Alarmingly HMRC announced a major change to its self-assessment helpline just four days before it was due to take effect. It said on Thursday, 8 June 2023, it would be trialling a seasonal model for the helpline from Monday, 12 June 2023, which it claims, will enable its advisers to prioritise helping those with urgent queries.
Taxpayers will no longer be able to speak directly via telephone with HMRC regarding their self-assessment enquiries and instead are expected to utilise a new online chatbot and online guidance. The seasonal trial will last for 3 months, with the helpline then re-opening on 4 September 2023 to once again allow individuals to contact HMRC by phone in the months leading up to the self-assessment deadline.
HMRC suggests the reasoning for this decision is that it receives far fewer calls from June to August and this will free up individuals to take urgent calls on other lines and answer taxpayer correspondence.
What is also concerning was the lack of warning from HMRC, or discussions between HMRC and other professionals, before this decision was taken.
With an increasingly more complex tax system, putting a barrier in place between the taxpayer and HMRC could ultimately result in poorer service. This may have unwelcome consequences such as taxpayers completing their tax returns incorrectly or simply delaying completion until after the helpline has re-opened - when they next have the opportunity to call HMRC. This will put added pressure on the system in the lead-up to the self-assessment filing deadline of 31 January 2024.
Whilst 97% of taxpayers do file their returns online, 3% still do not and this move to digital will make it very difficult for them to access information.
Of course, the hope is that it will allow HMRC to deal with the backlog of taxpayer correspondence and as a firm we have seen slower responses from HMRC recently so this will be welcome. It also follows the previously announced decision to close its VAT registration helpline from Monday 22 May.
Whether HMRC’s decision to trial the move of its telephone enquiry services solely to digital during the quieter months will prove successful remains to be seen, however, in our experience our own enquiries regarding HMRC matters continue to increase as taxpayers look for more efficient ways to manage their cash flow and understand new systems.