December 21, 2023 11:45 am

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Nikka Sulton

According to a business consultancy, there are concerns about the effectiveness of the HMRC Self-Assessment helpline, particularly in assisting those nearing the tax return deadline. Sarah Coles, Head of Personal Finance at Hargreaves Lansdown, suggests that this year, the helpline seems reluctant to help callers with queries that could be resolved easily online, unless they are classified as vulnerable customers. This implies that if you contact them for tasks like updating personal details, checking your self-assessment registration, or requesting your unique taxpayer reference number, you’ll be redirected to the website.

This reported shift in approach raises questions about the accessibility and support provided to non-vulnerable customers seeking assistance through the helpline. As taxpayers often rely on these services to address specific issues related to their self-assessment, the emphasis on online solutions may impact those who prefer or need direct human interaction for various reasons. This change may prompt discussions about the balance between online efficiency and personalized customer support within the HMRC’s services, especially during crucial periods like tax return submissions.

“While it eliminates the annoyance of waiting on the phone, the trade-off might be a longer process in tracking down necessary information. Starting early during the Christmas break can be beneficial,” suggests Coles, emphasizing the importance of proactive tax return preparations.

According to Coles’ analysis of last year’s filing data, a significant number of individuals, totaling 22,060, submitted their tax returns between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. Interestingly, there were 141 filings that occurred between 11 pm and midnight on Christmas Eve, highlighting the diverse timelines people choose for this task.

The peak filing hour over the three days was observed between noon and 1 pm on Boxing Day, with 953 returns filed. Notably, 319 filings took place at the same time on Christmas Day, underscoring the varying preferences of individuals during the holiday season. These insights emphasize the need for flexibility and early planning to navigate the tax return process smoothly.”

In January, a substantial 5.7 million individuals found themselves yet to submit their tax returns, with a notable 36,767 opting to file within the final hour before the deadline. The approaching self-assessment period introduces a shift in the helpline’s approach, with a focus on resolving queries online for the majority of cases, excluding those facing accessibility challenges. This adjustment, encompassing about a third of calls from the previous December and January, encourages taxpayers to take charge of resolving routine matters independently.

Sarah Coles highlights the trend of individuals seizing the Christmas break to complete their tax returns, citing last year’s 319 submissions during the festive lunchtime. With HMRC’s helpline narrowing its scope to more complex queries, this strategic shift aligns with a growing number of taxpayers taking advantage of the holiday period. As the helpline places emphasis on online resolution, utilizing the Christmas break provides a conducive environment for individuals to tackle their tax-related tasks autonomously. The decision to engage on Christmas Day is left to the discretion of the individual taxpayer.


She’s giving six tips to landlords and others who need to compile self-assessment returns, urging them to get the work done over the Christmas period.


1) It gives you time to get into the system

When you sign up to file your return online for the first time, you’ll need to sign up for the Government Gateway, and wait for your code to arrive by post. If you’re in this position, at least do this over the break, so you’re ready to get started in the new year. If you’ve used the system before, sign in now and check you haven’t forgotten your log-in details. If you can’t remember your details, you can take the time to reset them, and if you enter the wrong code five times and are locked out, the fact your account will be locked for two hours is far less devastating than if you were doing this at 11pm on January 31;


2) You have time (and possibly help) to get to grips with the new tools

Now that the helpline is offering less support, there’s an awful lot of online information, but you’ll need to get familiar with it. This includes everything from new tools to a digital assistant – which can either be very helpful or extremely frustrating. There are also lots of guidance notes and help sheets, plus YouTube videos if you prefer to learn that way. You can even download the new app to file your return. For some people, this will all be straightforward, for others Christmas is a good opportunity to get some help from any tech-savvy members of your family;


3) There’s time to make up for shoddy admin

If you’re not great at filing, you can stagger the process, and close the admin gaps gradually. Day one could be about tracking down paperwork, and ordering copies of anything you can’t find. This includes details of interest on savings accounts and dividends on shares outside an ISA, pension statements, plus proof of any employment income and benefits. If you work for yourself, you’ll want bank statements, sales invoices, receipts for expenses and paying-in books. If you received income from letting property, you need letting agreements, and bills for expenses and management fees. Day two might be to tackle your receipts – especially if you keep them in a pile, or at the bottom of a drawer;


4) You can delve into the details and claim everything you can

Check you are claiming for all the reliefs and exemptions available to you. This includes pension tax relief and gift aid for higher rate taxpayers. If you’re self-employed, there are some expenses you may normally overlook, so check the small print and see if you can reclaim it. This includes everything from printer toner to car breakdown cover and parking and a share of housing costs if you work from home (including heating, electricity and council tax);


5) You have longer to find the money

The earlier you do your tax return, the longer you have to find the cash to pay your bill. By this stage, it doesn’t give you a vast amount of time to save. However, it does give you an opportunity to weigh up your options if you can’t afford your bill. As long as you file the paperwork within 60 days of the deadline (and as long as you don’t owe more than £30,000), you’ll have the opportunity to use a Time-to-Pay arrangement to spread the cost of your tax bill over the following 12 months. However, bear in mind you are charged interest and that this rises every time the base rate does, so right now debts attract interest at eight per cent;

6) You have time for tax planning

In most cases, anything you do now will affect the following year’s tax return, but there are few ‘carry back’ opportunities, which will cut your bill for the year you’re filing a return for. If you give money to charity using gift aid, the charity will reclaim basic rate tax, but higher and additional rate taxpayers need to claim the difference through their tax return.



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