HMRC reverses helpline reduction plan

Last year, HMRC received over three million calls to its helpline for basic issues that could be managed online, such as password resets and tax code queries. In March, HMRC announced its plans to make significant changes to its helpline services.


The move aimed to encourage the use of digital services instead, freeing up resources. The plan would have resulted in the helpline being unavailable for half of the year. Faced with a significant backlash, HMRC decided to reverse this decision.


Initial announcement

HMRC announced that from 08 April, the self-assessment helpline would be closed for six months each year, from April to September, and would only handle what it deemed as ‘complex enquiries’.


The availability of the VAT helpline was also to be reduced. It was planned to be operational for just five days a month before VAT return deadlines. No changes were announced for the agent-dedicated line (ADL), but HMRC stressed that it would only be used for issues that couldn’t be resolved online.


The announcement also stated that the PAYE helpline would stop taking calls about refunds while other helplines would continue as usual.


Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s Deputy Chief Executive, said:


“Changing our services to encourage customers to self-serve online wherever possible will allow our helpline advisers to focus support where it is most needed – helping those with complex tax queries and those who are vulnerable and need extra support.


“We must maximise every pound of taxpayers’ money. Embracing online self-service allows us to help more customers and improve our customer service levels without spending additional public money.”



However, the announcement sparked negative reactions from users of the helpline and official bodies. Critics, including accountants and the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), labelled the move as ill-considered. Concerns were raised over the accessibility of HMRC’s online services, especially for those new to tax or facing complex issues.


The CIOT criticised the reduction in helpline services. It argued that many people still prefer speaking directly to a member of HMRC staff.


CIOT president, Gary Ashford, said:


“We are deeply dismayed that so soon after the criticisms levelled at them by the Public Accounts Committee, and in the light of an inconclusive evaluation, HMRC has decided to make these big, permanent cuts to the help they provide to taxpayers.


“If last year’s announcement of the summer closure of the self-assessment helpline was a “flashing indicator” that HMRC can’t cope, these announcements are a blinding light.”


During last summer’s trial period, 68% of taxpayers using the digital assistant requested a live chat, which indicated a demand for human interaction. The CIOT suggested that until HMRC improved its online services, there would be scepticism about replacing direct contact with a digital self-service.


Ashford said:


“HMRC’s own evaluation of both the closure of the helpline in summer 2023 and the helpline restrictions during the 2024 self-assessment peak, concluded that it is too early to say if there has been a long-term shift from phone contact to online self-service. Yet HMRC has decided to go ahead anyway.”



Less than 24 hours after the initial announcement, following widespread backlash, HMRC reversed its decision.


Acknowledging the criticism, HMRC paused its closure plans to consult stakeholders on better supporting taxpayers, including small businesses, as it transitioned more of its services online.


The government was also urged to significantly improve HMRC’s IT systems for easier access. HMRC did admit that the shift to online services was proceeding too swiftly, indicating a recognition of the need for a more measured approach.


Jim Harra, Chief Executive of HMRC, said:


“The pace of this change needs to match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online.


“We’ve listened to the feedback and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services.”


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