HMRC to close major phone line that received millions of calls last year

By Staff

The changes mean that from April to September, the self-assessment helpline will be closed and customers will be directed to use online services and from October to March, the helpline will be open only for priority calls

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has been criticised for deciding to shut the self-assessment helpline for part of the year.

HMRC explained that they’ve been trying out a new way where people get help online first, and it’s worked well over the last year so from April 8, this will be how things are done all the time.

But Harriett Baldwin, who leads the Treasury Select Committee, isn’t happy about everyone being pushed to use online services. She pointed out that HMRC has not yet shown that the department or the public “are ready to make such a monumental change to how they resolve tax issues”.

Ms Baldwin said: “It is a great shame that HMRC have decided now is the time to essentially close down any avenues for people to contact them over the phone for huge parts of the year. I say once again, these are well-meaning people just trying to get their taxes right.”

“We’ve heard time and time again that every effort is being made to direct people to resolve issues online. The committee welcomes efforts to make the tax system more efficient but HMRC has not yet demonstrated that the department or the public are ready to make such a monumental change to how they resolve tax issues.

“This should not be forced upon taxpayers until there is evidence that people know how to do their taxes on HMRC’s incredibly complex website.”

The changes mean that from April to September, the self-assessment helpline will be closed and customers will be directed to use online services. From October to March, the helpline will be open for priority calls, with customers having queries “that can be quickly and easily resolved” online being directed to HMRC’s online services.

The VAT helpline will be open five days every month before the deadline for filing VAT returns. The PAYE helpline will stop taking calls about refunds, and customers will be advised to use HMRC’s online services.

HMRC advisers will still be available during normal office hours to help customers who can’t use online services or need extra support due to health or personal circumstances. All other helplines will continue as they are now.

HMRC said moving to online self-service for self-assessment and VAT is a key part of modernising the tax system. Customers can get information more quickly and easily by going online or using the HMRC app.

Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s second permanent secretary and deputy chief executive, said: “Online services have transformed our lives and often provide a better service for managing tax they’re quicker, easier and always available.”

“Changing our services to encourage customers to self-serve online wherever possible will allow our helpline advisers to focus support where it is most needed helping those with complex tax queries and those who are vulnerable and need extra support.”

“We must maximise every pound of taxpayers’ money. Embracing online self-service allows us to help more customers and improve our customer service levels without spending additional public money.”

HMRC said a previous trial enabled it to help more customers and did not affect self-assessment taxpayers’ ability to file or pay on time with a record 11.5 million filing their return by January 31 2024.

Self-assessment customers have 10 months to file their tax return and more than 97% file online, it added. The HMRC app is used by 1.2 million customers each month. As with the self-assessment trials, the impact of these changes on the self-assessment, VAT and PAYE helplines will be monitored and reviewed, HMRC said.

It added that, last year, HMRC received more than three million calls on queries that could easily and simply be done online including resetting an online password, getting a tax code, and finding a national insurance number. People whose query is not dealt with by online guidance will still have access to an HMRC adviser through webchat.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: “HMRC have previously set out their plans to ensure that they are investing in their technology to ensure they’re reaching as many customers as possible.”

When asked if the Prime Minister thinks HMRC’s customer service record is good, he replied: “Of course he thinks HMRC’s customer service record is good, but he recognises there’s always more to do and would recognise some of the challenges that HMRC have faced.”

Dawn Register, head of tax dispute resolution at advisory firm BDO, commented: “Digital innovation is clearly a benefit to taxpayers, but online guidance, digital assistants and webchat facilities only go so far. The tax system is complicated, people’s financial affairs are complicated, and there are times when taxpayers simply need to speak to a human being to find out the answers to their questions.”

“Tax can be horribly stressful and our concern is that this decision will make being tax compliant more challenging for some people. It’s welcome that HMRC continues to modernise its systems as adding additional functionality to the HMRC app may help more taxpayers self-serve online, but it is essential that digitally excluded and vulnerable taxpayers can find out how to get HMRC support without using the app or going online.”

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