Call waiting times for the government’s tax helplines are worse than during the pandemic, with HM Revenue and Customs now restricting access for millions of taxpayers.
Accountants warn that callers face waits of up to an hour to get through, while some people have reported being cut off before a call is even answered. The most recent figures reveal the average time for a call to be answered was nearly 24 minutes in October, compared with less than 10 minutes in October 2020.
HMRC says it faces increased demand and is keen for taxpayers to use its online services, which it says are quick and convenient to use. The service faced criticism last week after it announced that from Monday its self-assessment helpline will only focus on “priority” calls, with most callers directed to online services.
The restrictions will stay in place until 31 January, the deadline for submitting an online tax return. HMRC received 38 million calls in 2022/23 and received 16m items of correspondence that required a response.
A Commons public accounts committee report published in January found that HMRC customer service staff numbers had fallen from 25,500 to 19,500 over five years. It warned that the level of customer service was not acceptable.
The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) says the HMRC restrictions come as many people will have to complete a self-assessment return for the first time, due to frozen thresholds and rising incomes. About 5.5 million people a year call the self-assessment helpline.
Glenn Collins, head of policy, technical and strategic engagement at ACCA, said: “The dramatically reduced service will be a worry for taxpayers and financial professionals. This move by HMRC once again demonstrates it lacks the proper resources that it desperately needs.
“We have reports of spending almost up to an hour waiting for calls to be answered. People are also being cut off before their calls progress. This is a system at breaking point.”
Harriett Baldwin, chair of the Commons Treasury committee, wrote to HMRC last week highlighting concerns about its service standards. HMRC previously closed its self-assessment helpline between 12 June and 4 September this year, directing callers online.
In the letter to Jim Harra, chief executive and first permanent secretary at HMRC, Baldwin wrote: “The restriction of access to the helpline was only announced on 7 December. Why have you not given taxpayers more notice?”
She has also asked for details of monitoring by HMRC to ensure people are not denied services.
Tax experts say they are concerned that the digital services cannot properly support taxpayers. But HMRC says millions of taxpayers already file their taxes online, with 83% satisfied with the experience.
Kelly Sizer, senior manager at the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, which works to improve tax processes and policy for those on low incomes, said the group was not opposed to digital services, but HMRC was moving “too fast, too soon”.
“They closed the self-assessment helpline over the summer and they are now restricting access in this busy period,” said Sizer.
“HMRC’s view seems to be that everyone can do everything online and so there’s no need to ring. People sometimes just want assurance they are doing the right thing.”
Senga Prior, chair of the Association of Taxation Technicians’ technical steering group, said: “There is a greater push [for taxpayers to use] digital resources, and fewer ways for them to speak to an actual person at HMRC.
“Not only will some people be left behind in that journey, but the services available to taxpayers and professional advisers via digital channels are too often incomplete, disjointed and poorly designed.”
HMRC says increased use of its online service will be more cost effective and free up expert advisers for those who genuinely need their help. The service says it is moving to a digital-first approach and its HMRC app is already used by more than a million people each month.
Source : The Guardian