Beleaguered government department HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is facing fresh anger as its helpline for tax credits renewals is jammed, with some benefit recipients unable to get through for two weeks.

Anxious claimants have complained on our forum, via email and on this site's Facebook page that they are unable to get through (see the Tax Credits guide).

Many are desperately trying to hand over information to ensure their payments do not stop or to dispute a notice that they've been paid too much and now owe money back.

Even though much of this can be done in writing, the system is so complicated that most people first need help from a human being.

Tax credits are payouts, sometimes of thousands of pounds a year, from the state to support those with children or in work, but with a low income.

The latest tale of woe comes after the crisis-hit department's blunder which saw 6.6 million pay the wrong amount of tax for the 2008/09 and 2009/10 financial years, with 1.4 million of those set to receive demands for underpaid tax totalling an average 1,400.

Jammed for weeks

One tax credit claimant writes on our Facebook page: "Does anyone know why the tax credits office phone line is always busy? Been trying for 2 weeks.... aaarrrggg!"

Another says: "I have to update my tax credits claim with my childcare costs, but I am unable to get through to the helpline. It constantly says it is busy from morning first thing until 8pm that night."

When we tested the service today it took 14 minutes to have our call answered by a human being.

Martin Lewis, creator, says: "The tax credits system is ludicrously over-complicated. It is virtually impossible for anyone to work out how much they're due. The only lifeline is the hotline.

"So, gradually, you can almost see the steam appearing over the nation's houses as the level of anger continues to ramp up and people queue, worry and panic that they'll be penalised further.

"For the last few years, my big message is the only way to avoid problems if anything changes is 'tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em'. But that's not easy if they're not answering the phone."

In fact, the lines have been jammed since late July as the deadline to renew tax credits, to ensure benefit payments continue, fell on 31 July.

But the chaos continued into August and now September, firstly because many people who couldn't get through before the end of July continued to try (see the Tax credits delays MSE News story).

Now, as notices telling people their payments will stop because they didn't renew on time or that they were paid too much are arriving, it is putting further pressure on the system as many more people call.

An HMRC spokeswoman says: "We apologise for any inconvenience caused. It is all hands to the pump at the moment and we have drafted more staff in. We suggest you keep trying but we know it is frustrating."

I can't get through. What do I do?

  • If you missed the renewal date. You still have 60 days from receiving the letter stating payments will end to re-apply without losing out financially. HMRC says you should keep trying its lines or write to the tax credit office. The address should be on the correspondence you receive.

    The termination letters will state a 30-day deadline, though HMRC has extended that limit since the letters were printed. The 30-day buffer is standard, though it is rarely publicised. If you miss the deadline, you can re-apply but you may lose some cash owed until the payments re-start (see the Tax Credits Renewals guide).

  • If you dispute an overpayment. If you owe money because you were paid too much you will either be asked for payment or your future benefits will fall to make up the difference. If you dispute a claim you overpaid, you need to let HMRC know as soon possible, though there is no deadline.

    Overpayments happen because awards are based on your estimated circumstances which can change throughout the year (see the Tax Credits Overpayments guide). By law, you must tell HMRC within a month if certain, but not all, circumstances change (see the Tax Credit Changes guide for full details).

    Don't worry if you can't get through to dispute an overpayment by phone as this can be done in writing. See the HMRC website for guidance. If you cannot afford to repay, HMRC should let you spread or even forgo repayments, but this request must be made by phone on 0845 300 3900 (or 01355 359007).

Further reading/Key links

Tax credit guide: Tax Credits
Check benefits: Benefits Check-Up