Surprise closure of HMRC helpline will add to last-minute tax return rush

A three-month closure of HMRC’s Self-Assessment helpline will hamper taxpayers accessing help and advice, discourage people filing tax returns early and lead to greater pressure on both taxpayers and HMRC nearer the January deadline, the Association of Taxation Technicians (ATT) has warned.
HMRC announced today1 that the phonelines helping taxpayers with Self-Assessment queries will be closed from Monday, 12 June until 4 September, freeing up advisers to take urgent calls on other lines and answer customer correspondence. The move comes just three weeks after HMRC launched a campaign2 encouraging people to file their tax returns earlier this year.


The ATT says taxpayers who need help from HMRC to file their tax returns will now be forced to delay, leading to stress and inconvenience for themselves, as well as extra pressure on HMRC nearer the January tax return deadline.


Senga Prior, Chair of the ATT Technical Steering Group, said:


“Closing the helpline for so long will be a massive inconvenience to taxpayers looking to deal with their tax affairs over the coming months, including those looking for help to file their tax returns early. HMRC is suggesting that during the closure taxpayers can go online to resolve issues but there are lots of tasks such as cancelling a tax return or chasing a refund which can only be done by calling the helpline.


“We’re also likely to see HMRC’s post backlogs get even longer as people resort to letters because they can’t get the help they need over the phone. HMRC is already struggling to deal with a lot of old post. We’re particularly worried about taxpayers who might receive penalty notices during this three month closure period – letters simply aren’t dealt with quickly enough for this kind of time-sensitive issue.


“There’s a risk that early filers will put off submitting their return if they need help, or people will forget to go back to resolve queries later in the year when the helpline reopens. Our concern is taxpayers, particularly those who are unable to access professional advice, will disengage and not comply if they can’t access the helpline support when they need it.”


The ATT has previously called3 for HMRC to be better resourced, in order to provide a more effective and resilient service for taxpayers. It is concerned that the latest closures will hit those who are unable or unwilling to use digital platforms worst.


Senga Prior continued:


“HMRC are directing people to their online services whilst the phonelines are closed. But some taxpayers can’t use digital services and have to rely on phone lines to get the help they need, for instance when filling in a paper tax return or those who are digitally excluded.  HMRC can’t simply refer these individuals to online services, so the withdrawal of telephone support for three months really disadvantages this population.


“Putting obstacles in the way of early tax return filing could undo years of work by HMRC and professional bodies in encouraging taxpayers to get their tax returns filed early.


“This latest closure coincides with HMRC closing its VAT registration helpline from 22 May, as well as severe restrictions on the Agent Dedicated Line4 used by our members. It’s clear HMRC are under-resourced and demand for support from them clearly outstrips supply. This latest in a series of customer service restrictions proves that HMRC as the main source of income for the Treasury desperately needs additional resource to work effectively.”