A parliamentary committee has asked HM Revenue and Customs to explain its decision to temporarily shut down its self-assessment telephone helpline.
MPs on the Treasury Committee expressed concerns that the move was implemented at short notice and could have a negative impact on citizens.
HMRC announced 8 June that – from the beginning of this week – the helpline would be closed for almost three months, and will not reopen until 4 September. The department characterised the move as a “pilot of a new seasonal model” which is designed to free up resources during a comparatively quiet period for the telephone service.
Callers are now directed to instead use HMRC’s digital support services for self-assessment queries, which the agency said includes “online guidance, digital assistant and webchat” offerings.
Pausing the helpline will “free up 350 advisers”, who will largely be redeployed to other telephone support services, where they will enable the department to deal with an extra 6,600 urgent calls each day, as well as responding to other forms of correspondence.
The tax agency said that the reopening date of the helping is still five months in advance of the 31 January deadline for filing self-assessment tax returns, adding that “the vast majority of SA customers use HMRC’s online services, with 97% filing online”.
HMRC deputy chief executive Angela MacDonald said: “We continually review our services to see how they can best serve the public and we are taking steps to improve them. A seasonal SA helpline will make more of our expert advisers available where they are most needed during the summer months.
"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.”
Following the announcement of the helpline shutdown, the Treasury committee wrote to MacDonald to express MPs’ concerns and ask the HMRC chief to provide a range of additional information, including usage statistics for the service for the past five fives, what data will be collected during the pilot closure and how this will be used to support further evaluation.
The committee also asked whether HMRC it had consulted anyone outside the department about the decision – and “if not, why not?”.
Information was further requested on “what procedures are in place to assist vulnerable taxpayers and those unable or unwilling to use digital services” and “what contingency arrangements does HMRC have in place should taxpayer detriment be greater than expected during the trial”.
The department – which MPs expect to respond by 27 June – is also asked to clarify whether the helpline closure was at all related to homeworking policies or “staffing issues in HMRC or backlogs/issues in other areas”.
Committee chair Harriett Baldwin MP said: “Given the potentially significant impact closing the self-assessment helpline may have on taxpayers, we’re looking for clarification that HMRC has fully considered the costs and benefits of this decision.
"There are also concerns around the short notice with which this was announced. HMRC must be open, upfront and transparent when making decisions which could impact so many individuals."
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared