HMRC helplines closed – who will suffer the most?

14 June 2023

As an experiment, I tried to see how to obtain a paper return, as people would need to do if they did not wish to submit online and had minimal internet access. The deadline for submitting a paper return for the 2022/23 tax year is 31 October 2023 and there were reportedly over 385,000 taxpayers who still submitted paper tax returns for the 2021/22 tax year. Will these taxpayers have a fighting chance of avoiding a £100 late filing penalty or is HMRC set for a windfall from fines of its own making by closing down the phonelines?

HMRC initially announced this year that it would stop people from downloading paper tax returns from its website, only to later U-turn on this decision. Unfortunately, this detail does not appear to have made it through to HMRC’s website. The guidance clearly indicates that individuals should still phone for a paper return. If one were to persist in their search, and it’s unclear why they would, you can find a blank 2022/23 tax return that could seemingly be printed off. However, many taxpayers will no doubt be deterred by the advice on the HMRC website page stating that the return is ‘for reference only’.

Putting myself back in the shoes of a taxpayer who came up against these barriers, I followed the guidance to try and find a phone number to request a paper return. I located a number online without excessive difficulty, and I called the line, which was still open. It rather firmly advised me I should file online and went silent. Luckily, I did not hang up and it then admitted I could still do a paper return and they could send me one but it could take two weeks to get there.

So far so good. Then there was another hiatus and I was told that all of their lines were too busy to deal with me and I should call back. Disappointing.

I was surprised that during the call they suggested calling the self-assessment helpline, with no warning of its closure. I thought I would give it a try and was told it was closed until 4 September, so both HMRC’s website and recorded communications are not up to date.

They did suggest using the chatbot, so I thought I would give that a shot. It was surprisingly hard to find, but I gamely asked it how to get a paper return. Unfortunately, it directed me back to the original links I found at the start of my quest, and I surrendered.

If somebody who is experienced with computers and does not have to use assistive technology has this much trouble, there seems little hope for the digitally excluded. Apart from anything else, I obtained the original number via the internet and I am not sure how else I would obtain it, even if it was of little use in the end.

I suppose one could write in requesting a form, but we all know that HMRC’s post is also heavily in arrears. There is every chance the request would not be actioned until after the 31 October deadline.

In particular the silences which sounded like the call was over and that what I wanted was impossible, and the directions to the closed helpline were very disappointing. As far as calling back for the form I would presumably have to go through the whole process again, there was no option to wait to speak to an assistant even if I wanted to, and I was cut off. This could be an extremely long process.

HMRC has to understand that no one can cover every possibility with a website and that there is a substantial portion of the population who do not access services via computers. These people need help and support, not a chatbot. At the moment, even obtaining a paper tax return from HMRC is more like a quest than a simple request.