Customer service at HMRC is at risk of being completely overwhelmed just a fortnight before the 31st January tax deadline – a time when taxpayers need the most support.
Waiting times for callers have nearly tripled since 2019, according to government data, with much of it caused by delays in dealing with online tax returns, which has created a huge backlog.
While many freelancers, contractors and self-employed workers have already submitted their self-assessment tax return, 5.4 million (out of 12.1 million) are still due to file it this month and calls to the taxman are expected to reach unprecedented levels.
In November 2020, wait times for calls increased to 12 minutes 45 seconds, up three minutes on October and almost three times as long when compared to November 2019.
Despite a drop in the number of requests submitted to HMRC, only half (47.4%) were turned around within seven days in November compared to 76.6 per cent in October and 94.4 per cent in November 2019.
Professional accountancy bodies and experts have called again on HMRC to extend the 31st January deadline, amid concerns about the taxman’s ability to cope. This is in addition to the added pressures businesses, accountants and the self-employed are facing because of the pandemic.
HMRC previously rejected this plea stating that moving the tax deadline would “complicate things”.
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on many people working for themselves, meaning they may not be able to pay their tax bills. Millions of self-employed workers have lost income and have had to rely on their savings in a bid to survive, having failed to qualify for the government support schemes.
Alasdair Hutchison, Policy Development Manager at self-employment trade body, IPSE, said: “2020 was a financially devastating year for the self-employed and their end of year tax bill will only add to their financial woes.
“This tax payment will be particularly hard to make for the estimated 1.5 million self-employed people who missed out on the SEISS and have now been without support for nearly a year. Not only that but many of the self-employed will be facing a bumper tax bill this January if they deferred their July self-assessment payment last year while struggling without income.
“We urge the government to do the decent thing and adopt a more lenient approach to self-employed taxes. In these extreme and unprecedented circumstances, it should certainly not penalise late payment of taxes owed, which would only feel like another kick in the teeth after a difficult year.”
Accountants too have had to navigate the changing rules around government-backed grants and loans for their clients, while also dealing with their regular work. Add to that people falling ill with Coronavirus or taking care of family members, which has made things even more difficult.
The problems faced are expected to lead to a rise in the number of tax returns filed late and subsequently the number of appeals, which will only add to HMRC’s workload.
Helen Thornley, Technical Officer at the Association of Taxation Technicians, told The Times: “We want greater understanding about the unprecedented pressures that accountants and tax advisers are under at the moment. Asking agents and their clients to appeal against penalties simply adds to the workload in February and March.”
A spokesperson at HMRC. said: “Like other service organisations, we have been impacted by the pandemic and we’re doing all we can to offer the best possible service to our customers, whether it’s supporting them with their taxes or delivering the government’s support schemes.
“Wait times on some of our helplines are longer than we would like, and we’re sorry about the inconvenience this causes to customers at busy times. Our digital services are available 24 hours a day, and customer satisfaction for them is very high, so we encourage customers to go online where they can.”