“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (Benjamin Franklin 1879)
And while death, however sudden or unwanted, seems to have a certain order and discipline to the proceedings the process of ‘taxes’ seems to be sinking further into chaos. Does the tax system work? Well the legislation is there in black and white and by and large on an everyday level could well trundle along quite nicely. There are obvious exceptions – dare I mention IR35 – where it’s quite obvious to the people trying to work it out that the legislation is not really fit for purpose. But the main problem is at an operational/service level.
The daily struggle to deal with HMRC
As accountants we all face a daily struggle to deal with HMRC. We all (hopefully!) know a lot more about the tax system than the average ‘man in the street’ and in this age of electronic submission it’s easy to get the correct information to HMRC in the correct format at the correct time and that’s how it works most of the time. It is only when we need to interact with HMRC on a ‘non electronic’ level that things start to go wrong. HMRC expect everyone to understand exactly how the tax system works and that’s an awful lot for your average person to understand, so he’s bound to need a bit of help. After all, if your car breaks down, your friendly mechanic doesn’t expect you to ring him up and tell him how to fix it. Horses for courses. Local offices are all being closed so there is nowhere you can pop in and sort something out with a real person and show them the documents you are talking about.
Even if you eventually find the correct telephone number to call and get past the voice recognition and the queues to a real person, the levels of service don’t necessarily improve. Due largely, I think, to the swathing reductions in numbers of HMRC staff, you are likely to get someone who has been moved around various taxes with what appears to be very little training and you often find yourself being considerably more knowledgeable. I lost count of the number of HMRC employees who told me back at the beginning of the tax year that the P35 had to be filed by 19 May. Errrmm that would be the End of Year Return that had to be filed by 19 April, would it?
Then there’s the post. How many of us have had letters that state ‘you must reply within 14 days of this letter’ only to find that it’s actually dated three weeks ago and has been sitting in a post room somewhere waiting for Royal Snail to be given the opportunity to get it to us. And the inconsistencies – yes I can change that address while you’re on the phone (this week) and oooh no you’ll have to write in for that (next week) plus a 6 week delay while they get round to dealing with the letter.
Now I could start bleating on here about how ‘in the olden days’ you had a direct telephone number to ring your local district inspector who knew your clients and you could just have ‘a bit of a chat’. But apart from anything else that would just make me sound really old. Things move on, quite rightly. I love new technology (sad accountant that I am) but the technology has to work and be fit for purposes and it has to be supported by that helpline that knows what it’s talking about and can get you sorted with the minimum amount of time and fuss when there’s a query. And that’s where HMRC fall down spectacularly.
I have just rung HMRC Employer Helpline this morning to get some information about a client. The voice recognition system suggests various things I may be ringing about, none of them are remotely relevant and no – I’m not having a baby. After screaming at the phone for 3-4 minutes I get a message to tell me that there is more information available on the HMRC website – there isn’t and even if there was you would never find it. Eventually, I get another message that tells me they currently have queues of over 60 minutes. I hang up. All I can say is that it’s better than the message I have been getting for the last three weeks from DMB that tells me they are ‘experiencing a high volume of calls’ and I can ring back later. I’ll just put that down to non-chargeable wasted time...
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