HMRC halts plans for helpline shake-up following criticism

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Plans to shake up HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) helpline services, which would have seen the self-assessment helpline closed for some of the year, have been halted following an outcry.

On Tuesday, HMRC announced “permanent” changes to the self-assessment, VAT and PAYE helplines, drawing criticism from a range of sectors in doing so.

By Wednesday morning, the revenue body said is halting the plans in response to feedback.

We’ve listened to the feedback and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services

Jim Harra, HM Revenue & Customs

The plans would have meant that, between April and September, the self-assessment helpline would be closed and customers would be directed to self-serve through its online services.

Chairwoman of the Treasury Select Committee, Harriett Baldwin, said on Tuesday that the move to online services should not be “forced on taxpayers”.

She said the revenue body has not yet demonstrated that the department or the public “are ready to make such a monumental change to how they resolve tax issues”.

The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) previously described the plans as “misguided”.

Tina McKenzie, policy chairwoman at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said on Tuesday that the plans would “be greeted with dismay by thousands of small businesses”.

HMRC said it is now halting its plans in response to the feedback while it engages with its stakeholders about how to ensure all taxpayers’ needs – including small businesses – are met as it shifts more people to online self-service in the longer term.

It means the changes to the self-assessment, VAT and PAYE helplines announced by HMRC will all be halted while it engages with stakeholders, and phone lines will remain open between April and September.

HMRC chief executive Jim Harra said on Wednesday: “Making best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers and get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity.

“Our helpline and webchat advisers will always be there for those taxpayers who need support because they are vulnerable, digitally excluded or have complex affairs.

“However the pace of this change needs to match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online.

“We’ve listened to the feedback and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services.”

HMRC said it will continue encouraging customers to self-serve where possible and access the information they need more quickly and easily by going online or to its app.

We hope HMRC will learn lessons and listen to professional bodies and other stakeholders before making major changes in the future

Caroline Miskin, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales

Organisations welcomed HMRC’s latest announcement.

Ms McKenzie said: “Small businesses will definitely be relieved that the drastic reduction in HMRC’s helpline opening hours has been paused.

“We are very glad that HMRC has listened to the chorus of dismay which greeted its initial announcement.

“While online services are a key part of the communications mix for the tax authority, sometimes there’s just no substitute for a real human on the end of a phone line who can listen, engage, and help untangle issues.

“It’s still also the case that people trying to get through to HMRC by phone face long delays, which is causing dissatisfaction to rise, and shows that the appetite for phone services is still high.

“We want to see HMRC investing in its helplines, to cut waiting times and ensure that small business owners with urgent tax queries can get through with minimal fuss to someone who can help.”

Dawn Register, head of tax dispute resolution at advisory firm BDO, said: “We welcome HMRC’s decision to halt its proposed helpline changes…

“Cutting off helplines at this stage was never going to be a good idea as it would have made it harder for taxpayers to be compliant.”

CIOT president Gary Ashford said: “The Government are right to be putting these big, permanent cuts to HMRC’s telephone helplines on hold for the time being.”

Caroline Miskin, ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) senior technical manager, digital taxation, said: “This surprising U-turn is good news for taxpayers, who need HMRC customer service to be responsive to their queries.

“If taxpayers can’t speak to a human when they need to, there is a real risk that they give up on trying to do the right thing and that errors and non-compliance increase.

“We hope HMRC will learn lessons and listen to professional bodies and other stakeholders before making major changes in the future.”

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