The Public Has a Right to Expect Officials to Answer the Phone Promptly

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HMRCOfficials work under pressure but members of the public who they serve have the right to expect that they will answer the phone promptly. A tribunal made that point as it upheld a company’s challenge to a surcharge levied for late payment of VAT.

The company had experienced unexpected cash flow problems and its agent had made several attempts to contact HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to request extra time to pay its quarterly VAT bill. However, the phone line kept going dead and contact was not made until after the due date had passed. In those circumstances, HMRC levied a penalty surcharge of 10 per cent of the VAT bill.

In upholding the company’s appeal against the surcharge, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) found that it had a reasonable excuse for the late payment. It was reasonable to expect telephone calls to HMRC to be answered without delay and the agent had done all that he could to make contact in time. The repeated disconnection of his calls was unexpected and unforeseeable.

The FTT rejected HMRC’s plea that it was a particularly busy time in the tax year and that the agent should have been aware that there was a strong likelihood of it having to cope with a large number of calls. HMRC did not publish times at which its lines were likely to be busy and it bore responsibility for putting arrangements in place to cope when a high volume of telephone traffic was expected. The surcharge was quashed.