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HMRC U-turns on helpline closure after backlash

HMRC U-turns on helpline closure after backlash
Matt Browning
Written By:
Matt Browning

HMRC has backtracked on plans to close its self-assessment helpline for six months every year, just a day after the announcement.

Following backlash from critics in the hours after it announced it will permanently close the self-assessment helpline between April and September every year, today HMRC confirmed its changes are being halted following feedback.

Jim Harra, HMRC chief executive, said: “The pace of change needs to match the public appetite for managing their 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.”

Just yesterday (19 March), the Government department confirmed that if customers want to discuss a self-assessment tax return with an adviser between 8 April and 30 September, they would be directed to HMRC’s online service.

It said this followed a “successful trial” as it “continues to encourage customers to get the information they need and carry out their transactions online where possible”.

‘Big relief’ to taxpayers after backlash

Alice Haine, personal finance analyst at Bestinvest, believes the decision will be widely welcomed by taxpayers.

Haine said: “The quick U-turn will be a big relief for those that like to file their tax return early and may encounter glitches along the way, particularly those who are new to the process and prefer to talk to a human. Taxpayers were already struggling with long waiting times on helplines, so stripping the service away altogether was a step too far.

Haine added: “The decision on Tuesday to close this vital support line between April and September would have effectively cut taxpayers off from in-person support. Many people still need a helping hand to get to grips with their tax affairs, and with every individual’s tax situation slightly different, not having a support line to turn to may have led to more people making errors on their tax return.”

When the plans were first announced yesterday, Neela Chauhan, partner at national accountancy group UHY Hacker Young, warned that “the customer crisis” with HMRC “threatens to hit a new low.”

Chauhan said: “HMRC is severely under-resourced, and this is having a detrimental knock-on effect on all of its customers. The trend over the past few years is one of waiting longer and longer, so dealing with HMRC has become immensely frustrating.

“Unless this can be fixed, it’s going to make it harder for small businesses to operate in the UK, and it’s going to lead to more individuals paying the wrong amount of tax.”

HMRC service levels at all-time low

In February, a Government report found over two-thirds of callers during 2022/23 waited more than 10 minutes to speak to an adviser.

On average, it took over 16 minutes for a representative to answer the phone to callers during 2022/23, which marked a rise in the 12-minute average waiting time from the previous tax year.

Despite caller demand rising by 10%, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) deemed that current customer service levels dropped “due to conscious decisions made by HM Treasury and HMRC” that caused “five years of decline.”