- HMRC closed its self-assessment helpline over the summer in a ‘seasonal’ trial
- HMRC bosses told Treasury Committee they are planning another shutdown
HMRC says it will trial another closure of its self-assessment helpline following a trial over the summer, which was widely criticized by accountants and business owners.
It comes as the Treasury Select Committee grilled senior officials and board members of HMRC this afternoon as part of its ongoing scrutiny of the taxman’s work.
In June, the tax office announced it would close its self-assessment helpline for three months to try to direct queries from the helpline to the department’s digital services.
He said he was testing a “seasonal model” because the helpline receives fewer calls during the summer. But HMRC warned self-assessment taxpayers just two days before closing for the entire summer.
HMRC is planning another closure of its self-assessment helpline despite widespread criticism
This is Money has heard from a number of readers who have been affected by the sudden closure of the self-assessment helpline.
We revealed a woman had been fined hundreds of pounds for late tax returns, despite not having been self-employed for four years.
After six months of trying to fix the problem, he tried calling the self-assessment line, only to discover it was closed for the summer.
Speaking to the Treasury Committee today, HMRC second permanent secretary Angela MacDonald said: ‘We decided we were going to trial a seasonal model.
‘We had worked hard preparing for the test, but it took us some time to make a decision on communication, so we were a little late in communicating with customers.
‘It was definitely not part of the plan [to give the public two days’ notice],’ she added.
“By the time we were able to communicate with the full range of stakeholders we needed to talk to internally… we ran out of time we ideally would have had to communicate further.”
Former Virgin Money boss Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who is now a member of HMRC’s board, said the board was “aware of the plan” for the closure but was “unaware that communication had been delayed from the the way it was.”
The outcome of the summer helpline closure is likely to be published in the new year, but initial reports suggest customer satisfaction has dropped significantly.
In a letter to the Committee, HMRC chief executive Jim Harra said customer satisfaction with the online helpdesk fell from 29.4 per cent to 24.7 per cent year on year.
Satisfaction with the self-assessment web chat also fell, from 76.2 percent to 70.1 percent year-on-year.
He said this is likely a “temporary phenomenon during the time it took to increase capacity there.”
Speaking to the Committee on Wednesday, Harra said: ‘Demand for online helpline services has exceeded our forecasts. At the beginning of our trial we did not have enough counselors on that helpline to meet the demand.
‘Without carrying out the trial, [forecasting demand] It was indeed a guess. The OSH demand was greater than we predicted, so we needed to train and deploy additional advisors.
‘In the initial period of the trial, that meant poorer service levels for that helpline and therefore reduced customer satisfaction. As the trial progressed, we added more resources and customer satisfaction levels increased.”
While HMRC has not yet completed its pilot lockdown assessment, MacDonald said they were planning a further self-assessment lockdown.
HMRC did not respond when asked when the closure might take place or whether it would be before the January self-assessment submission deadline.
Harra added that HMRC “does not have the resources to deliver customer service standards through traditional telephone and mail channels”, so they have to “reduce contact demand and push it towards digital self-service”.
‘The challenge is increasingly difficult. A greater number of contributors means greater contact. “We don’t have increasing resources.”
We have contacted HMRC for comment.
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