On 12th June HMRC arbitrarily closed its self-assessment helpline with only 48 hours’ notice and has stated that it will remain closed for at least three months.
Why is HMRC closing their self-assessment helpline?
Apparently, it is trialling a seasonal model for assisting the public with their tax queries and is redirecting all such enquiries to its digital services, such as online guidance, digital assistant and webchat. This sudden and unexpected decision to suspend its phone lines was taken without prior consultation and the only warning given to taxpayers, was a note on its website 48 hours before the lines were axed.
The tax department explained that the “seasonal model” will free up 350 full-time equivalent HMRC advisers to answer calls and taxpayer correspondence in other areas, which will enable the freed-up staff to answer 6,600 calls each day in these other areas. Regrettably however, exactly what these ‘other areas’ are, is not at all clear.
HMRC has tried to justify switching off the self-assessment helpline for at least three months, claiming that it receives fewer calls over the summer, whilst there are 50% more calls in the January to April quarter compared with June to August.
The decision to close the helpline comes shortly after HMRC encouraged taxpayers to file early and “spend more time building your business”. They highlighted the fact that nearly 80,000 taxpayers had already submitted their tax return for the 2022/2023 tax year on 6th April 2023.
This rather flies in the face of the statistics provided by the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), which showed that 1.2m people called the helpline during the same period of this year’s three-month closure in 2022, with nearly one million of them staying on the line to try to speak to someone.
Tax professionals are not happy
The sudden and arbitrary closure of the helplines has met with widespread criticism from across the accountancy and tax profession. Susan Ball, the president of CIOT said, “This means it will be closed when taxpayers are due to make payments by 31st July. It just shows that HMRC need more resources.” She then called on ministers to resource HMRC properly and said: “By shutting down one of the best used helplines for the summer, HMRC is putting up a further barrier to people being able to easily get their tax right and eroding a fundamental principle of HMRC’s own Charter”.
Seb Maley, CEO of IR35 experts Qdos, said the decision highlights the “chaos at the tax office”. He added, “HMRC can dress it up however it wants, but closing the phone lines for self-employed taxpayers is only going to result in problems and is another clear indicator that HMRC can’t cope with everything it is being tasked to do, and simply cannot meet the demands of a growing and ever more complex tax system.”
Meanwhile, Victoria Todd from the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, said the sudden closure decision was “ill thought out” and will have “a disproportionate effect on low-income taxpayers who cannot afford professional advice”. She added that the decision may drive low-income taxpayers to the voluntary sector for help, with these bodies already underfunded. This will lead to errors, non-compliance and more problems for HMRC and taxpayers alike further down the line.
The PAC weighs in
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) raised the issue of HMRC’s lack of competent staff before the Spring Budget, expressing the opinion that the government needs to urgently invest in HMRC service levels.
Following on from the PAC’s criticisms, the accountancy and tax bodies wrote to Jeremy Hunt, urging him to treat investment in HMRC as a top priority because “customer service levels delivered by HMRC have fallen to an unacceptably low level”. It then took two months for a response from the Treasury Minister who blamed a high volume of repayment claims and IT issues, but offered no hint of how and when the problems would be addressed.
Is HMRC downsizing?
Restricting taxpayers access to advice by shutting down help lines is just the latest example of HMRC closing a service or stripping it back and relying on online services instead. In recent months there have been a spate of other cutbacks, including:
- The VAT registration helpline being permanently closed with only 5 days warning
- Restricting the Accountants Dedicated Line to only self-assessment late filing penalties and PAYE coding notice for several months, which is still ongoing
- In January they trialled an automated SMS system to divert routine queries from taxpayers during January in an attempt to shorten telephone wait times; this failed miserably.
HMRC’s excuse for closing the self-assessment helpline
HMRC’s deputy CEO Angela MacDonald, recently stepped forward to explain why they’d decided to trial closing the helpline. She said: “We continually review our services to see how they can best serve the public and we are taking steps to improve them. A seasonal SA helpline will make more of our expert advisers available where they are most needed during the summer months. Our online services, including the HMRC app, are quick and easy to use and have been significantly improved. I urge customers to explore these fully before deciding to wait to speak to us on the phone.”
Once again, I couldn’t help but detect a strong smell of bovine excrement in the air, when listening to Ms MacDonald’s statement.
Tax Accountant’s view
Every accounting body, professional tax advisers and even the PAC, are convinced that HMRC’s is making a concerted effort to become a “digital by default” organisation, with no apparent care or thought for the poor old taxpayer in the firing line!