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Self-Assessment Helpline issues

A regular theme in my Blogs over the last couple of years has been HMRC’s truly appalling customer service, in particular the paucity of help and advice on the telephone. If you agree with me and pretty much anyone who has interacted with HMRC recently will, this week they have achieved a new low point.

On Monday, HMRC announced that it will be screening calls to its self-assessment (SA) helpline and also its Accountants Dedicated Line (ADL) and will only answer those it calls deems “priority” in the run-up to the 31st January SA deadline. All queries that don’t make the cut to speak to an adviser will be directed online.

This, insists the press release, will result in quicker resolution of simple queries and enable HMRC’s expert advisers to help the small number of customers with urgent and complicated queries. The announcement comes hot-on-the-heels of the SA helpline being shut down for three months in the summer. With waiting times at an all-time high, it’s difficult to see this latest move as anything other than a desperately under-resourced service buckling under the weight of a self-inflicted backlog.

Self-Assessment Helpline: (So-called) First class service

As ever, HMRC is keen to funnel as many taxpayers as possible (or its valued customers as it likes to call us) towards its self-proclaimed ‘highly rated online services’. I’m at a loss to find anyone who thinks they give a first-class service, other than HMRC itself. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone with a good word say about them, and I can’t find a single source that has anything complementary to say about the online offerings currently available from the tax office.

HMRC are keen to push taxpayers to their smorgasbord of online digital services, whilst at the same time gradually reducing opportunities for them to speak to an actual person at HMRC about their tax queries. The problem is that the services available to taxpayers and accountants via digital channels are too often incomplete, disjointed and poorly designed even for those who are digitally savvy.

Self-Assessment Helpline: ADL line to be emasculated

Monday’s press release also announced that the ADL line for professional advisers would be restricted to queries relating to payments and repayments. For all other assistance, including PAYE queries, we’ve been told to use alternative channels or call back in February.

Senga Prior, chair of ATT said, “From the accountant’s perspective, we would be keen for more and better online services so that we could deal with more matters digitally. We still have to phone HMRC for simple tasks – EG correcting PAYE coding notices for clients as there is only a very limited digital service available.”

HMRC’s drive to go 100% digital

HMRC claims that two-thirds of calls to its helplines, could be resolved by taxpayers themselves online and urges these individuals to use the online services as part of its digital-first approach, which they say will free up expert advisers to help those who really need one-to-one support, especially the digitally excluded, or those with complex queries.

The tax office also claimed that in 2022, three million calls to its helplines were to do with resetting an online password, getting a tax code or getting a NI insurance number. They moaned that these taxpayers could have dealt with these matters digitally, saving HMRC 500 full-time staff.

Victoria Todd, head of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group said, “restrictions on the helplines is of great concern to us. HMRC may believe that many people contacting them via the telephone are doing so unnecessarily and that their issues can be dealt with quickly and easily online. If that is the case, where is the evidence to support this claim? I suspect it simply does not exist!”

Self-Assessment Helpline: Treasury committee concerned

Echoing concerns from pretty much all accountants, the Treasury Committee has written a detailed letter to HMRC outlining its concerns. Chair of the Committee, Harriett Baldwin, 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. This is yet another alarming development for an increasingly pressured government service. I have written to the CEO of HMRC Jim Harra demanding answers about what this means for taxpayers.”

Self-Assessment Helpline: Money being wasted

I have no doubt that the restrictions on helplines is a consequence of a woefully under-resourced HMRC. Jeremy Hunt, in his Autumn Statement, did state that £163m extra funding for HMRC was planned, but when the dust had settled it transpired that this money had been entirely ring-fenced for debt collecting, including an additional 700 full-time employees for HMRC’s debt management frontline team.

The Chancellor also maintained that the tax authority “will be able to meet their customer service targets with the resources they have”, however the latest curtailment of services on offer suggests otherwise. Angela MacDonald, No.2 at HMRC said: “This is a busy time for customers who want to get their taxes sorted. We want to help customers resolve any issues in the quickest and easiest way, which is often through our online services.”

Tax Accountant’s view

In my view, Ms MacDonald is like a broken record who constantly repeats the same “all is rosy in our garden” mantra, which is increasingly moving further and further away from reality. It has been clear to most tax professional for some years now, that HMRC do not want to directly interact with the public.

It started with restrictions on the times you could make a personal visit to a tax office, then they started closing all tax offices one by one, until only for a handful of huge hub offices remain, which cannot be contacted directly, even by phone it would seem.

It should not be necessary, but if more frustrated taxpayers complained to their MP’s, I suspect that we might just see some changes.

Finally, much as I’m aware that many of you enjoy my weekly spotlight on tax matters, I’ve decided to take a short break and enjoy a mince pie and a glass of something will post again early in the new year.

In the meantime I really do you that all of you have a wonderful relaxing time over Christmas & New Year.