HMRC u-turns on ‘misguided’ decision to cut helplines

HMRC u-turns on ‘misguided’ decision to cut helplines

Mar 25, 2024

In less than 24 hours HMRC has abandoned plans to permanently close helplines as it reels from angry criticism of the decision

After the announcement yesterday that HMRC was to close the self assessment helpline for six months from April and ravage the VAT helpline, reducing the service to five days only, HMRC has backed down.

The move was met with widespread criticism with few tax advisers and accountants able to understand why HMRC was taking such a radical step when HMRC’s online services are just not accessible enough for people to resolve their tax queries, particularly if they have any problems outside basic issues.

As millions are dragged into tax for the first time, and into higher rates of tax, demand for expert advice from HMRC officials will only increase.

The government needs to invest substantial amounts in HMRC’s IT systems to make them more user friendly and accessible for the majority of taxpayers.

HMRC said it was ‘halting its plans in response to the feedback while it engages with its stakeholders about how to ensure all taxpayers’ needs – including small businesses – are met as HMRC shifts more people to online self-service in the longer term’.

In an embarrassing u-turn, HMRC has been caught on the hop and illustrated the dangers of a failure to consult with the profession, accountants, tax advisers, institutes and the business community before taking such a major decision.

In an announcement from HMRC, the head of the tax authority admitted that the move to force people online was being taken too quickly.

Jim Harra, chief executive of HMRC said: ‘The pace of this change needs to match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online.

‘We’ve listened to the feedback and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services.’

HMRC stressed that vulnerable, digitally excluded and taxpayers with complex tax affairs would still have been able to use helplines and webchat advisers.

Harra said: ‘Our helpline and webchat advisers will always be there for those taxpayers who need support because they are vulnerable, digitally excluded or have complex affairs.’

Last summer, HMRC closed the self assessment helplines for three months so we can expect to see a similar approach this year.

Yesterday’s HMRC decision to shut helplines was met with despair by accountants. The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) described the move as ‘misguided’.

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, today’s announcements are a blinding light.’

On the quality of HMRC’s website and online services, Ashford added: ‘HMRC’s digital services are still far from fully functional, and the answers can still be difficult or impossible to find online.

‘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.’

Watch out for further announcements and hopefully a more collaborative approach from HMRC before they rush into decisions without adequate dialogue and consultation with key stakeholders.