The government has sent personalised emails to an estimated two million eligible employers who operate PAYE systems with final details about how the furlough claim scheme will work and what employer reference codes will be required, with a step by step guide to how to use the furlough claim portal.
Emails were landing in business inboxes around 8pm on Friday night with a seven-page guide, issued by HM Government, detailing the furlough rules and instructions on how eligible businesses can apply. All claimants will need to have a Government Gateway ID and password, and an active PAYE enrolment.
As with most HMRC digital services, there will be no email confirmation of the transaction, which will help to reduce abuse of the furlough system. The application needs to be done in one session, as there is 'currently no save and return option. Sessions will time out after 30 minutes of inactivity'.
Accountancy Daily was told at 18h00 on Friday that an HMT notice will ‘soon’ be released by the Treasury and that ‘it will include information around the phone line’.
The online portal will be able to handle 450,000 applications an hour and the URL has only been sent to identified, bona fide PAYE employers.
In a briefing note HMRC said that ‘employers “should” then receive the cash transfer to pay their employees within six days, enabling them to meet the April payroll’.
To make a claim, employers will need their 11-digit HMRC 'Employer PAYE scheme reference number' to access the portal and details of the national insurance numbers of all furloughed employees, as well as your Corporation Tax Unique Taxpayer Reference (CTUTR), Self-Assessment Unique Taxpayer Reference (SAUTR) or Company Registration Number (CRN) as appropriate for each entity, plus bank details and so forth, to claim.
The HM Government guide, entitled Claim for your Employees' wages through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) - A step by step guide for employers, sent to eligible employers by email on 17 April, states: 'Once you have submitted the claim, you will see a confirmation screen where a claim reference number will be provided. Print the confirmation screen or note down the claim reference number provided - you will not receive an email confirmation'.
Larger employers with more than 100 staff will be able to upload csv. files and similar with all their furloughed employee details.
The HMRC is banking on the system being so easy to use that people will not have to use the coronavirus business helpline.
An estimated two million businesses are eligible to claim the 80% job support package.
The furlough portal will open at 8am on Monday 20 April giving a 10-day window to process claims before the month end for PAYE payroll reporting.
Claims will have to be submitted rapidly and HMRC is relying on a self-service online model with as little intervention as possible from tax officials.
The tax authority has already expressed concern that the 3,500 agents currently assigned to the dedicated covid-19 phone lines are unlikely to be able to handle the sheer volume of questions.
HMRC chief Jim Harra told MPs at the Treasury Committee on Wednesday 8 April, just over a week ago, that he was concerned that the lines would be ‘overwhelmed’ unless the number of agents was ramped up.
HMRC said trained agents will be manning the dedicated coronavirus helpline from 8am on launch morning, although the number of operators may have to be increased subject to Treasury announcements over the weekend [18-19 April]. Currently the opening hours for the coronavirus business helpline are limited to 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday only with no evening service.
Portal reliant on self-service approach
With two million businesses potentially making furlough claims as PAYE employers, the task for HMRC is daunting.
‘We have tested the new system up to a 450,000 volume of claims an hour,' Harra told MPs the same day the online portal went into its first client testing phase.
'The biggest challenge for us is to make sure the maximum number of employers can self serve so they do not have to contact us.
‘If they did, we would not be able to provide the level of service on our helplines.’
One saving grace, hopefully, is that HMRC has trained a total of 9,000 customer service agents ‘on the [furlough] issue’, who could be deployed if necessary.
Putting the onus on employers is the only way this can work as HMRC is facing enormous operational challenges due to the restrictions posed by having a massively dispersed HMRC workforce, forced to home work due to the strict lockdown rules.
Eight out of 10 HMRC staff are working remotely rather than in the tax authority’s traditional high tech bricks and mortar call centres, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are also data protection rules at play, namely the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which is why payroll bureaus are not allowed to use the online furlough portal.
Now alert to the high risks of potential fraud around the furlough system, HMRC ‘emailed two million employers today [17 April] providing a link to a five-step guide to claiming, as well as warning them to be aware of scams circulating and informing them that they don’t need to call us unless they have a problem. This is to keep the lines free for those who really need us’.
It is mandatory for any organisation that uses the furlough scheme to retain complete furlough records for at least five years for the purposes of government audit requirements, which would be conducted and managed by HMRC.
Typical of this whole experience, even at this late stage pre-launch the Treasury is still in the throes of finalising last minute details, with an HMT notice due to be released over the weekend of 18/19, containing more technical guidance.
There is no confirmation about the official opening hours for the telephone helplines with the current Coronavirus phone helplines only available during restricted hours and not at weekends, due to demand and also staff shortages due to the virus.
The job retention scheme rules allow businesses to furlough employees with the government paying cash grants of 80% of their wages up to a maximum of £2,500. It will now be available until 30 June instead of the original three-month period which was set to end on 31 May.
Payments can be backdated to 1 March with a 17 March RTI submission cut-off date.