Following three months of closure over the summer, HMRC reinstated the self assessment tax helpline from 4 September
All calls to the helpline on 0300 200 3310 have been redirected to digital services since 12 June to give HMRC time to deal with other more urgent phone enquiries and to reallocate 350 staff to other departments, including handling the postal backlog.
The closure was only temporary and is likely to have affected around 1.2m callers.
It is a sign of the direction of travel at HMRC, where the primary aim is to push taxpayers to online digital services and reduce pressure on helplines and call centre staff.
The self assessment helpline receives around 5m calls each year, with nearly 4m people staying on through the recorded messages to speak to an HMRC adviser according to the HMRC quarterly performance figures.
This was not the first time HMRC had limited access to helplines, but it was the first time it has completely shut down a service for a significant period.
Adam Harper, director of professional standards and policy at the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), said: ‘The need for such a pilot, in order to redirect staff elsewhere, highlights the much bigger challenge that HMRC faces in balancing competing priorities with a constrained budget. Ultimately, the government must address the root problem that more investment is needed.’
The closure was criticised by the Treasury Committee at a hearing with financial secretary to the Treasury, Victoria Atkins in June, where chair Harriet Baldwin MP said HMRC service levels were a ‘complete mess’.
Atkins defended HMRC, telling MPs: ‘Our customer service levels across HMRC have not been as they should be so I have been working with officials to find ways to surge our customer service teams to handle peaks in demand that we see across the [help] line.’
She also hinted that this will not be a one-off closure. ‘We will be watching this very, very carefully. If it is helping with some of the customer service problems we have, then we will look to see if we can surge people at other times of the year when there are peaks and trough into the higher activity areas. It is about using our people as effectively as possible when customers are trying to contact HMRC,’ said Atkins.
The self assessment tax return deadline is 31 January 2024 for online returns and 31 October 2023 for paper returns.