/ Money

Is this the UK’s slowest helpline?

As the deadline for self-assessment tax returns looms we embarked on our annual check-up on HMRC helpline waiting times. The results are in, and it looks like lengthy waits could be in store for you.

Working on our new HMRC call waiting times investigation felt a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’ for me.

Just like just last year, we made 100 calls to the self-assessment and general enquiries helplines and recorded how long it took to get through to an adviser.

And just like last year, we were shocked by the average wait- a shocking 38 minutes, compared to 18 minutes in 2014.

Flagging the findings

Call waiting times table HMRCAlmost one in five calls we made kept us waiting for over an hour. This might not surprise some commenters on Which? Conversation but, even so, it’s pretty outrageous.

HMRC has now modified its switchboard, so that fewer calls get cut off automatically. This year only 7 of our 100 calls were terminated, compared with 29 last year.

We found that the later in the day we called, the longer we were waiting. Before 2pm the average wait was 28 minutes but after 6pm it increased to 61 minutes. And the longest wait we had was 1 hour 16 minutes.

So we put our findings to HMRC, who acknowledged that;

‘Our service levels have not been good enough for many customers at busy periods this year, and improvements have taken longer than we’d hoped.’

So what does this mean for you?

Well our findings show that it’s not an easy task to get through to HMRC on the phone. But there are some positive developments that are worth noting, and these could help you.

HMRC has just announced that it will launch ‘personal tax accounts’ for those of you who already submit your tax return online. It aims to give all taxpayers access to a digital account by April 2016. You’ll have to log in to use them, in the same way that you do to file online.

And there’s already a facility to ask questions through a live web chat service. It’s designed for more general tax queries and is less secure than personal accounts – you can find it on HMRC’s online helpdesk. I used it recently and received an answer to my query in just one minute!

So as the online tax returns deadline approaches (January 31) it’s worth bearing these call waiting times in mind. We’ve developed a tax calculator and there are also helpful notes to make sure you claim any tax deductible allowances you’re entitled to. Don’t leave it too late though – especially if you need to call HMRC to check a final detail.

So have you noticed any change in HMRC’s telephone waiting times? Will you use these alternative ways of communicating with HMRC?

How long has HMRC kept you hanging on the line?

31-45 minutes (26%, 2,269 Votes)

46-60 minutes (26%, 2,242 Votes)

More than 60 minutes (24%, 2,030 Votes)

21-30 minutes (15%, 1,302 Votes)

11-20 minutes (6%, 475 Votes)

6-10 minutes (2%, 178 Votes)

Up to 5 minutes (2%, 133 Votes)

Total Voters: 8,629

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It seems par for the course today to keep customers on the telephone for ages. Why? Because they are making money from it! Companies do not employ enough staff to man the lines and do not care. That includes Government departments. SHAMEFUL.

It’s all very well phoning earlier in the day;however most phone companies charge more for doing this!!

If you make calls in the day, you should select the appropriate call plan for your needs.

Nowadays, the vast majority of people do not pay for individual calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers. Instead, they have a deal with inclusive calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers at any time of the day, and on any day of the week.

Its a good job the smaller businesses are not operated like HMRC – what a sham.

it’s a joke they bully you if owe them a penny, yet they seem above the law if they owe you money, then if there’s a problem just trying to get a hold of them is pathetic it’s like there a new company starting up with teathing problems, JOKERS, at least disk turpin wore a mask.

Have had to ring several times this year about a tax refund owed to my late mother’s estate [because accountant used by solicitor made mistake with procedure]. Gave up in frustration trying to get the automated voice to understand what I wanted. As I’d dealt with their Bereavement dept in the past I simply said ‘bereavement’, the voice asked if I was ringing to report a death to which I replied ‘yes’ as it was the only way I could get through to the bereavement department. My calls have always been answered in a few rings by a very helpful member of staff. Sadly they’ve made mistakes and the tax refund has taken 4 months so far instead of 6 weeks, but at least I get through quickly to check on progress!

Michael Sloan says:
28 December 2015

I experience a very high-handed and questionable attitude from HMRC in 2012:

During October 2011 I posted my late father’s final Tax Return together with a cheque for an underpayment of tax as calculated by myself. This was sent by Royal Mail Special Delivery Service.

A few days later I checked the Royal Mail Tracker website and confirmed that delivery had been made to HMRC. I printed a copy POD. Checking my bank account showed that cheque had been cashed.

During the first week of January 2012 I received a letter from HMRC to remind me that the online deadline was 31 January 2012. I telephoned HMRC and was told that the Tax Return and cheque had been received and all was in order. I was told to ignore the letter.

In February I received a Late Tax Return Notice Of Penalty Assessment where I was fined £100.00 with the threat of the amount escalating.

I phoned HMRC for an explanation as I had a POD plus the cheque had been cashed – so the Tax Return must also have been received. I was told the POD carried no weight as mail arrived in bulk in a sack and staff signed when requested without checking that the relevant item had been received. The only option offered to me was to pay the £100.00 fine, send a letter of appeal and re-submit the Tax Return.

I would question if HMRC’s dismissal of the validity of a POD would stand up in court.
I felt aggrieved at having to pay the £100.00 before HMRC processed my appeal.

On a positive note, I managed eventually, by dogged persistence, to get to speak to a supervisor who was very helpful. She kindly gave me her direct telephone number and followed the case through to a satisfactory conclusion including sending a cheque for 10p overpayment.

Michael’s letter has filled me with dread. After several years of having to sort my tax out, I retired in September 2013 and last year I paid just £18. This year I had yet another self-assessment so I phoned them. After waiting 55 minutes, my call was taken and within 5 minutes I was told that I didn’t need to fill out the assessment. Am I now going to start receiving threats by next February?

Liz Harris says:
4 January 2016

The worst thing is when they keep you on hold for a long time then inform you to ring back at another time and cut you off. The recorded messages tell you to go online, but sometimes you just need to speak to a person.

I have been retired for 18 months and still get sent letters every quarter when I’m not earning still get the wait on the phone for an hour each time …threats in letters of being penalised if I do not respond in time.I DONT EARN ANYTHING …my boyfriend supports me …I dread it every time … Why do I have to complete each time ?

Yesterday I managed to get through to HMRC re self assessment tax return, using their message system, and got a quick response, while I waited. I tried to check the link today but couldn’t get it! However, I did find this https://online.hmrc.gov.uk/information/helpdesk which allows a typed conversation. The one I used was titled LIVE Chat, apparently software by “eGain”.

Secondly, re access to self assessment website, HMRC have introduced “Verify” where they use commercial third parties to verify personal information. In my case I chose Experian, out of 3 possible companies, in connection with completion of Self Assessment tax return for 2014 to 2015.

Experian rejected my information (after giving Passport, driving license, credit card and address details!) apparently on the basis that the name on my debit card (issued by a household name) did not match previous name given. The debit card name is correct. Unable to get a response from Experian helpline.

Raised the issue via Verify support (support@gdshelp.zendesk.com) and they responded

“Thank you for your feedback and apologies for your frustrating experience.

I’m sorry your chosen certified company could not verify you. We are aware that there are issues with some types of card and/or bank accounts. We are working with certified companies to resolve this issue and will pass on your feedback.

Please be assured that we take the security and privacy of our users very seriously. GOV.UK Verify was designed in close conjunction with CESG (The National Technical Authority for Information Assurance) and the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group.

The whole process, starting from the government department the user wishes to transact with, through choosing a certified company to verify with and then being passed back to the government department is conducted over a secure channel, as identified by the green lock you will see in your browser.

Certified companies have to work to published government standards when they verify your identity. To do this, they have to look at a range of evidence and checks to establish that you are who you say you are – no single piece of evidence is sufficient. There are five elements involved, and the company has to achieve specific thresholds in each one before they can verify someone’s identity.

The user asserted information of name, date of birth, address and gender is used to find the relevant credit reference file which is then used by the certified company the user has chosen, to create questions the answer to which only that user is likely to know. The user is thus not providing information, rather they are confirming the information the certified company has is or is not correct.

You will find further information on how we enable secure delivery on government digital services at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/identity-assurance-enabling-trusted-transactions.

You can also read more about how we protect your privacy on our blog at https://identityassurance.blog.gov.uk/2014/11/05/tech-arch-privacy/. This shows the data you enter, where we process it, what data is stored, and by whom.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us. We value all feedback.”

Of course, this voluminous answer avoids the issue of Experian being hacked. So although they quote various standards, nevertheless our valuable ID information is liable to be vulnerable in the not so careful hands of these outfits. Just FYI.

When I have called at the local tax office, the staff were not very effective but I was able to use one of their phones to call Newcastle at no cost. The two times that I did it, the phone was answered within a couple of minutes by a competent, helpful and effective agent who resolved my query quickly. This is anecdotal evidence; I may have been lucky but one does get the impression that calls from tax offices may get priority.

…there are no tax offices left for you to visit…

As Welsh is my first language I use the Welsh language service (Porthmadog Gwynedd). I have nothing but praise for the service, it’s quick ( answered within a minute) and the advisers are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.

I rang the helpline on 20 January 2016 (around lunchtime) regarding self-assessment and whether I needed to fill in a tax return. The call was answered within 3 minutes and my query satisfactorily resolved within another 5 minutes. This exceeded my expectations considerably. The person I spoke to was also knowledgeable, helpful and patient. This matched my experience with most of the people in HMRC with whom I’ve had dealings.

It’s a fact that as a deadline approaches, the demand on the system will increase together with the need for help and there will always be hotspots and some people will experience problems having their calls addressed.

HMRC have a difficult issue balancing the load over a year whilst trying to keep costs in check. No doubt that if they provisioned for the peak there would be an outcry when the demand was low. The load can be (and is of course) spread over differing tax systems having different reporting cycles, and thus peaks and troughs can be aligned, and the staff redeployed accordingly. This means that the staff concerned with providing help actually have to know about a lot of systems and are therefore highly trained.

I think the introduction of the personal tax account system being proposed will help spread the load further and thus reduce the peak in the self-assessment system (at least a little!).

savvy says:
23 January 2016

I’v been trying for ever to contact HRMC to submit self assessment but need assistance.. The long i take to submit the greater the fine… What can i say!

Yr 14/15 was my second year of submitting a paper self assessment return as I receive a small overseas(Jersey) pension.It was done exactly as the previous yr, albeit slightly different figures. Although sent in april 2015, in sept 2015 my form was returned saying that the figures in two columns differed, which they are supposed to, one is gross pension the other being 90% of that figure which is the taxable amount, as clearly stated in HMRC guidance notes on completing ‘foreign pages’.When i finally got through to an human voice on the helpline I was told that no ‘foreign’ advisers were available and theywere not allowed to let me stay on hold. The adviser agreed with me that as it was the same as the correct return submitted the previous year, I should return my form unaltered with a covering note to that effect.
No further communication was received from HMRC until in Nov 15 I was sent my Tax Calculation saying that far from the £15 REFUND I was expecting, it was a demand for £205.70, which they were planning to take from my bank account.
After a frustrating 35 mins on the phone listening to messages telling me I could refer to their website, I finally spoke to someone to point out that having added together my P60 total plus my state pension figure, they had managed to get a total which was £1100.00 higher than the correct addition! No explanation was given as to how such an error could occur, and no apology was forthcoming. After a few moments I was relieved to be told that they in fact owed me £14.50.
It makes me wonder how many people, older or less alert than myself, are getting ‘diddled’ by the shortcomi ngs of HMRC.

Louise says:
29 January 2016

I rang the HMRC at 13. 10hrs on 2 phones. One of them was eventually answered at 15.15 hrs , the second one was still ringing when I finished the call! and this was in August not January.

I have tried calling them several times but each time you go through standard questions and the machine doesn’t understand what you need. Then after 5 minutes or more of useless questions I get we are too busy to talk to you goodbye. So believe you need this as an option to select. Have had to pay more than what I think I owe as their calculation looks wrong, I didn’t go over the deadline because they may charge me penalty charges. Have just tried again still cannot get through, they are too busy to talk to me, so frustrating.

rob ashby-clarke says:
17 February 2016

I must say when filling my self assessment I used the pop up chat box for the first time,I was unable to get answer to my question ,the advisor told me to ring as they was no waiting at that time. I did and the call was taken straight away and help was excellent well done hmrc.

On 20 January I was helping my son complete his tax return since he was self employed for the tax year 2014/15. He had two queries about this, one relating to the substantial sums which he had already paid on account and which were not include in the on-line data, and the other relating to adjustments necessary to the payments in 2015/16 since he now pays tax by PAYE. From my own experience of waiting 40 minutes for a telephone response, I suggested he raise this issue on the web chat facility which he did. Nearly a month later he has heard nothing from HMRC. On 30th January he paid HMRC what he and I calculated was due, and no feedback has been received from HMRC.

I have moved back from the Isle of Man after retiring as a teacher and therefore, being an honest citizen, have had to reorganise my tax affairs. As the HMCR website is useless, I tried to ring them twice in October and November last year. Both times I was warned that the waiting time was 30 minutes and both times the phone rang out for 59 minutes without being answered before I rang off. In the end I gave up and used the good old post.
Waiting times of 31 minutes? I suppose we can all dream!