‘Lack of clarity’ concerns raised over impact of self-assessment helpline change
The chairwoman of a powerful Commons committee has expressed disappointment at a “lack of detail and transparency” over questions on the summer closure of an important taxpayer helpline.
Harriett Baldwin was speaking after the Treasury Committee received correspondence from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) responding to concerns raised by the MPs about a decision to temporarily shut down the main self-assessment helpline.
The Conservative MP said: “I am disappointed by the lack of detail and transparency displayed by the leadership of HMRC in response to my questions on the summer closure of an important taxpayer helpline.
“There is clearly a lack of clarity over the impact this decision will have on taxpayers. This simply isn’t good enough.”
HMRC previously announced that it would pilot a new “seasonal model” for the helpline, to help free up advisers to respond to urgent calls on other lines and answer customer correspondence.
There is clearly a lack of clarity over the impact this decision will have on taxpayers. This simply isn't good enough
The revenue body is trialling directing self-assessment queries from the helpline to the department’s digital services, including its online guidance, digital assistant and webchat.
The helpline will reopen on September 4 so people can receive expert support in the five months leading up to the self-assessment deadline on January 31 2024.
Ms Baldwin continued: “These decisions should not be taken in haste and with no consultation, and, as a committee, we will be keeping a close eye on developments in this area.”
In a letter from HMRC to Ms Baldwin, Angela MacDonald, deputy chief executive and second permanent secretary, said: “From our analysis, we know that 97% of SA (self-assessment) customers file their returns online, and up to two-thirds of all calls to the SA helpline are about matters which could be dealt with digitally, either by consulting online guidance, using our digital assistant, or by going to the customer’s own online tax account or the HMRC app.
“We also know that SA demand is seasonal: the SA helpline receives far fewer calls over the summer, with calls around 50% higher between January and April compared with June to August.
“SA queries during the summer tend to be less complex than those received later in the year and relatively non-urgent compared with calls to some of our other helplines.
This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve
“The decision to pilot a seasonal telephony model for SA was taken based on this insight, and on the need to improve overall customer service levels.
“This is also set against the context of the challenging level of efficiencies required by our Spending Review 2021 settlement.
“This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve.
“We recognise that this pilot will test a significant change in our services and will need careful monitoring, but our analysis shows that we should be able to handle the vast majority of SA queries over the summer through our digital service, backed up with a webchat adviser service.
“We will evaluate how our customers respond to this digital shift and use this experience to improve SA and other services in the future.”
The letter continued: “We did not consult external organisations prior to this announcement.
“We have been clear on our long-term direction of greater use of digital and self-service channels and have been talking to stakeholders about the challenges we face.
“Moreover, this is a pilot and we will learn lessons and gather feedback from customers and external bodies as part of this work.”
Throughout the pilot period, we will continue to prioritise the needs of our most vulnerable customers and to support customers to access our digital services
The letter said HMRC will evaluate the number of customers using digital services to “self-serve”, including personal tax accounts and the HMRC app.
HMRC will also track contact via HMRC webchat and the resolution rate of these interactions.
The letter said: “Throughout the pilot period, we will continue to prioritise the needs of our most vulnerable customers and to support customers to access our digital services.”
The committee had questioned whether the helpline changes were influenced by HMRC’s home-working policy.
But the letter stated: “I can reassure the committee that this pilot is not related to our flexible working policies in any way.
“No fewer people will be employed answering inquiries and processing customers’ tax affairs, no staff will be working fewer hours, and nobody will be doing less.
“The staff who would have been on this phone line will be working in other customer service roles during the pilot.”
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