“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” said Benjamin Franklin.

Well you can now experience both things at the same time, by losing the will to live while waiting interminably on the phone to get hold of the tax office.

As you may have seen in the Sunday Times exclusive article ‘Brace yourself for more HMRC chaos’ on the weekend, millions of people who are trying to get help with a problem around the new tax rules are waiting a year – a whole year – to get help from HMRC.

I hate calling the tax office with all my heart. But sometimes you have absolutely no choice in any way whatsoever. On one occasion last year, I spent 1 hour and 20 minutes calling various numbers after a rebate that I was given turned out to be an error. The tax office sent me a bill nine months later and backdated interest – despite this being their mistake! Oh and there was the late payment fine I received after they cancelled my direct debit in error. That was three calls over a full afternoon. Oh, and did I mention the three demands for outstanding tax payments that turned out to be randomly generated computer letters that nobody could explain.

An apology would have been nice. Maybe a bit of compensation. Alas, I am still awaiting them.

To my immense displeasure, the reason why I rarely cover tax matters in this column is because we are all basically stuck with HMRC and subject to its quirks and service. We can only learn to navigate the system, improve our chances of making a successful complaint and avoiding common errors.

But let’s be honest, what a rubbish state of affairs that is. HMRC needs a radical overhaul. The process needs simplifying and more money needs to be invested in customer relations teams. The current situation is unfair, bureaucratic and far too complicated. I feel a campaign coming on…

What’s the current problem with HMRC?

There are lots of reasons why you might have to call HMRC. A range of changes to tax policies has increased the number of enquiries that are being made. But with change come errors, mistakes and backlogs of appeals against fines and penalties are contributing to the problem.

The Sunday Times reported that urgent enquiries are currently taking an hour or more to be answered, often after a string of ‘cut off’s’ (this has happened to me repeatedly). In addition, postal enquiries are also reportedly taking up to a year.

This is a major issue, because if you or your accountant miss a deadline due to not being able to get information or help from the tax office, you will be fined and/or charged interest. This in turn can only be appealed by contacting HMRC.

How to handle HMRC: 5 tips for tackling delays

Do your preparation

In theory, your registered address should bring up all of your tax details. But not in my experience. I’ve often found that my details don’t show up on the system, or the correct information can’t be found without my information. So before you attempt to get in touch, gather together all of your reference numbers. This is important, because you’ll need a different number for each tax issue you complain about, like corporation tax enquires or VAT complaints, for example.

Here are some of the reference or ID numbers you might need to have to hand, depending on what you want help with:

  • Tax reference number. This is made up of ten digits, three numbers followed by seven letters and numbers. Businesses will have a similar number called the Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR).
  • National Insurance Number.
  • Government Gateway User ID. This is the number you use to access Government services. Annoyingly for dyslexics like me, this is a 12-digit number that you use with a password, including HMRC’s digital and online services.
  • Employer PAYE reference number. This is your reference number if you work for a business or organisation.
  • VAT registration number. For people paying Value Added Tax, this is a 9-digit number that beings with GB.

There are also a range of codes for employers and businesses.

You can just ignore the HMRC phone line requests for these numbers and keep clicking until you find your way through to an actual person. But the numbers and codes are the fastest way to get help when you get there. You don’t want to wait an hour to be told your details can’t be found.

Most of the HMRC helplines I’ve looked in to are open from 8am to 60m on Monday to Friday and are closed on national holidays and weekends. The busy times are exactly when you’d expect, lunchtimes and after work, along with first thing in the morning. So try to call late morning or mid-afternoon to cut your waiting time. 

Be nice

Many of the staff I speak to at HMRC are hard-working and keen to help as much as they can. Spare a through for them when you call. They’ve had people hurl abuse at them all day long. Acknowledging that they might be having a challenging day can really make a difference to them – and the service you receive.

Tempting as it is to have a rant, the fact remains you’ll make much more progress with HMRC staff if you explain your situation and ask them to talk you through all of the options. I find it helps to have an agenda. Write down the questions you want answering in advance – you’ll forget some of them while waiting on hold for ages.

Remember that helpline staff on not mind readers. You will need to spell out what it is that you want to resolve a problem in clear terms. Ask for written confirmation where possible (though in my experience this never turns up) and make sure you note down the name of the person you spoke to and the date and time, just in case the problem isn’t sorted out.

Dealing with financial difficulties

HMRC staff will have a range of option to help you with various problems. But these might not be exactly what you had in mind.

For example, I’ve been inundated by people who run small businesses who are struggling to pay their corporation tax or other bills. While HMRC can offer repayment plans, I was horrified to hear that they are charging interest on many of these options. This doesn’t exactly support struggling businesses after the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.

In order to set up one of these ‘time to pay’ arrangements, you’ll need to have some details to hand about your finances. It pays to plan out over what time period you’d like to pay the tax bill ideally. As with any other sector, if you are in financial difficulties, HMRC will need to know a budget, how much money you have coming in or going out and what savings or investments you may have.

Be pragmatic

Many of HMRC’s systems are automated. This means unless the computer is told to stop doing something, it won’t. This matters because if you are disputing a charge or a fine, then interest will continue to go on to the amount outstanding while the matter is investigated. Now if some problems are taking up to a year to resolve, then you could rack up a great deal of interest.

I hate having to advise this, but if you can afford it, it might make sense to pay the money, on the understanding that you’ll be making a complaint and seeking a full refund. You could even try charging them interest yourself, though I suspect this will be futile.

Beating the system

There are a range of numbers you can call to make a formal complaint to HMRC, depending on the tax or situation.

Make sure you’ve written down all the points you want to make and how you’d like HMRC to resolve the matter. Some enquiries can be resolved on the phone – like obvious errors. However, disputes over sums owed or late payments will usually involve making a written complaint.

You can do this through the Gov.uk online portal though you will need your Government Gateway user ID and password.  However, I’ve yet to receive a response to my complaints through the online portal. The same goes for written complaints. My four letters of complaint over the last two years have vanished off in to the ether, never to be heard from ever again.

In fact, despite spending ages researching and speaking to my fellow experts, I can’t find any tricks to expedite the process, other than to spell out on the phone the personal impact that a problem is having on you. If you have health problems or other specific needs, financial difficulties or are in a situation that requires urgent help, spell this out. The person on the helpline may just have the discretion to help – or might be able to get you through to someone who can.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

How to deal with HMRC delays in five steps

Please share me around

Share useful info with your friends