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Closing phone lines still ‘part of our strategy’, says HMRC boss

HMRC Phone Line
HMRC Phone Line

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) may attempt to close its helplines again despite an outcry over previous plans, the boss of the tax office has said.

Jim Harra, HMRC’s chief executive, refused to rule out future helpline cuts when he was grilled on Wednesday by MPs over his proposal to shut down the self-assessment phone line for six months every year.

In an embarrassing U-turn, HMRC halted its decision after a backlash from MPs and trade bodies, who warned taxpayers could fill in their tax returns erroneously if forced to rely mainly on HMRC’s website for support.

The tax boss also told members of the Treasury Select Committee that getting more colleagues to work in the office is “not the answer” to the organisation’s problems.

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Responding to MPs, Mr Harra described the previously planned helpline closure as part of HMRC’s “strategy”.

“I am not saying we won’t return to this,” he said, “because it is part of our strategy and we do think it was effective last year”.

HMRC trialled a seasonal helpline closure in 2023 but the plans announced in March would have made this permanent.

He added: “I’m very disappointed that we have not been able to take what I regard as a modernising step at this point.”

HMRC has been routinely criticised for its poor customer service performance, with taxpayers forced to wait on average 24 minutes before they can speak to an adviser, according to its latest figures.

Ministers have questioned whether HMRC’s hybrid working policy is to the blame for long waiting times.

Mr Harra, who told MPs that 57pc of staff met the department’s expectation for the amount of time spent in the office, has denied the connection.

He said: “Our monitoring tells us that for both our helpline staff, our web chat advisors and also staff on our post teams, they are as effective at home as they are in the office.

“So I’m confident, whilst I want to make sure that colleagues comply with working from home policy I’m confident an answer to our problem is not to change the balance of working from home and working in the office.

“We know that colleagues answering phone calls at home all have the same productivity as colleagues answering in the office. Whilst we are continuing to implement our office working attending strategy that is not going to make a material difference in the short term to performance of our helplines.”

When the announcement to close the helpline was made in March, trade bodies voiced concerns that vulnerable customers would be left out as a result.

But Mr Harra argued that these taxpayers would have found it easier to contact HMRC, had they proceeded with the seasonal closure.

“There’s little doubt that if we had been able to proceed, the evidence from last year’s trials indicates that we would have been able to help more vulnerable and digitally excluded customers because the route through to an adviser for them would not have been blocked by other callers.”

Harriet Baldwin, chair of the Treasury Committee, asked Mr Harra whether HMRC had informed all of the necessary stakeholders, including professional bodies, about the proposed closure ahead of time, and who exactly prompted the “screeching” U-turn.

To this Mr Harra said that despite consulting trade bodies early on, the “strength of concern was greater than expected”, triggering the U-turn.

“I wasn’t surprised that stakeholders didn’t welcome the changes. I was disappointed that despite the work we had done the previous year that there was so much concern and doubt about whether they would work and whether we would be able to help customers effectively during it because I believe that we can. But we’re a public service and we have to recognise it’s not just us who sets the pace.”

He also said he acknowledged he “did not give stakeholders enough time” to digest the findings of an evaluation into a trial of the helpline closure – published the same day as the announcement was made.

This showed that 113,000 taxpayers who called HMRC for help during the trial were told they could find the answers they needed online. Of these, almost two-thirds (61pc) rang the helpline again within five days.

HMRC is currently in discussion with ministers about securing funding for additional helpline staff, now that the helpline is to stay open over the summer.

“If I don’t get additional funding then I will have to look at whether I have to reprioritise something else,” said Mr Harra.

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