By Niamh Tracey | 12 December, 2023

HMRC slashes access to helplines for seven weeks

In the busiest period of the tax year, HMRC plans to significantly reduce access to the self assessment helpline, prioritising only complex queries from Monday.

Without prior warning, HMRC has confirmed that from 11 December until 31 January, it will redirect the majority of callers to the self assessment helpline to online services, telling taxpayers to find their own answers to queries about tax returns.

HMRC said that call centre advisers will focus on answering ‘priority queries’, described as ‘those that cannot be easily dealt with online’, as well as supporting the small minority of callers who require extra support or cannot use online services.

However, HMRC has not explained how these priority calls will be ranked and dealt with during this period.

The sudden announcement, with only four days’ notice, follows the abrupt three-month closure of HMRC helplines over the summer and the decision that helplines would be cut by 30% by the end of 2024 to allow staff to be reallocated to jobs in other parts of HMRC.

In the same period last year, HMRC received 1.2 million calls, more than one fifth of the total calls received in the 12-month period.

The service reduction will also affect accountants and tax advisers who will be told to use online services rather than relying on the agent dedicated line to resolve problems.

HMRC said: ‘Agents who call the ADL and whose queries are not specifically related to SA filing, payments or repayments, including agents with multiple client queries, will be redirected to alternative channels or asked to call back in February.

‘During SA peak, ADL will not be dealing with any PAYE-related calls, however we know that many queries can be resolved quickly and easily online. We encourage agents to consider using tools such as the ‘Income Record Viewer’ or the Where’s my reply tool before contacting us.’

The decision has been heavily criticised by accountants and tax advisers.

John Barnett, chair of CIOT’s technical policy and oversight committee, said: ‘Reducing access to HMRC’s self-assessment helpline is misguided.

‘While we understand HMRC’s desire to prioritise where it puts its limited resources, we are concerned that in practice many of their customers will be unable to navigate HMRC’s digital services, and will simply give up.

‘Previous trials to limit calls to complex queries, or diverting people to online services, have proven either troublesome or inconclusive.’

Glenn Collins, head of strategic and technical engagement at ACCA, described HMRC’s service as ‘unacceptably poor’.

‘The dramatically reduced service will be a worry for taxpayers and financial professionals alike,’ said Collins. ‘At a time when queries around self assessment go up significantly, this move by HMRC once again demonstrates it lacks the proper resources that it desperately needs.

‘ACCA has repeatedly called on the UK government to make significant improvements to the HMRC services, including the availability of HMRC agents to resolve basic issues which is currently not being achieved using the current HMRC online services.

‘We stand by our previous statement whereby we referred to HMRC as having unacceptably poor service. The difficulties experienced by accountants in working with HMRC cannot be overstated, and the reduced service offered by the helplines will surely only further exacerbate poor service levels and cause more frustrations at one of the busiest times of the year.’

The influential Treasury Committee was also critical of the decision, particularly the lack of notice about the service reduction.

Chair of the Treasury Committee, Harriett Baldwin, said: ‘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. I have written to the CEO of HMRC in order to get much-needed answers about what this means for taxpayers.’

HMRC rejects any criticism of the downgrade to helplines and CEO Jim Harra told MPs on the Treasury Committee that the tax authority is fully committed to a move to a digital only approach.

It is convinced that many of the calls to the helpline are for trivial requests and said that ‘around two-thirds of calls to the SA helpline can be resolved far quicker through HMRC’s online services. To make all SA callers aware of the department’s extensive online services, recorded messages supported by SMS texts will be used’.

However, recent figures show that nearly one in five taxpayers were not satisfied with HMRC’s online services and it is difficult to resolve complex queries online. HMRC said that most calls are about basic questions which can easily be resolved online, such as updating personal information, chasing on the progress of a registration and checking a Unique Taxpayer Reference number.

Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s deputy chief executive, 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.

‘The vast majority of self assessment customers file their returns digitally, so we’re helping them make the next step to resolving simpler queries through our online services.

‘Our expert advisers will be there to help people with urgent and more complicated queries as well as helping the small number who are unable to access our online services.’

Services on the Agent Dedicated Line will replicate the self assessment offer, with agents also being directed to our digital services for suitable queries.

HMRC is transitioning to a digital-first approach and said it was ‘continuing to improve and expand its online services, increasing their capabilities and ease of use so they become the default option for customers’.

Taxpayers who need support to complete their return for the 2022 to 2023 tax year ahead of the deadline on 31 January 2024 have been told to go to HMRC’s online support. More than 97% of self assessment taxpayers file their tax returns online.

Credit to Accountancy Daily.