figures!