So you want to know what’s behind all those Inland Revenue customers who never get through to the telephone help service? Thinking of putting your tax affairs online? Read on and ponder as Not Exactly Fishing reveals the reality of everyday dealing with the Revenue via the internet.

THE HEARST empire is safe. This online angling magazine does not generate huge sums of money: if I am exceedingly lucky, enough for an occasional wild trout expedition somewhere in the western Highlands of Scotland, with very modest outlays.

But I do do the honest thing and declare my income each year to the frightfully nice people at the tax office. Grovel, grovel.

I submitted my wife’s and my own tax returns online for the first time last December. Once I got the hang of how the online form worked, it was fairly straightforward to complete, with some helpful quick aids for calculating bank interest.

But that’s where the help ended. When I uploaded my tax return I got an official receipt time-stamped exactly 12 hours EARLIER than when I hit the send button. I emailed HMRC to warn them, and eventually many weeks later, received a telephone call which said they couldn’t explain or replicate it and were treating it as a one-off. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, I waited for a tax rebate which the online system calculated I was due. After a few weeks I went back online and checked my self assessment account with the following results.

Yes, there it is in black and white. A  tax refund due for a few hundred pounds.  Do you want to order a repayment, the screen asks? I have never had to ask for a repayment before, but I am happy to go along with the request.

So I click the Yes, please button.  I enter two screenfuls of data about me and what bank account the money should go to.  And click: Continue. Absolutely nothing happens.  I retry. Nothing.  I try a different web browser in case it is my machine. Nothing.

I click on various help and guidance menus which offer no relevant assistance.  I hate being charged for phone calls to the Revenue, so I decide to email them. I find a webpage with a form which invites me to explain the problem. I fill in the info and click: Send.   The HMRC system says: “Application error. Please try again later.”

I do this twice while breathing deeply to keep the blood pressure at a reasonable level.  Then I copy an  address for the HMRC technical helpline into an email on my own computer.  I ask: Are you awfully nice people at HMRC having some problems with your system today? I can’t claim a tax refund or send you an email using your own forms to ask about it.  Send: Off it goes.

I sign off and go to the gym to take my mind off it and relieve mounting tension.

Several hours later . . .  I return.  Aha. I have a reply to my email. But it is merely a system-generated response which tells me in 10 useless paragraphs why it cannot answer my question and invites me to “contact my Tax Office in the Phone  Book under Inland Revenue”.

Alas, there is nothing under Inland Revenue in the phone book any more.  I find it under Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.

I phone the 0845 number.  I am passed through two automated call handlers, the second of which says: “We are experiencing exceptional levels of inquiries.  All our assistants are engaged. Please call again later.”  Click, Trrrrrrrrrrrr. Disconnected.

I go back online and find a phone number for the online technical help team.  I go through about four sets of automatic call handlers and to my amazement, after about five minutes, the call is answered. Yes, says the young woman, the online repayment system is not accepting requests.  It will not be fixed until some time in April.  You’ll have to call your local tax office.

She also tells me the fault is listed under “System Availability” on the Revenue’s home page, but she fails to talk me through finding it after negotiating about six different web pages.  “You managed to bury the information fairly successfully”, I remark and hang up.

I now hate HMRC with the vengeance of Don Corleone. I phone a different 0845 number.  Same result, exceptionally busy.  I dig out my tax correspondence and find my latest Notice of Coding which I recollect has come from Portsmouth.  It has a different number.  I call it.  I go through two automatic call handlers and yea, the number starts ringing.   “We will answer your call”, advises a recorded voice.  “Please continue to hold”.  I listen to orchestral music for a further seven minutes. Then, without warning there is a Click, trrrrrrrr. Disconnected.

I try another two numbers just for fun.  They are both experiencing exceptional levels of inquiries. Finally two calls later, I speak to a woman in a Glasgow tax office. She asks me all the usual security questions and listens to my query.

But she cannot give me any information. All my files are indeed held in Portsmouth.  But I thought this was an online operation, I ask. Only the local office can discuss my case, she says.  Local office? Portsmouth?  I live in Glasgow for God’s sake, I rant.

I have made around a dozen phone calls, spoken to two polite, but unhelpful staff, and wasted a huge amount of time.   If I was a member of the HMRC staff I would not be taking any dark roads home in future.

Sadly, I know in my heart of hearts I cannot win this debate. I also know that if I owed the HMRC money it would now be attracting penalty interest at an exhorbitant rate and the boys with the chequered hats would be at the door.  So I resort to pen and paper.

Dear Sir, as a last resort can you tell me if you are the office which handles my self assessment and what I have to do to receive a tax rebate?

I’ll let you know if I get a reply, and when.  That’s if the Post Office isn’t dealing with exceptional levels of mail to the HMRC.

I remain,

Your humble, obedient and irate servant
Etc etc