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image of gorilla on phone | accountingweb | HMRC U-turn on helpline
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HMRC wastes time playing helpline hokey cokey

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HMRC went bananas last week, attempting to destroy its helpline services and then changing its mind. Philip Fisher rues the fact that the spectacular overnight U-turn won’t mean the service will get any better. 

28th Mar 2024
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Last week, HMRC/the Treasury tried to sneak news out under the radar that they were closing the PAYE helpline for the first half of the tax year and cutting various other services at the same time.

Regular readers will have read this columnist’s views on the topic more than once and might very reasonably assume that there wasn’t much more to say.

However, this time around, the threat appeared significantly more serious. It didn’t take a genius to work out that once HMRC had cut the service for the first half of the year, the second half was likely to follow soon after.

From a practical perspective, it was hard to see the logic. If you need employees to populate a telephone service between October and the beginning of April, unless they are going to sit around doing nothing for the other seven months of the year, the sums didn’t add up.

The closures last year were massively inconvenient and the impact will only be understood fully in years to come when tax take goes down as a proportion of those who were unable to use the helpline made their own speculative decisions about the availability of tax deductions and exemptions.

Second wave

The second wave of cuts was more widespread than the headlines might have suggested.

  • The self assessment helpline was to be closed from early April until 30 September each year.
  • For the remaining five months, it would only deal with “priority queries”.
  • The VAT helpline would be closed except for five days a month.
  • The PAYE helpline would no longer provide support to those wondering what had happened to their PAYE refunds.

As a sop, HMRC claimed that its advisers would continue to be available during normal office opening hours to assist those who could not use online services.

In reality, HMRC was trying to force its “customers” to do their own research, either ploughing through the copious materials on their section of the government website or enjoying recorded webinars, YouTube videos and interacting with chatbots.

Anyone interacting with these services will realise that they have not been directed by Christopher Nolan and frequently don’t answer the questions that taxpayers very reasonably ask.

HMRC claimed that moving its customers online would help the modernisation of its tax system. In reality, the department’s sole concern appeared to be cost-cutting, regardless of the damage that this might do to relations with those customers and the likely loss of revenues.

The cynical would say that this was a scary precursor of what will happen to the country when AI takes over completely.

Obvious solution

Had this article been written by a radical journalist immediately after the announcement, he or she might have been tempted to suggest an obvious solution for those who could no longer telephone HMRC for the majority of the year and couldn’t get through for the rest.

Why not fill up a Thermos flask, find a long book and visit your local tax office then insist on a face-to-face meeting to resolve the outstanding issues?

Unsurprisingly, the announcement resulted in an extraordinarily virulent backlash that went beyond those in the tax community and even included caustic comments from Harriett Baldwin, not only chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee but also a Conservative MP.

She angrily responded: “It is a great shame that HMRC has decided now is the time to essentially close down any avenues for people to contact them over the phone for huge parts of the year… These are well-meaning people just trying to get their taxes right.”

Overnight U-turn

Remarkably, if rumours are to be believed this led to the intervention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer no less. As a result, HMRC supremo Jim Harra announced the kind of overnight U-turn that normally only comes from top-ranking government ministers, reversing all of the proposed changes.

On the plus side, this means that the various helplines will no longer be closed down for long periods and additional services are theoretically available.

The one aspect that Mr Harra neglected to include when making his embarrassing announcement related to the quality of the service.

Should customers really be grateful to discover that, once again, they will be able to sit on the end of a phone line for 20 minutes (and sometimes hours) at a time 12 months a year before finally getting through and discovering that the adviser doesn’t have the necessary skill set to provide the requisite advice?

In some ways, from an intellectual perspective, it is also a shame that the plans have been dropped. Many accountants and their clients would have loved to know what constituted a “priority query”. One suspects that this was something of a tautology and the word “priority” could have been dropped without altering the meaning in any sense.

Replies (4)

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By johnthegood
28th Mar 2024 16:03

to be honest I have recently ditched the telephone lines for the online chat, I find it much better, just leave it on in the background and it pings when they are ready

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Replying to johnthegood:
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By 0098087
29th Mar 2024 10:10

I do the same with the phone. Leave the speaker on and get on with my work

Thanks (1)
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By FactChecker
28th Mar 2024 21:32

"The one aspect that Mr Harra neglected to include when making his embarrassing announcement related to the quality of the service."

Not sure that was the only, or indeed greatest, omission.

It appears that today HMRC were 'lucky' enough to experience widespread "technical difficulties" on a scale that meant the 'resumed' telephone services were actually broken/inoperable.
I rather doubt that the staff who were despondent to find their 6-month break cancelled didn't spend the day at work worrying about when the lines would be back up?

Classic HMRC 'solution': the service is no longer withdrawn but you still can't use it (a bit like telling all your staff that the planned withdrawal of the car fleet is cancelled - but before used each car must be fully serviced by the newly appointed garage ... located in the Falkland islands).

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By morganedge
02nd Apr 2024 16:28

" If you need employees to populate a telephone service between October and the beginning of April, unless they are going to sit around doing nothing for the other seven months of the year, the sums didn’t add up. " Except they wouldn't have been sitting around doing nothing. HMRC's had an ambition for years to make staff multi-tasking, multi-taxing. That means they can be moved from one work area to another depending on what's deemed to be a priority. There's a good chance those helpline staff were ready to be moved to another work area that's either been ignored or under-resourced. As for your suggestion to, "visit your local tax office then insist on a face-to-face meeting to resolve the outstanding issues?" - you do know, don't you that HMRC shut down its local offices and moved all the work to a handful of regional centres?

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