HM Revenue & Customs missed the calls of almost 100,000 taxpayers when its phone lines went down last week in the run-up to a crucial tax deadline.
No-one was able to reach the taxman on the phone between the afternoon of Thursday 1 December until the following Monday, with the department also forced to shut some online services.
Taxpayers experienced issues contacting HMRC between Thursday and the following Monday, although its phone lines are usually closed over the weekend. The outage came in the run up to the online self-assessment deadline next month and a crucial window for millions of taxpayers to contact HMRC before Christmas.
The taxman blamed the telephone blackout on an IT glitch which meant users of its web services “experienced lost connection and a slow running service”.
This included its transit service, the New Computerised Transit System, used when moving goods in and out of the country and PAYE services used by employers. The outage was so severe that HMRC advised traders delivering goods not to travel to ports.
In a letter to MPs, Jim Harra, chief executive of HMRC, said: “In order to restore the performance of [the] NCTS and keep freight flowing across the border, we decided to ‘shutter’ PAYE Online from users and to close all of our telephony helplines.”
Mr Harra estimated the taxman had missed 99,000 calls during the outage.
It took HMRC four days to restore its services and it has come under heavy criticism for leaving taxpayers in the lurch.
Harriett Baldwin, Conservative MP for West Worcestershire and chair of the Treasury Committee, said: “It’s worrying to hear 99,000 taxpayer calls were potentially missed during this outage.
“I am especially concerned that crucial income tax, customs and telephony systems appear so vulnerable. HMRC must investigate what went wrong here, and report back to us on what lessons can be learned as soon as possible.”
Millions of taxpayers are also adjusting to a deluge of tax rises announced in last month’s Autumn Statement, when the Chancellor reduced the threshold for the top rate of income tax, extended the freeze on the personal allowance and cut tax-free allowances on dividends and capital gains tax.
Mr Harra added that all of HMRC’s services were now operating normally.
An HMRC spokesperson said: “We apologise to those affected by the closure of our phone lines last week and thank them for their patience.
“Throughout the incident, most of our customer-facing online services, such as self assessment online filing, were unaffected and remained available to users.”