HMRC’s closure of the Self Assessment Helpline ‘not good enough’

HMRC, News, Personal Tax,

HMRC announced recently its self-assessment telephone helpline will be closed until the 4th September 2023. Just one week’s notice of the decision was given before the lines closed, and there was no consultation.

Anyone looking for help with their self-assessment will now have to use digital services, which HMRC is continuing to trial, with online guidance, digital assistance and web chat.

HMRC’s view

HMRC claims the self-assessment helpline has 50% less demand over the summer, though around 5 million calls are made to the number every year. 

Between June and August 2022, nearly 1.2m people called the helpline, with over 900,000 staying on the line to try and reach an agent, with the remainder deciding not to wait on hold.

HMRC said as part of their announcement that the move will free up 350 advisers who will be able to take on ‘more urgent’ calls on other lines. 

The Treasury Committee Response

HMRC’s decision has been criticised by the Treasury Committee, who were particularly unhappy at the lack or notice and consultation. 

Harriett Baldwin MP, chair of the Treasury Committee, said: ‘I am disappointed by the lack of detail and transparency displayed by the leadership of HMRC in response to my questions on the summer closure of an important taxpayer helpline. There is clearly a lack of clarity over the impact this decision will have on taxpayers. This simply isn’t good enough. These decisions should not be taken in haste and with no consultation, and as a Committee, we will be keeping a close eye on developments in this area.’

HMRC deputy chief executive Angela MacDonald had answered queries from the Committee, saying: ‘The decision to pilot a seasonal telephony model for SA was taken based on the need to improve overall customer service levels. This is also set against the context of the challenging level of efficiencies required by our Spending Review 2021 settlement. This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve.

‘We recognise that this pilot will test a significant change in our services and will need careful monitoring, but our analysis shows that we should be able to handle the vast majority of SA queries over the summer through our digital service, backed up with a webchat adviser service. We will evaluate how our customers respond to this digital shift and use this experience to improve SA and other services in the future.’

The suggestion by the committee that the closure was due to either a lack of resources or the effect of HMRC employees working from home was rejected by Ms MacDonald, who said ‘I can reassure the Committee that this pilot is not related to our flexible working policies in any way. No fewer people will be employed answering enquiries and processing customers’ tax affairs, no staff will be working fewer hours, and nobody will be doing less. The staff who would have been on this phone line will be working in other customer service roles during the pilot.’

The state of things to come?

This suggests that HMRC are no longer entirely focussed on encouraging and facilitating the early preparation and submission of Tax Returns. 

More worryingly, HMRC didn’t dismiss the possibility that the closure could become permanent, saying ‘Data collected during the pilot period will allow us to assess how the SA service is used, any impacts on other lines and services, customer feedback, and customer behaviour. This will include monitoring any additional contact through other HMRC telephone lines and via post.’

They went on to point out that over 60% of calls to the helpline could be resolved online.

Given this closure is purportedly a pilot, HMRC have committed to make a final assessment of its effectiveness in early 2024, and will then publish an evaluation report early next year.

Our view…

We are not fans of this announcement from HMRC!

We agree that the summer period is likely to be quieter in terms of queries, but activity increases dramatically and rapidly later in the year. The problem is that there are no assurances or explanations from HMRC as to how they will deal with the additional call volumes that will surely arise if their usual summer callers simply delay their calls until the helpline reopens.

Encouraging taxpayers to ‘self-serve’ by finding information online assumes that information is relatively easy to find, which we know is definitely not currently the case!

HMRC stated as part of their response that they are ‘working hard at extending and improving our online services, which will enable customers to self-serve at times and in ways that are convenient for them’. This flexibility would be really helpful if the services were reliable; we would have liked to see these options receive considerable attention and be proven before taxpayers are forced to rely on them.

Our recent experience with getting authorised by clients for access to the new HMRC Income Record Viewer access has proved their existing online processes simply aren’t sufficient. We have had numerous conversations with clients in recent weeks who’ve had a wide range of issues around what should be a simple process, and are incredibly aware of the time that has been lost by all parties as a result. 

Finally, the closure of the Self Assessment Helpline, whether for a trial or extended period, takes no account of those people for whom using the internet is difficult, who have involved queries, or who simply aren’t confident around technology.

In case you’d not realised, we’re not impressed!

If you have any queries relating to your personal tax return, we’re here to help whether HMRC are or not, so please get in touch. We’ll obviously keep an eye on any new announcements that come from HMRC, and will keep you informed along the way.

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