With four days’ notice, a trial to redirect Self Assessment (SA) queries from HMRC’s phone helpline to its digital services started on 12 June, running for three months to 4 September 2023. Ostensibly, the idea is to trial the department’s digital services, including its online guidance, digital assistant and webchat. In reality, HMRC is behind in answering its post and finalising problems including investigations, some of which have been waiting a year to be settled.
However, under HMRC’s ‘Making Tax Digital’ initiative, HMRC plans to move to a fully digital tax system and, by directing ‘customers’ away from the phone lines to its website, it is hoping to make its tax administration ‘more effective, efficient, and easier for taxpayers to fulfil their obligations whilst reducing HMRC’s overheads for managing the tax system’- (HMRC policy paper ‘Overview of Making Tax Digital’). HMRC wants a 30% reduction in contact by phone and post by 2025 (compared with 2021/2022) and this trial of ‘seasonal closure’ of phone lines will help HMRC direct the redeployment of staff to areas most in need at particular times of the tax year.
Why is this happening?
HMRC’s annual performance report for 2022/23 reveals the severity of the department’s problems. HMRC failed to meet all its key customer service measures in that year, with phone answering performance continuing to decline. Although correspondence cleared within 15 to 40 working days showed improvement, it still fell short of targets.
HMRC says that the closure of the SA phone lines over the summer period will free up 350 advisers (full-time equivalent), enabling them to take urgent calls on the lines of other tax areas (e.g., corporation tax and NIC) and answer outstanding correspondence. If focused on these calls, HMRC estimates that these advisers will answer around 6,600 daily. The SA helpline receives far fewer calls over the summer, with calls around 50% higher between January and April compared with between June and August.
HMRC also states that the majority of its ‘customers’ use online services in any event (with 97% filing online), such that it is estimated that around two-thirds of all SA calls can be resolved by customers looking online. With the phone helpline closed, customers will be directed to webchat, the Online Service Helpline and the Extra Support Team Helpline where the number of advisers available will be increased.
What alternative assistance is there?
HMRC says that the majority of its time on phone calls is taken up with questions, the answers to which can be found online. Apart from the online guidance, there is HMRC’s digital assistant. If the digital assistant cannot help, then the customer will be directed to an HMRC webchat adviser – if one is available.
HMRC has also created the HMRC app which, inter alia, can be used to check a customer’s UTR number, tax code and NIC number, income from work in the previous five years, claim a tax refund, obtain an estimate of the tax due and, importantly, track the progress of forms and letters sent to HMRC.
However, there is a more personal method of communication in the form of HMRC’s online forums. These forums have been in operation for six years, allowing questions to be answered on a wide range of topics under 14 separate headings as diverse as starting a business, selling abroad, tax credits, VAT, self-employment, Self Assessment or being an employer. Importantly, as well as responses from other forum members, HMRC’s technical staff may also post replies. The registration process is straightforward; the only requirement being for a valid email address and username. The proviso is that the forum does not deal with questions about a taxpayer’s individual circumstances and any comments including personal information will be deleted.
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