HM Revenue and Customs’ decision to close its self-assessment helpline this summer has nothing to do with flexible working policies, second permanent secretary Angela MacDonald has insisted.
The department announced on 8 June that its helpline would be closed for almost three months, and will not reopen until 4 September, describing this as a “pilot of a new seasonal model” designed to free up resources during a comparatively quiet period for the telephone service.
Parliament’s Treasury Committee raised concerns about the decision and asked a series of questions on the pilot, including whether the closure is “in any way related to HMRC’s homeworking policy”.
In a response published this week, MacDonald said: “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 enquiries 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.”
MacDonald said the decision was based on the lower use of the helpline during summer, the department’s desire to become more digital-focused and an increasing need to make cutbacks amid growing financial pressures.
The helpline receives around 50% fewer calls between June and August compared to the period between January and April, MacDonald said. She said queries during the summer also tended to be less complex than those received later in the tax year and less urgent compared with calls to some of its other helplines.
Up to two-thirds of all calls to the helpline are about matters which could be dealt with digitally, MacDonald added.
But MacDonald said the decision was also influenced by the “context of the challenging level of efficiencies required by our Spending Review 2021 settlement”, “further pressure from inflation” and policy decisions directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number of customers with more complex affairs that the department has to serve.
The pilot will free up around 350 advisers to work on more urgent enquiries, enabling the department to deal with an extra 6,600 urgent calls each day, according to HMRC.
MacDonald also admitted HMRC did not consult any external body prior to announcing the trial but said the department already “been clear” on its long-term direction of greater use of digital and self-service channels and has been talking to stakeholders about the challenges it faces.
“Moreover, this is a pilot and we will learn lessons and gather feedback from customers and external bodies as part of this work,” she added.
The department will make a final assessment of the pilot and the helpline’s future model in early 2024 and will publish an evaluation report early next year, MacDonald said.
MacDonald also reassured the committee that “if it becomes clear that the trial is not working as expected, we can reopen the line”.
But the second perm sec's response was criticised by the Treasury Committee, which said it had failed to sufficiently answer MPs' concerns.
Committee chair Harriett Baldwin said she is "disappointed by the lack of detail and transparency displayed by the leadership of HMRC".
"There is clearly a lack of clarity over the impact this decision will have on taxpayers. This simply isn’t good enough,” Baldwin said.
“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.”