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skeleton looling at mobile phone text Waiting for HMRC to answer the phone

HMRC’s Helpline completely jammed

In my Blog posted on 15th June, I bemoaned the fact that HMRC had arbitrarily closed its self-assessment helpline with only 48 hours’ notice, stating that it would remain closed for at least three months. But, to my surprise, they actually opened it up again last Friday, a week earlier than anticipated.

My mental pat-on-the-back for HMRC, quickly turned to dismay when I began to hear horror stories from a number of clients who had tried to call a HMRC adviser, following the helpline’s reopening on the 8th September.

Call centre crunch: A complete shambles

I was told of the phonelines constantly crashing, with those taxpayers who lucky enough not to get cut off, either experienced waits of up to an hour to be able to speak with an advisor, or being met with a pre-recorded message telling them that all lines were busy and perhaps they should try accessing HMRC’s digital online services.

This recorded message was rather ‘extracting the urine’ in my opinion, as it should have been blindingly obvious to the HMRC management, that the main reason for the huge volume of calls was that their online digital offerings for the last three months were not sufficient for many taxpayers to resolve their tax issues, hence their need to speak with an adviser!

Call centre crunch: Is it just me?

I know that Shrewsbury, despite being the County Town, is a bit of a backwater when it comes to up-to-date infrastructure, and by that I mean good quality, fast, reliable mobile phone access and full-fibre telephone lines, so I reached out to other accountants to hear of their experiences, and here’s a few of the responses I received: –

  • Phil Butler in Reading complained that all of his clients who had attempted to get through, had to wait at least 45 minutes to speak with someone
  • Sheila Hickey in Wolverhampton informed me that she’d already picked up two new clients, who had previously done their own SA tax returns, because they were totally frustrated at not being able to get any help.
  • Amy Makepeace in Bristol complained that approaching an hour is not an infrequent waiting time, but was furious to find that the system automatically cuts you off after exactly 60 minutes.
  • Peter Butler in Manchester tried to join the queue and found himself navigating HMRC’s call routing systems. “After a recorded message warning of wait times up to 60 minutes I was taken through a series of automated questions and finally directed to the HMRC YouTube channel via a text to my mobile”.

These stories are just a sample of the responses I received from fellow accountants up and down the land, of their own and their clients’ experiences, over the last few days.

Call centre crunch: What did HMRC say?

A HMRC spokesperson said the first phase of the process has helped its staff deal with 250,000 additional repayments and that “reopening the helpline is simply the next phase of the trial.” However, he studiously avoided commenting on the long wait times or the constant crashing of their systems.

HMRC continues with its ‘digital by default’ approach, by encouraging taxpayers to use its digital channels that are “crucial to improving our customer services”, the spokesperson said. He then added: “As expected, the helpline has been busy since it re-opened. Many customers can get an answer to their query quicker by going online and should use these services if they can. This will help ensure customers who need to speak to an advisor are able to do so”.

Tax Accountant’s view

This really does take the biscuit, and then some. Surely, HMRC management could have and should have anticipated that after its 3-month withdrawal of the helplines, that they were likely to have high volumes of calls and staffed the phonelines accordingly.

But the final straw for me was a comment by their mealy-mouthed spokesman, that contrived to imply that the failure of many taxpayers to use HMRC’s on-line digital chat-bot, were preventing other taxpayers getting through. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh!