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HM Revenue & Customs has said it will restrict access to its helpline over its busiest period, sparking an angry response from MPs and professional bodies.
The tax office on Thursday said it would “focus its self-assessment helpline on priority calls” in the run-up to the tax filing deadline of January 31 2024. Other queries from taxpayers will be directed to its online services.
The tax authority defined “priority” queries as “those that cannot be easily dealt with online” in its announcement. It said the changes to the customer helpline would come into effect from Monday December 11 and last until the end of January. A similar system will apply to the helpline used by accountants and agents, HMRC added.
In a letter to the Treasury select committee announcing the plan, Jim Harra, HMRC chief executive, said the department’s online services were “our best kept secret” and had customer satisfaction rates of more than 80 per cent.
“The run-up to the January 31 deadline is one of the busiest times of the year for us and our customers. While around 97 per cent of our 12.5mn SA [self assessment] customers file their return and pay their tax online, 5.5mn of them ring our helpline with a query. Around two-thirds of calls to the SA helpline can be resolved far quicker through our online services,” Harra wrote.
HMRC needs to reduce its volume of contact with the public via phone and post by at least 30 per cent by 2025, compared with 2021-22, if it is to deliver its service with the resources it has, Harra added. “Therefore, we will increasingly expect customers to use our online services where they can.”
MPs on the Treasury select committee responded with a series of questions demanding assurances that “a critical number of people do not end up being denied services they could reasonably expect from HMRC”.
Harriett Baldwin, the committee chair, said: “The Treasury committee has repeatedly stressed our concern about the management of the self-assessment helpline, particularly when it closed at such short notice over the summer, leaving many struggling to access help with tax issues.
“Giving the public less than two working days’ notice of a significant reduction in service, while the deadline for self-assessment returns looms, is yet another alarming development for an increasingly pressured government service.”
Baldwin also said more people would be required to file a self assessment return in the coming years as frozen tax thresholds caused “fiscal drag”, moving more into the tax system. She asked Harra how HMRC would meet the needs of these people if it was cutting contacts via phone and post.
John Barnett, chair of the Chartered Institute of Taxation’s technical policy and oversight committee, described the reduction of access to the helpline as “misguided” and said it could result in more “non-compliance” with the tax rules and extra penalties and fines. This risked “creating more work for HMRC and taxpayers in the long run,” he warned.
Victoria Todd, head of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, a charity, said the aim of getting more people to interact with the tax office online made sense, but she was concerned that HMRC was “forcing” people into digital use.
“If digital services are good, then people will use them, but we are concerned that some of HMRC’s online services, including guidance, are not yet to the standard needed to support taxpayers properly and provide a good digital experience,” she said. “Forcing taxpayers to use services that are not up to scratch risks an erosion of trust in the tax system.”