Taxpayers calling HMRC for help this winter face being told to hang up and go online as it attempts to cut wait times.
Only “priority” callers and the “digitally excluded” will be able to speak to a tax adviser on the phone from December 11 until the annual tax return deadline on January 31.
Taxpayers with issues that can be resolved online will be turned away and told to use its digital services instead, the tax office said.
Last year HMRC received 1.2 million calls from taxpayers needing help with their tax returns in the eight weeks to the deadline.
HMRC claims that two-thirds of the calls it receives could be dealt with more quickly online, suggesting that hundreds of thousands may be blocked from the helpline over the coming weeks.
John Barnett, of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, a professional body, called the decision to restrict access to the helpline “misguided”.
He said: “While we understand HMRC’s desire to prioritise where it puts its limited resources, we are concerned that in practice many of their customers will be unable to navigate HMRC’s digital services, and will simply give up.”
Victoria Todd, of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, said: “Forcing taxpayers to use services that are not up to scratch risks an erosion of trust in the tax system, leading to errors, non-compliance and more problems for taxpayers and HMRC further down the line.”
Harriet Baldwin, head of the Treasury Committee, an influential group of MPs, said it was “yet another alarming development for an increasingly pressured government service”.
She added: “The Treasury Committee has repeatedly stressed our concern about the management of the self-assessment helpline, particularly when it closed at such short notice over the summer leaving many struggling to access help with tax issues.”
HMRC was grilled by MPs after it gave taxpayers just two working days’ notice before closing its self-assessment helpline between June 12 and September 4 this year.
Ms Baldwin wrote to HMRC on Thursday asking whether the latest decision to restrict access to the helpline was influenced by pent-up demand from the summer closure.
HMRC is transitioning to a digital-first approach in order to cut costs and improve its dwindling customer service performance.
Today taxpayers ringing HMRC can expect to wait 23 minutes before their call is answered, whereas before the pandemic the average wait time was just five minutes.
MPs have questioned whether its generous working from home policy is to blame for the fall in customer service.
Thousands of HMRC staff have routinely failed to go into the office at all, freedom of information figures obtained by The Telegraph in September showed. However, HMRC has repeatedly denied home working is related to drops in its service.
Caroline Miskin, of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, a trade body, said if the latest move did not achieve the desired shift to online services, there could be “a further deterioration in service levels”.
She added: “The Autumn Statement confirmed that HMRC’s budget will be cut by £1bn for 2024-25 and many will see today’s news as a partial closure of the self-assessment helpline at the time it is most needed.”
Thursday’s announcement means that callers must state their problem and an automated messaging service will then tell them whether or not they need the help of a tax adviser.
HMRC said examples of queries that can be resolved online included updating personal information, requesting an update on the progress of self assessment registration, ending registration, and checking a “Unique Taxpayer Reference” number.
However, it has not specified what constitutes a “priority” caller.
Angela MacDonald, deputy chief executive of HMRC, said: “This is a busy time for customers who want to get their taxes sorted. We want to help customers resolve any issues in the quickest and easiest way, which is often through our online services.
“The vast majority of self-assessment customers file their returns digitally, so we’re helping them make the next step to resolving simpler queries through our online services.
“Our expert advisers will be there to help people with urgent and more complicated queries as well as helping the small number who are unable to access our online services.”