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tree cutter sitting on branch sawing towards trunk What on earth is happening at HMRC? HMRC Call Centres CUT u-turn

HMRC do it again!

In my Blog “Are HMRC frightened to pick up the phone?” last December, I bemoaned the fact that not only were they restricting calls on the Accountants Dedicated Line (ADL), but also that they were only going to answer calls from the public they deem “priority calls” in the run-up to the 31st January SA deadline.

I genuinely did not think that their poor levels of customer service could get significantly worse, but an announcement on Tuesday by Angela MacDonald (‘Little Ange’), No.2 at HMRC, put paid to that notion.

HMRC Cut Call Centres: What did ‘Little Ange’ say?

She said that HMRC’s self-assessment phoneline (SA) will permanently close between April and September, and that permanent cuts were also being made to both the PAYE and VAT helplines. She also said that the VAT helpline will be restricted to just five days per month and praised their online menu and said that their customers (taxpayers to you and me) will be directed to use HMRC’s online services.

As usual with these type of announcements by Little Ange and her boss ‘Big Jim’ (Jim Harra, CEO of HMRC) this one was accompanied by a very strong whiff of bovine excrement!

HMRC Cut Call Centres: Accountants’ and MP’s reaction

The accountancy profession, to a man (or woman), were appalled by this further cynical reduction in HMRC’s service levels, whilst at the same time not at all surprised. We have all been aware of what HMRC’s direction of travel has been for some time, but very few of us believed that they would have the brass neck to accelerate the process and go this far!

Gary Ashford  (president of The Chartered Institute of Taxation president) was scathing in his reaction to the proposed closures saying: “I am 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.”

Mr Ashford’s comments were quickly followed by Harriett Baldwin , Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. “It’s a great shame that HMRC has decided now is the time to close down any avenues for people to contact them over the phone for huge parts of the year. I say once again, these are well-meaning people just trying to get their taxes right. These closures should not be forced upon taxpayers until there is clear evidence that people know how to do their taxes on HMRC’s incredibly complex website.”

HMRC Cut Call Centres: Complete U-turn 24 hours later

After the barrage of criticism, low and behold, HMRC has performed a complete U-turn on its highly controversial plans after barely 24 hours after they were unveiled. HMRC CEO Big Jim Harra says he has listened to the feedback and that he was halting the helpline changes as HMRC now recognises more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services.

Despite Big Jim’s announcement being made through gritted teeth, the news is a huge relief to everyone who has to interact with HMRC.

Finally, commonsense has prevailed

A statement by the Treasury Committee noted it was “extremely pleased to see that common sense has prevailed”. “We welcome the decision to reverse yesterday’s ill-advised announcement. Whilst we do not oppose expansion of digital services for those who want to use them, we remain entirely unconvinced that HMRC is adequately prepared to impose such a significant change in how it serves taxpayers. “Planned changes to the operation of HMRC’s phonelines have been mismanaged from the beginning. Questions still remain over the extent to which the department are prioritising its own needs over those of law-abiding and vulnerable taxpayers.”

And the accountancy profession, to a man/woman, has welcomed this announcement with a huge cheer. “This surprising U-turn is good news for taxpayers, who need HMRC customer service to be responsive to their queries,” said Gary Ashford. “If taxpayers can’t speak to a human when they need to, there is a real risk that they give up on trying to do the right thing and that errors and non-compliance increase.”

Tax Accountant’s view

Quite frankly I was flabbergasted to hear the news of this sudden policy reversal. In the past, there has been the odd reversal of policy by HMRC, but never so quicky and comprehensively! The  debacle of the last 24 hours now gives HMRC the opportunity  to press the reset button on their cack-handed attempts to force people into digital services by withdrawing phone help, rather than taking people with them by making the online option the attractive choice.