Complaining to HMRC

Complaining to HMRC
One of my relatives has been having trouble with HMRC. They have got it into their heads that at some point in the last few years he was self-employed and did not declare his profits, and they have been making ever-increasing demands for tax on this imaginary venture of his.


He has consistently denied that he was ever self-employed, and has pointed out over and over again that for many years he has been an employee taxed under the PAYE system. This has made no impression on them, and the demands and threats keep coming.


When I saw him over Christmas, I tried to persuade him to let me have a go at HMRC for him – I explained that from what he had told me, I would regard intervening on his behalf not as a favour but as a distinct pleasure. I even offered to do it for nothing, which shows how keen I was to get stuck in!


My relative is highly intelligent and articulate, and has a job that involves communicating for his living, but even he has had no success in dealing with the tax office. He told me that just before Christmas he had had yet another phone conversation with yet another official who said that everything would now be sorted out. I pointed out that he had been told the same thing on several previous occasions, and he finally agreed that if things were not sorted out in the New Year he would let me off the lead to do some serious ankle-biting.


I don’t know why he is so reluctant to avail himself of my services – I suspect that it has something to with the fact that he is an Oxford graduate and doesn’t like the idea that he needs the help of a Cambridge man to get him out of trouble.


The mistake he has been making, and it is one which many people make in their dealings with HMRC, is to assume he is dealing with a rational organisation. I am not suggesting that all HMRC officers are insane – I am merely making the point that the way the department is set up means that unless you know how to make them do something, you will not succeed in getting them to do it.


One of my clients, a somewhat cynical accountant, has a theory about how things work in large organisations. He expounded this theory to me in the context of his internet service provider who had caused him a lot of grief when installing new software, but I am sure he would agree that it applies equally to HMRC.


His theory is that it is more cost effective for large organisations to place the responsibility for dealing with the public in the hands of junior (i.e., low cost) employees who have neither the training nor the experience to provide an adequate service, and to regard the cost of dealing with the resulting complaints and payments of compensation as an unavoidable part of their overheads.


If you are being messed around by HMRC, after you have tried to get things sorted at the local level and failed, there is no point in persisting with them. Complain, formally and in writing, to the “Complaints Manager” at the tax office you are dealing with.  Your problem will then be referred, quite swiftly, to someone with the experience and the authority to deal with it. In more serious cases, your complaint will be referred to a specialist HMRC office in Scotland whose sole job is to sweep up the messes made by their colleagues.


HMRC apparently regard complaints as to be expected, having set up such a specialist office to deal with them, and their website sets out the procedures to be followed at


A couple of examples will illustrate the sort of thing I have in mind:


·         Last year, I needed my PAYE code to be changed, for various reasons connected with a change in my business arrangements. I wrote to my tax office setting out in detail what had changed and what needed doing, and had no reply and no action for months despite two reminders. I sent in a formal complaint to the relevant Complaints Manager and the code was changed forthwith, with a courteous apology for the delay in dealing with my original letter.


·         The Accounts Office in Shipley “lost” a tax payment made by one of my clients (despite having banked the cheque) and despite numerous phone calls explaining the situation and proof that the cheque had been banked, issued surcharge notices for non-payment of tax. After we made a formal complaint she was paid around £100 to compensate her for our fees for chasing HMRC about the matter.


I have complained to HMRC about much more serious mistakes – including a gross breach of security involving sending tax details to a third party without my client’s consent – but I have chosen the above two examples because they are the sort of thing that a few years ago I would have dealt with by ringing up the appropriate inspector or possibly the District Inspector (there were giants in those days!), and sorting it out on the phone.


I regret to say that this no longer works. In the case of the security breach referred to above, in fact, one of the local inspectors tried to sort it out, but was defeated by the “procedures” the staff responsible claimed they had to follow.


I am not encouraging trivial complaints, and in particular I am not encouraging complaints as a tactic if HMRC are on to you and you simply wish they would leave you alone. To misquote a legal maxim slightly, “he who asks for justice must come with clean hands”.


Regard every contact you may have with HMRC as one that may ultimately lead to a complaint, and follow these basic rules:


·         If you use the phone, get the full name of the officer you are speaking to (if they refuse to give you this, ask to speak to their supervisor, as they are required to do so), and make a written note of the conversation as soon as you ring off, giving the name of the person you spoke to and the date of the conversation as well as a summary of what was said.


·         Keep copies of any letters you send to HMRC or receive from them


·         If you have to complain, follow the procedure set out on HMRC’s website (but always write to the Complaints Manager rather than telephoning him) and include copies of all correspondence and your notes of telephone conversations in your letter.


It is sad that this is now the only way to deal with HMRC, but the problem is of their own making.


James Bailey