HMRC helplines – Institute welcomes halting of cuts

The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) and its Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) have welcomed today’s announcementby HMRC that they will be putting planned helpline closures on hold while they consider how best to help taxpayers harness online services.
Yesterday HMRC announced a series of cuts to telephone helplines2 including closing the self-assessment helpline from early April to September, with taxpayers being directed to online services instead.

CIOT President Gary Ashford commented:

“This is welcome news. The government are right to be putting these big, permanent cuts to HMRC’s telephone helplines on hold for the time being.

“Encouraging people to use online services to get answers to their questions is sensible and can yield efficiencies. However, Jim Harra’s commitment to the pace of change needing to ‘match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online’ is much needed. This pause is a good opportunity for HMRC to press a reset button on their attempts to force people into digital services by withdrawing phone help, rather than taking people with them by making the online option the attractive choice.

“A survey we conducted last year3 reinforced our view that, while most agents and taxpayers want to be able to interact online, the necessary functionality does not yet exist, and the online guidance is not helping taxpayers find the answers they are looking for.

“HMRC have succeeded in getting the vast majority of self-assessment taxpayers to file their returns online by making the process relatively simple and easy to use. Nobody would choose to spend hours waiting on a telephone helpline if they could easily find the answer they are seeking online. What HMRC need to do is make their online services – guidance, digital assistant and, where needed, web chat with an HMRC adviser – attractive enough that people choose to use them rather than the telephone alternative. Then they will be able to scale down their phone lines without risking harming compliance.”

Victoria Todd, Head of LITRG, commented:

“We welcome this pause and hope HMRC will use it to consult widely on their customer service provision.

“Digital services offer lots of potential benefits. However, HMRC’s online services are not yet of an adequate standard. In particular it’s important to understand that HMRC’s strategy is based on diverting most enquiries to their online guidance or automated digital assistant – that is an algorithm rather than an actual person at the other end of the chat. HMRC’s own research shows that taxpayers want reassurance that they are getting things right and at present they can’t get that sufficiently from these automated digital services.

“The evaluations of trial helpline closures published yesterday leave many questions unanswered. Before making permanent cuts to helplines HMRC need to evaluate whether the trials impacted the quality of tax returns submitted and therefore whether taxpayers were able to get their taxes right without access to the helpline. Additionally we still haven’t seen any evidence to back up HMRC’s claim that around two-thirds of callers to the self assessment helpline can deal with their enquiry online. HMRC must get a better understanding of why people are choosing to use the phone over using existing digital services.

“HMRC need to further invest in their digital offerings, so that taxpayers have confidence that the digital services can give them the support and reassurance they need in relation to their tax affairs.”