HMRC have announced that they are closing the Self Assessment telephone helpline for three months in order to re-direct staff to clear up the postal backlog. The closure comes after a decision to close its VAT registration helpline last month. Taxpayers who have tax queries are now being directed to search for answers to their queries online.
HMRC claim that this is a, " ...trial to redirect Self Assessment queries from the helpline to HMRC's digital services that will run between 12 June and 4 September 2023 to the department’s digital services, including its online guidance, digital assistant and webchat".
Apparently, the move will free up 350 advisers (full-time equivalent) to take urgent calls on other lines and answer customer correspondence. If focused on urgent calls, these advisers will answer around 6,600 each day, ensuring more customers who really need to speak to an adviser can do so.
Reading between the lines, it's clear that the closure is due to the combination of a staffing and funding crisis and overall complexity of the UK's tax system. Tax agents have noted that HMRC's service standards have declined rapidly since the COVID-19 lockdown.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) President Gary Ashford said: “This looks like a cry for help in a desperate situation. It is simply wrong that people trying to get help from HMRC to pay the right amount of tax find it so difficult to get the support they need and this latest announcement gives little information as to how they are supposed to get that support, especially those who cannot interact digitally. By shutting down one of the best-used helplines for the summer, HMRC is putting up a further barrier to people being able to easily get their tax right, eroding a fundamental principle of HMRC’s own Charter.
“We have repeatedly called for HMRC to be adequately resourced to provide the services needed by taxpayers. Businesses are unable to operate while waiting for HMRC registrations, and individuals are left many months waiting for their tax repayments because HMRC doesn’t have the resources they need to deal with such matters promptly or effectively.”
The Self Assessment helpline receives around five million calls each year, with nearly four million people staying on through the recorded messages to speak to an HMRC adviser. In the period June to August 2022, the equivalent of this year’s period of closure, nearly 1.2 million people called the helpline, with over 900,000 people staying on to try to speak to someone.
In terms of risk to the UK economy, the majority of tax in the UK is collected via PAYE and not through Self Assessment.
Individual taxpayers who really struggle to find answers to their queries online retain the option of writing to HMRC instead.
In terms of whether the closure of HMRC helplines is sufficient to prove Ground for Appeal of some types of compliance failure remains to be seen depending on the duration of the closure period.
Following this announcement, Harriett Baldwin MP, of the House of Common's Treasury Committee has written to HMRC as follows:
Given the potentially significant impact this may have on taxpayers, and the short notice with which this was announced, I would be grateful for responses to the following questions:
1." Please can you provide the Committee with monthly usage statistics for the SA helpline in the previous five years?
2. Did HMRC consult with any external body prior to the trial. If so, with whom? If not, why not?
3. What data will be collected from the trial? Will these include the number of calls displaced to other helplines?
4. How will HMRC evaluate the trial? What are the key metrics on which HMRC will measure its success? What data and evaluations of the trial will HMRC publish, with particular regard for customer service satisfaction levels?
5. What monitoring will take place after the trial to assess whether calls have been displaced from the closure months into later months when the helpline is reopened?
6. What procedures are in place to assist vulnerable taxpayers and those unable or unwilling to use digital services?
7. What contingency arrangements does HMRC have in place should taxpayer detriment be greater than expected during the trial?
8. Is the closure of the SA helpline in any way related to HMRC’s homeworking policy?
9. Has the closure of the helpline been introduced because of staffing issues in HMRC or backlogs/issues in other areas?
In line with the Committee’s usual practice, I will be placing this letter and your response in the public domain. I would be grateful for a reply by 27 June 2023."
Useful guides on this topic
Writing to HMRC? Address and links
HMRC have different addresses for Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE), Self Assessment (SA) and Capital Gains Tax (CGT) customers to use. Deciding which address to use is the fun part.
Grounds for appeal: Reasonable excuse
What is a 'reasonable excuse' in terms of making an appeal against a tax penalty for late filing, late payment or error?