HMRC has announced that it will pilot a new ‘seasonal model’ for its self-assessment helpline in an attempt to relieve pressure on its phone lines and prioritise urgent queries.
The initiative, set to run for three months from 12th June 2023, will experiment with directing self-assessment queries from the helpline to HMRC’s digital services, which include its online guidance, digital assistant and webchat.
The vast majority of self-assessment customers use HMRC’s online services, with 97% filing online, the tax authority said.
HMRC has faced significant pressure to improve service levels in recent months, having downsized its customer service workforce from 25,500 to 19,500 in the past five years due to its push towards digitalisation.
But the fresh initiative, according to the revenue body, will free up 350 advisers to answer around 6,600 “urgent” self-assessment calls each day.
“A seasonal helpline will make more of our expert advisers available where they are most needed during the summer months,” said Angela MacDonald, deputy CEO and second permanent secretary at HMRC.
“Our online services, including the HMRC app, are quick and easy to use and have been significantly improved. I urge customers to explore these fully before deciding to wait to speak to us on the phone.”
But according to Seb Maley, CEO at IR35 consultancy firm Qdos, the timing of the new pilot scheme is inappropriate and merely “highlights chaos” at the tax office.
“We’re in a cost of living crisis, the self-employed are being hit with tax rise after tax rise and instead of increasing the support available, HMRC reduces it.
“HMRC can dress it up however its wants, but closing the phone lines for self-employed taxpayers is only going to result in problems.”
Maley also argues that the move runs counter to HMRC pleas earlier this year for self-employed workers to file and pay their tax bills, calling the plans “illogical”.
In similarly critical fashion, Chris Etherington, private client tax partner at RSM UK argues that the Summer pilot scheme could pile undue pressure onto the phone lines when they reopen in September.
According to HMRC, the self-assessment helpline receives far fewer calls over the Summer, with calls around 50% higher between January and April compared with June to August.
But Etherington argues that a summer closure is likely to worsen the already extensive waiting times at the beginning and end of the year and cause some taxpayers to face a “bleak winter”.
“The closure could come as an unwelcome shock to many taxpayers and could be a short-sighted move. HMRC already struggles to deal with the level of phone calls that come through in the winter ahead of the 31 January deadline, and this could make the problem worse.”
Taking a more optimistic stance, Glenn Collins, ACCA UK’s head of technical and strategic engagement, says he is “pleased HMRC is looking at all the options to tackle the current poor performance”, praising the tax authority for being “flexible and adaptable”
However, he goes on to echo Etherington’s views, pointing out the “tension” between HMRC urging taxpayers to file their returns early whilst closing one of the key mechanisms for this.
“It’s all very well picking the lowest demand point to force people onto a platform which many aren’t comfortable with, but not if you’re going to try to increase demand by encouraging early filing at the same time.
“HMRC will not be able to effectively measure the change in behaviour, as the alternative has been removed. What HMRC should be focusing on is the proportion of queries settled in one interaction, this is not currently good enough and the fear is that this may get worse.”