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HM Revenue and Customs sign in London AccountingWEB HMRC's closure of SA helpline 'not good enough'
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HMRC’s closure of SA helpline ‘not good enough’

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The leadership of HMRC has been criticised by the chair of the Treasury committee for its “lack of detail and transparency” over the closure of the self assessment helpline until 4 September, after the Revenue admitted that the decision was made without any consultation. 

29th Jun 2023
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HMRC’s reasoning for closing the self assessment helpline was described as “simply not good enough” by MP Harriet Baldwin, the chair of the Treasury committee, who questioned the tax authority on the impact the closure will have on taxpayers.

HMRC’s defence in a letter to Baldwin ranged from emphasising that this is “a pilot and we will learn lessons”, to saying fewer taxpayers use the phone line during the summer and pinning some of the blame on the efficiencies required by its spending review settlement in 2021. 

However, HMRC also admitted in the letter that it did not consult external organisations prior to making the announcement

Simply not good enough

Baldwin was not satisfied with the response from the leadership of HMRC.

“I am disappointed by the lack of detail and transparency displayed by the leadership of HMRC in response to my questions on the summer closure of an important taxpayer helpline. There is clearly a lack of clarity over the impact this decision will have on taxpayers. This simply isn’t good enough.

“These decisions should not be taken in haste and with no consultation, and as a Committee, we will be keeping a close eye on developments in this area.”

The Treasury Committee’s scrutiny of HMRC comes after the Revenue announced at the start of June that the self assessment phone line was to temporarily close until 4 September, giving taxpayers only four days warning, and leaving them to rely on digital services instead to answer queries.  

‘Challenging level of efficiencies’

Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s deputy chief executive and second permanent secretary, defended the Revenue’s self assessment phone line hiatus in the letter to Baldwin, where she reasoned that the self assessment demand is seasonal and the helpline receives far fewer calls over the summer. 

However, in what could be seen as a shot across the government bows, MacDonald said the decision to pilot a “seasonal telephony model” for self assessment was taken against the “challenging level of efficiencies required by our spending review 2021 settlement”. 

She added, “This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve.”

The 2021 spending review settlement saw HMRC receive limited additional funding of £0.9m with a focus on spending it on modernising the tax authority, border compliance and the delivery of core services. 

Answers to the Treasury committee’s questions

Baldwin was irked by the lack of transparency in HMRC’s answers to the Treasury committee. 

In response to Baldwin’s question on whether HMRC consulted with any external body prior to the trial, MacDonald answered that the Revenue didn’t but said “We have been clear on our long-term direction of greater use of digital and self-service channels.”

Asked about what data will be collected from the trial, MacDonald said it will monitor the number of taxpayers seeking help through digital channels and their satisfaction with the support offered, alongside additional contact through other HMRC telephone lines. 

MacDonald told Baldwin that it would evaluate the number of customers using digital services to self-serve and track contact via HMRC webchat to judge whether the trial was a success. The HMRC deputy chief executive confirmed that the pilot's success will be assessed in early 2024. 

She went on to say that following the re-opening of the helpline HMRC will monitor the nature of the phone calls and whether taxpayers delayed getting in contact until the telephone service was reopened. 

When asked about the impact on vulnerable taxpayers during the pilot, MacDonald said HMRC will support them to use digital services if they ring or webchat with its online support helpdesk or contact its extra support team.

Pressed about contingency arrangements if the pilot impacts taxpayers more than expected, MacDonald said: “If it becomes clear that the trial is not working as expected, we can reopen the line.”

She also reassured Baldwin that the decision to trial the seasonal model was not driven by the tax department’s homeworking policy. “No fewer people will be employed answering enquiries and processing customers’ tax affairs, no staff will be working fewer hours, and nobody will be doing less,” said MacDonald. 

Concluding her answers to the questions, MacDonald said that the change was made to “test our ambitions to support our customers through digital channels, to improve our services and our productivity”. She added that the pilot will free up around 350 advisers to tackle post and support more urgent calls. 

Push to use digital services

In her closing statement, MacDonald said: “We must encourage those able to use HMRC's digital services to do so.” This summed up the majority of the letter to the Treasury Committee which was concerned with setting out HMRC’s vision to be a modern tax authority. 

And with HMRC redirecting taxpayers to digital services during the three-month period where the helpline is offline, MacDonald attempted to reassure the committee chair by explaining that customer satisfaction scores are significantly higher for digital services than for traditional phone and postal services.

MacDonald also further justified the summer shutdown by explaining that 97% of SA taxpayers file their returns online and that two-thirds of calls to the helpline are about issues that “could be dealt with digitally, either by consulting online guidance, using our digital assistant or by going to the customer’s own online tax account or the HMRC App”.

Replies (20)

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By Justin Bryant
29th Jun 2023 09:52

One wonders if the Treasury committee read this (and at least a little bit of wool was thereby lifted from their eyes): https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/tech/tech-pulse/harra-hmrc-underestimate...

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By Hugo Fair
29th Jun 2023 09:54

McDonald (the Harra substitute) added, “This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve.”

Or, in plain English: "It's your (the govt) fault not ours ... due to your policies there are now *more* taxpayers and their tax affairs have got *more* complicated."

This may be true ... but is hardly consistent with their (HMRC) main argument that everything is so simple that digital/on-line will solve everything without the need for human intervention.

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By GHarr497688
29th Jun 2023 11:34

It’s simple . I guess they are working from home on the premise they work better when in reality they work at half speed ( see office capacity stats ) . Staff are trained poorly as they made the decent staff redundant ( see Hmrc staff redundancy ) . If phone-lines close their stats will look better as a large proportion on Accountants will take the stress . They failed with MTD so now they head for the Accountant with AML just because of a few bad apples . They hide behind unsubstantiated statistics to justify their awful performance . They don’t listen to logical people but call them out of touch . There is no solution to this problem so I am leaving the profession after 44 years . Good luck to any self employed individuals as they will need it !!

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By Catherine Newman
29th Jun 2023 11:39

I did a webchat yesterday on a cocked up transfer of the marriage allowance. It got withdrawn for no apparent reason. It took about 25 minutes to get through and then security answers had to be typed. Every time I pressed enter, it sent the message.

The "chat" took an hour when it would have taken 10 minutes on the ADL. Afterwards there was a survey asking how I would like to contact HMRC in the future, I put "by phone".

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Replying to Catherine Newman:
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By Hugo Fair
29th Jun 2023 13:37

Don't suppose there was an option for "by popping round to my local Tax Office"?

Remember them ... convenient, knowledgeable and effective (until the offices were sold to an overseas-based organisation that went on to pay little tax = a paradigm for the loss of focus in HMRC 'thinking' ever since)!

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Replying to Hugo Fair:
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By Catherine Newman
30th Jun 2023 08:52

Those were the days. Remember also all the amendments to Schedule D assessments when something changed a partner's income.

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Replying to Catherine Newman:
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By usedbyhmrc
29th Jun 2023 18:40

As ADL is open, why go on to webchat, rather than phone them?

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Replying to usedbyhmrc:
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By Catherine Newman
30th Jun 2023 08:53

I don't like hanging on listening to their music and messages.

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Replying to usedbyhmrc:
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By bendybod
30th Jun 2023 10:07

You have in writing what they've said!

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By CJaneH
29th Jun 2023 13:31

What right has any government department to close a help line? Tax is complicated. HMRC like to imply the tax payer can do returns themselves ( The choice of words like Self asessment & Customer and no suggestion you may prefer to employ a professional). But if you get the details wrong the taxpayer has committed an offence.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
29th Jun 2023 16:31

"Concluding her answers to the questions, MacDonald said that the change was made to “test our ambitions to support our customers through digital channels, to improve our services and our productivity"

Or in other words, we are seeing if we can close it. Permanently.

Its a shame HMRC's "customers" have no choice about where they take their business.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
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By bendybod
30th Jun 2023 10:09

Well they do. Maybe not legally but there are alternative ways of operating your business which reduces your dealings with HMRC - think VAT threshold not increasing, personal allowance / tax brackets not increasing.
Not in any way advocating, btw!

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By Wisey
30th Jun 2023 11:06

Who are these people Angela MacDonald thinks can use digital services? I've just asked a more than competent company director to set up a Gateway account for a Trustee "it's like fort knox" she came back with.
the Revenue need to consult with smaller entities about their experiences not Big 4 partners

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By unclejoe
30th Jun 2023 11:35

If you are digitally impaired the deadline for getting your paper tax return filed is 31st October. So if you need to get HMRC assistance you will have less than 6 weeks to sort it out and get it filed. I hope HMRC have planned for a deluge of phone queries in that period.

They say that more people are becoming taxpayers. Does it not occur to them that those first time taxpayers are the people most likely to need help. And probably, if they have been very low earners, the most likely to be digitally compromised.

Tax seems to get more complicated at an exponential rate, despite the now abolished office for tax simplification.

You would think that this would require more staff, yet they make staff redundant. I am surprised they need redundancies - it must be a dreadful place to work!

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By Husbandofstinky
30th Jun 2023 12:07

'MacDonald told Baldwin that it would evaluate the number of customers using digital services to self-serve and track contact via HMRC webchat to judge whether the trial was a success. The HMRC deputy chief executive confirmed that the pilot's success will be assessed in early 2024.'

A self fulfilled prophecy with closed helplines.... Ridiculous.

A proper sower of sh**.

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By PAULLEWISFCCA
30th Jun 2023 12:22

boycott HMRC

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Replying to PAULLEWISFCCA:
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By johnjenkins
30th Jun 2023 12:53

England could do with him.

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By sherodwilliams
30th Jun 2023 12:36

HMRC deliberately refrained from announcing this to taxpayers so that they would be forced into seeking online / webchat advice. The position is of course that HMRC will, as they say, monitor the service between now & September against a non existent benchmark so it will not be surprising that in late September the usual statistical guff will be announced stating that " As HMRC expected, the use of online services & webchat provision increased by 400% over the same period last year. This therefore proves that the telephone support service( which was not available to use) is almost redundant and as such will be withdrawn fully in 2024" HMRC will then require 5 or 6 times the number of web chat operators than telephone support staff and they will offer a totally inferior laminated sheet service underpinning their complete lack of technical knowledge which results in an even worse service than exists at the moment. By way of example I used the online provision for a specific query when completing a CGT property disclosure & simply wasted 40 minutes of my life .

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By indomitable
30th Jun 2023 12:56

Total Farce!!!

These 'people' need to interact with HMRC like we do then they will realise what an appalling service it is in every respects.

Just not fit for purpose, like almost every other public service in this country now.

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By moneymanager
30th Jun 2023 14:56

"and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve.”

Solution

Simplify the tax code, getting rid of absurdities such as the Child Benefit repayment absurdity and S24 finance cost dissallowance, both originating for the Department for Mucking Things Up (that wasn't what I call it but at lest you woon;t just get ******************).

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