Permanent cuts to HMRC helplines misguided, says CIOT

The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) has strongly criticised the announcement by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) of big, permanent cuts to their taxpayer telephone helplines.

HMRC has announced:

  1. The Self-Assessment helpline will be closed between 8 April – 30 September 2024. Taxpayers will be directed to self-serve online. The helpline will be open between October and March to deal with priority queries, with other calls being directed to HMRC’s online services.
  2. The VAT helpline will close permanently on 8 April, save for the five business days leading up to and including each month’s submission deadline. Again, taxpayers will be directed to self-serve online.
  3. From 8 April, the PAYE helpline will not deal with calls to chase PAYE refunds (unless the caller cannot go online or needs extra support). Once again, taxpayers will be directed to self-serve online.

The digital assistant and webchat will remain available, and Self-Assessment and VAT callers who cannot go online can speak to someone via the Online Services Helpdesk.

These are all permanent measures and so are expected to be repeated each year. There are no further changes to the Agent Dedicated Line at present.

CIOT President Gary Ashford said:

“We are deeply dismayed that, so soon after the criticisms levelled at them by the Public Accounts Committee, and in the light of an inconclusive evaluation, HMRC have decided to make these big, permanent cuts to the help they provide to taxpayers. If last year’s announcement of the summer closure of the Self-Assessment helpline was a ‘flashing indicator’1 that HMRC can’t cope, today’s announcements are a blinding light.

“HMRC’s own evaluation of both the closure of the helpline in summer 2023, and the helpline restrictions during the 2024 Self-Assessment peak, concluded that it is too early to say if there has been a long-term shift from phone contact to online self-service. Yet HMRC have decided to go ahead anyway.

“While HMRC refer to the increasing numbers of Self-Assessment returns being filed, we are concerned that this doesn’t give the full picture. The recently published Self-Assessment filing statistics2 suggest that the negative impacts of last year’s measures may already be being felt. 90.48% of Self-Assessment returns that HMRC expected to receive were filed by the 31 January 2024 deadline, as compared to pre-pandemic rates in 2020 of 91.82% – a fall of around 180,000 taxpayers. And of the returns submitted, we are concerned there may be an increase in how many will include estimates or errors because of the inability to seek clarification from HMRC.”

HMRC’s evaluation also demonstrated a firm desire on behalf of taxpayers and agents to deal with a real HMRC person. During the summer 2023 Self-Assessment helpline closure, 68% of people who used the Self-Assessment digital assistant asked to speak to a webchat adviser, and stated preferences for phone contact approximately doubled. Recent customer research from HMRC identified that the need for reassurance is either very important (83%) or somewhat important (15%) when dealing with HMRC online.3

Gary Ashford continued

“There’s no escaping the fact that tax is complicated, and people sometimes need reassurance that what they are doing is right. We would encourage people to try the HMRC app and online services, which do continue to be developed and so they may find their query can be resolved simply. However, HMRC’s digital services are still far from fully functional, and the answers can still be difficult or impossible to find online. Unless and until automated digital services can be radically improved HMRC must be provided with the resources to provide all year round, well-publicised help and advice to taxpayers from a human adviser over phone and webchat.”