HMRC cuts back use of helplines

HMRC cuts back use of helplines

Mar 22, 2024

HMRC will close the self assessment helpline permanently for six months a year except for complex enquiries and cut back the VAT helpline

This follows a temporary closure of the helpline for three months last summer from July to September.

The changes will come into effect on 8 April but there was no mention of any changes to the agent dedicated line. However, HMRC is monitoring use of ADL, and in an email to agents said: ‘Calls to the ADL should only be for queries that cannot be resolved online. We’ll continue to monitor the ADL as part of our work in encouraging customers and agents to go online.

Last year HMRC received more than three million calls on basic queries that can be sorted online – resetting an online password, getting a tax code and finding National Insurance numbers.

HMRC said that was the ‘equivalent of 500 people working full time to answer just those calls’.

HMRC said: ‘Changes to helpline services will become a permanent feature after being successfully trialled.’

Between April and September, the self assessment helpline will be closed and customers will be directed to self-serve through HMRC’s online services.

Between October and March the helpline will be open to deal with ‘priority queries’, although the nature of these calls is not defined.

There are also significant changes to the VAT helpline, which will only be open for five days every month ahead of the deadline for filing VAT returns. Outside of this time, taxpayers will be directed to use HMRC’s online services.

As signalled last month, the PAYE helpline will no longer take calls from taxpayers relating to refunds.

HMRC said ‘advisers will continue to always be available during normal office opening hours to support customers who cannot use online services or who have health or personal circumstances that mean they need extra support’.

The remaining helplines will continue to operate as they do currently.

Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s deputy chief executive, said: ‘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.’

The impact of these changes to self assessment, VAT and PAYE helplines will be monitored and reviewed.

HMRC said: ‘This will allow HMRC’s staff to be moved to where they are most needed throughout the year and to enable the department to better react to peaks in demand to provide a more consistent service.’

The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) said the permanent cuts were ‘misguided’ and people still wanted to speak a human adviser.

CIOT president Gary Ashford said: ‘We are deeply dismayed that, so soon after the criticisms levelled at them by the Public Accounts Committee, and in the light of an inconclusive evaluation, HMRC have decided to make these big, permanent cuts to the help they provide to taxpayers.

‘If last year’s announcement of the summer closure of the self-assessment helpline was a “flashing indicator” that HMRC can’t cope, these announcements are a blinding light.

‘HMRC’s own evaluation of both the closure of the helpline in summer 2023, and the helpline restrictions during the 2024 self-assessment peak, concluded that it is too early to say if there has been a long-term shift from phone contact to online self-service. Yet HMRC have decided to go ahead anyway.’

There is still strong evidence that people want to speak to an HMRC official with 68% of taxpayers who used the self-assessment digital assistant during the summer asking to speak to a webchat adviser, albeit this merely for a one-to-one conversation.

Until HMRC improve the website and digital offering, there will be little trust that self service can replace human contact.

‘HMRC’s digital services are still far from fully functional, and the answers can still be difficult or impossible to find online,’ said Ashford.

‘Unless and until automated digital services can be radically improved HMRC must be provided with the resources to provide all year round, well-publicised help and advice to taxpayers from a human adviser over phone and webchat.’