Proper resourcing needed as HMRC reverses tax helpline shutdown – Carmichael

20 Mar 2024

Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has today welcomed a U-turn by HMRC on closing its tax self-assessment telephone helpline for half of the year, but warned that the reversal must be followed by properly resourcing advice services.

The tax authority announced on Tuesday that the line would be closed between April and September, with taxpayers directed to online services instead. Less than a day later, following an Urgent Question being called in Parliament, the agency said the phone line would stay open.

The tax authority has been criticised for long telephone helpline waiting times in recent months and its announcement that it would close the helpline was immediately met with widespread criticism from tax professionals and MPs. More than 12 million people are required to complete self-assessment forms every year, with many hundreds of thousands ringing for assistance.

HMRC had also planned to only open the VAT helpline for five business days every month ahead of the deadline for filing VAT returns, and refuse calls about refunds to the PAYE helpline. However, it has now said those changes will be stopped too.

Speaking in the House, Mr Carmichael said:

“This reversal is welcome, but if we’re going to keep these helplines open, can we at least resource them properly and make them work? I spoke to one chartered accountant in my constituency this morning, who tells me that recently he phoned HMRC with a complex query on behalf of a client.

“It took 40 minutes to get an answer. When the phone was answered, they acknowledged the problem, he suggested that the answer might lie in his client’s wife’s data being incorrectly entered. He was then told that they were only allowed to handle one case per call, he would have to hang up, phone back, wait another 40 minutes for an answer. Surely that’s no way to treat a customer?”

Responding for the government, Financial Secretary to the Treasury Nigel Huddleston MP said:

“I’m thankful to the Right Honourable gentleman for that comment. I will happily raise that with HMRC.”

Reacting after the exchange, Mr Carmichael said:

“The U-turn from HMRC this morning to keep helplines open suggests some serious crossed wires in the organisation. If cutting the service was a bad idea then it should not have taken parliamentary action for officials to realise that. It is yet another example of this government having lost its grip on the basics.

“As with many services, more people are switching to digital options but that still leaves significant numbers who rely on a direct phone connection to ask complex questions and get clear answers. They cannot be left behind simply for the convenience of HMRC. After all, when accountants have to spend more time on clients’ cases due to HMRC then these costs will be passed on to their clients.  Cuts to HMRC just increase costs for businesses and the public.

“This is just a symptom of a wider disconnect between government services and the people they are supposed to support. If people in the isles have been struggling to get the help they need from HMRC then they should contact my office.”

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