HMRC backtracks on plans to suspend helpline services

Department announced on Tuesday that ITSA helpline would close half the year and be limited to priority calls the other half – but cancelled the decision the following day after ‘feedback’

One day after announcing it would significantly scale back its telephone support services, HM Revenue and Customs has backtracked on the decision, with the department’s chief executive acknowledging that “the pace of change needs to match public appetite”.

On Tuesday, HMRC announced that its income tax self-assessment helpline would shut down on 8 April and would not reopen until the start of October – and, even then, the service would only handle “priority queries”.  This cycle would then repeat in future years: six months of wholesale closure, followed by six months of priority-only calls.

The department also said it would be downscaling its VAT telephone support line which, under the plans announced two days ago, would only operate for five days each month ahead of the deadline for filing returns. HMRC’s PAYE helpline “will no longer take calls from customers relating to refunds”, the tax agency announced.

The intention in all cases was to direct people to online self-service tools, the greater use of which is “a vital element of HMRC’s modernisation of the tax system”, the department said.

But, vital or not, the plan to reduce telephone services was scrapped barely 24 hours after it had been announced. On Wednesday, the department said it was “halting its plans… while it engages” with individuals and small businesses to ensure their “needs… are met as HMRC shifts more people to online self-service in the longer term”.

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Chief executive Jim Harra added: “Making best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers and get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity. Our helpline and webchat advisers will always be there for those taxpayers who need support because they are vulnerable, digitally excluded or have complex affairs. However, the pace of this change needs to match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online. We’ve listened to the feedback and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services.”

The initial decision to scale back telephone support came following trials last year in which the self-assessment helpline was closed entirely for three months over the summer and then, in the seven weeks leading up to the 31 January filing deadline, dedicated only to priority calls.

On the same day that it announced the – now-cancelled – plan to reduce phone services on a permanent basis, the department published its evaluation of the impact of the trial closures and prioritisations of the past year.

HMRC found “that customers’ filing rates and payments are in line with, or better than, previous tax years and not impacted by asking them to self-serve online”, according to the review. The exercise also provided “clear evidence that customers made more use of online services than in the previous year”, as well as demonstrating that “customers who are unable to use online services were able to access the extra help they needed”, according to HMRC.

Although the evaluation said that “it is too early to say if there has been a long-term shift from phone contact to online self-service but there are encouraging signs”.

Sam Trendall

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