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Outcry led to HMRC's helpline closure U-turn

Frustrated woman on phone
[Getty Images]

An unexpected “strength of feeling” led HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to U-turn over its helpline closure, its boss has told MPs.

In March, the tax authority announced the phone line would be closed between April and September, only to reverse the decision within 24 hours and keep it open.

Ministers were among those who expressed concern, even though they already knew of the plans, Jim Harra said.

Mr Harra, HMRC’s permanent secretary, also said the tax authority still wanted to move taxpayers to online services.

The tax authority has been toiling with long telephone helpline waiting times and intense criticism of its services.

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More than 12 million people are required to complete self-assessment forms every year, with about half of them ringing for assistance every year.

Its strategy is to move queries onto online services – including a chatbot - rather than more labour-intensive phone lines.

But its original announcement that it would close the helpline for six months of every year, following a trial, was immediately met with widespread criticism from tax professionals and MPs.

HMRC said the reversal was made “to match the public appetite” and after listening to feedback.

But in Wednesday’s hearing of the Commons Treasury committee, senior figures at HMRC were pushed on what had led to such a “screeching U-turn”.

Mr Harra said there had been an immediate reaction from a range of interested groups.

“The strength of feeling was not what we had been expecting,” he said.

Ministers' concerns

There were reports at the time that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt stepped in to urge HMRC to reverse its decision.

Mr Harra said ministers were aware of the plan to close the helpline, and the date it would be announced.

But he added that “ministers conveyed their concerns about the strength of reaction”.

Now the U-turn had come, Mr Harra said he was discussing funding for more call centre staff with ministers.

However, he said that digital-first strategy was still in place, but that it would be introduced more slowly than planned.

“We are not knocked off our strategy, but knocked off its implementation course,” he said.

Mr Harra said more people were being drawn into paying tax, known as fiscal drag, and that was a significant reason for more people contacting HMRC.

He also said people’s tax affairs were becoming more complicated.