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HMRC Self-Assessment Helpline

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement on the Government’s decision to close the HMRC self-assessment helpline every year between April and September.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), and others, for raising the important issue of HMRC’s customer services and its plans to provide better services for taxpayers.

As Members probably know, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has announced that it is halting planned changes to its helplines, but aims to encourage more taxpayers to self-serve online. It has listened to the feedback and recognises that more needs to be done to ensure that all taxpayer needs are met, while also encouraging those who can to make the transition to online services. Making the best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers, and to get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity. HMRC helpline and webchat advisers will always be there for taxpayers who need support because they are vulnerable or digitally excluded, or have complex affairs. I recognise that such reassurances were not communicated clearly enough yesterday.

Of course, the pace of this change needs to match the public’s appetite for managing their tax affairs online. The changes in the self-assessment VAT and PAYE helplines announced by HMRC will therefore be halted while it engages with stakeholders, which means that the phone lines will remain open as usual. HMRC will now work with stakeholders—including me—while continuing to encourage customers to self-serve and gain access to the information that they need more quickly and easily by going online or to the HMRC app, which is available 24/7.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the question that I am tempted to ask is, “Who on earth is running the Treasury?”

This morning, just after we had requested the urgent question, we found out that the Chancellor had told HMRC to “pause” this change. That is a U-turn of quite extraordinary speed and indignity, following HMRC’s announcement yesterday that it would be permanently closing its self-assessment helpline altogether for half the year, from April to September. This morning a Treasury source said

“ministers have halted this change immediately”,

implying that those Ministers had been taken by surprise by the announcement. Can the Minister tell us whether any Treasury Ministers had any involvement in the decision announced yesterday, or whether HMRC’s announcement was made without any ministerial involvement?

In announcing the closure of the helpline, HMRC’s second permanent secretary and deputy chief executive said that the changes would

“allow our helpline advisers to focus support where it is most needed—helping those with complex tax queries and those who are vulnerable and need extra support.”

Can the Minister confirm that HMRC’s plans to help those who are vulnerable and need extra support are now in tatters after the Chancellor’s chaotic U-turn? I note that reports of the Chancellor’s position refer to a “pause” of the change, rather than a scrapping of it altogether. Can the Minister confirm that the self-assessment helpline will now remain fully open this year? If this plan is merely paused, will HMRC still be looking at months-long periods of closure of the helpline in the future?

It is clear that yesterday’s announcement of the helpline’s closure came not as part of a comprehensive, orderly or effective plan to help customers to move online, but rather as a panicked response to the collapse of HMRC’s service levels to an all-time low; and it is clear from today’s chaotic U-turn that this Government are fundamentally unstable, and have given up on serious governing.

I am sure the hon. Member is aware that HMRC is a non-ministerial Department. Ministers set strategy and work closely with the Department on operations and communications. It is important to recognise that 67,000 people work for HMRC. They go to work every day and try to do the right thing, and it is important to recognise that many people there work very hard.

The overall strategy is absolutely right and I completely support it, and I will give the hon. Member an example of why we need to encourage and support the move to online services. In 2022-23, HMRC received more than 3 million calls on just three things that can easily be done digitally: resetting online passwords, getting one’s tax code and getting one’s national insurance number. That involves almost 500 people working full time to answer just those calls, and such resources could be redeployed. The hon. Member can be reassured that those who are not digitally savvy and those with difficulties will always be able to access services, including telephone services.

May I thank the Financial Secretary and the Chancellor for listening to the howl of pain that came from ordinary taxpayers when they saw the announcement yesterday? Those who contact the HMRC hotline are the most law-abiding, tax paying people across this land.

This morning, the Treasury Committee has published more data showing that it is increasingly difficult to contact HMRC by telephone. While I fully endorse what the Minister has just said about the long-term strategy to move people online, it cannot be done by randomly shutting down HMRC’s telephone lines.

The Minister had an excellent digital track record in the private sector before he came into Parliament. May I urge him to use that experience to make this much more of a gradual transition for those law-abiding citizens of ours?

I thank my hon. Friend and the Select Committee for their work in this area. I know that HMRC customer service has been an area of focus for her and others for some time, and we appreciate the input. I recognise that she acknowledges the potential opportunities and the upside to encouraging more people to go online, but the point she makes is really important. HMRC has taken the feedback with good grace, because it is important that we move at the speed at which the public are willing to move. Of course, some people are not willing or able to move to purely online services.

I am sorry for not responding earlier to the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) on whether the telephone lines will stay open. Yes, of course they will.

This is absolute chaos. The proposal to permanently close the self-assessment helpline for half the year was truly half-baked and irresponsible, as were the planned restrictions to the VAT helpline. The reversal is welcome, but the fact that the announcement was made at all highlights the disconnect at the heart of HMRC’s customer operations. As the Federation of Small Businesses has pointed out,

“customer service levels are at an all-time low”—

a view backed up by the Public Accounts Committee. At a time when the Chancellor’s policies are fiscally dragging more people into PAYE, the proposal was typically tone deaf to people’s needs.

Fran Heathcote of the PCS union has said that

“the combination of low-pay and micro-management”

is “rife across the whole” of HMRC’s customer service department. The Minister said that HMRC is a non-ministerial Department, but we know that it has been told what to do by the Chancellor overnight. When did the Government get notice of the announcement? Was it a reaction to the Chancellor’s decision to cut HMRC’s budget by £1.6 billion next year? Will he now ensure that the cut is reversed and order HMRC to recruit more customer service staff, and will he now instruct HMRC to make the reversal permanent?

As I outlined a few moments ago, I think we can all appreciate that in order to serve customers, and particularly those who most need support, we need to ensure that those who do not need to go online have alternative channels—by the way, the customer service levels are higher in online channels—and the use of the app, which I encourage all individuals to use. Those who can go online will find a very effective and efficient service, so this is absolutely the right strategy and one that I completely and utterly support. We have also previously had a trial closure of the lines, and the report released yesterday showed that it worked quite well.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about redeployment. HMRC is proactive in notifying people who, for example, do not need to provide a self-assessment form. I think more than 1 million people were notified last year that they did not need to do so. Following other changes in Government policy, we have also communicated that those on high incomes—up to £150,000, for example—but do not have complex tax affairs do not need to provide a self-assessment return. There is a broad package going on here to enhance and improve customer service, but we recognise that many people like and would prefer a telephone service.

Despite extensive Government investment in rural broadband in my constituency, there remains a lack of connectivity, with small businesses, the elderly and the vulnerable still having difficulty going fully online. What can the Minister do to ensure that nobody will be left behind in Derbyshire Dales?

My hon. Friend makes the really important point that there are still people in this country, including in her constituency, who are not digitally aware or who are digitally excluded for a variety of reasons. That is why an important part of our strategy is to ensure that those who are digitally excluded, and those who are vulnerable or have particularly complex affairs, can always reach a human being.

This is another chaotic Government U-turn, with the Chancellor taking the decision this morning to scrap plans to close HMRC phone lines less than 24 hours after the measures were announced. A Treasury source admitted this morning that closing HMRC’s helplines would be to

“the detriment of the general public and the vulnerable who need access to the helplines to support them with tax matters. ”

This is part of a wider malaise within Tory broken Britain where many of my Slough constituents cannot speak to a doctor when they want to, cannot register for an NHS dentist and much worse besides. So why was this decision taken in the first place?

I mentioned in my opening comments—I will stress it again because it is important that nobody scaremongers about this—that it was never intended, and never would have been the case, that the vulnerable, the digitally excluded or those with complex affairs would be unable to access these services, even with the proposals set out yesterday. On that particular point, the hon. Gentleman is just wrong.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, which I welcome. Last September, in this very place, I raised the issue of heavy fines being imposed on self-employed constituents for late submission of self-assessment forms, even though no moneys were owed. I met the Minister in post at the time, but will the current Minister please write to me with an update on progress?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I reiterate that there is a very good reason why HMRC’s structure and relationship with Government is as it is, because it would be inappropriate for Ministers to interfere with individual tax affairs. However, I would be more than happy to raise his point with HMRC and respectfully ask that it pays it due attention. Of course, the Government set broader policy.

As a former financial controller of a small business in a rural place, I have used those helplines extensively, not least in sorting out disputes when HMRC has got its data wrong. Given that our own experience is that the website’s process is byzantine, that the waits on the phone lines are inordinately long, and that £36 billion of tax goes uncollected by HMRC every year, how can anyone have any confidence that the Treasury is working effectively?

Very simply, we have one of the lowest tax gaps reported in the world, at about 4.8%, precisely because of the clarity of the tax system and the efficiency of HMRC in gaining the tax that is owed. Of course there are customer service challenges, and I am having conversations with HMRC about that. HMRC is also held to account in the Chamber, the Treasury Select Committee and elsewhere, as appropriate. It is important that we recognise that HMRC received 38 million telephone calls and 16 million pieces of correspondence in 2022-23. If it were a private sector business, we can see how it would make sense strategically to move, where appropriate, as much of that activity as possible online, where it can be dealt with more appropriately and often more quickly.

The Women and Equalities Committee, which is currently carrying out an inquiry on the rights of older people, this week met Independent Age and a range of stakeholders in Andover. They made the point that older people need to be able to access all services on the telephone, as people who are disabled or have a visual impairment find online services difficult. To be able to communicate effectively, people who are hard of hearing need websites with a British Sign Language overlay. Independent Age and the stakeholders I met were horrified at yesterday’s announcement on the closure of the helpline.

What consultation has there been with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), in her expanded role as Minister for Disabled People, on the potential impact of these changes? When Members of Parliament deal with HMRC on constituency casework, it now tries to push us into using the telephone rather than email. Can the Financial Secretary assure me that vulnerable people will still be able to use telephone services? Will he comment on the contradiction between how Members of Parliament and the public are dealt with by HMRC?

I assure my right hon. Friend that we are having live conversations with HMRC about how it communicates with Members of Parliament on behalf of our constituents. Some Members tell me that they would prefer a telephone call, whereas others would prefer email. It is important that we have both. I am more than happy to communicate views and opinions from across the Chamber on that point. I am well aware that one of the biggest areas of concern about yesterday’s announcement, and one of the reasons why the feedback has been so loud, is that vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, might not be helped. It was never the intention or the plan that such people would be unable to access online, webchat or other channels.

The Minister has spoken about members of the public who are willing and able to access services online. Members have to complete our own self-assessment form. I am willing and able, but I still need access to a telephone helpline. He said that 500 people are needed to answer the same three questions, which obviously cannot be handled by the online system. Following this announcement, is he confident that HMRC has the digital tools necessary to cater for more than 12 million self-assessment taxpayers?

I need to correct the hon. Lady, as the vast majority of the points I raised could be handled online, including through the app. One of the things we must do is communicate far more clearly. A fair point has been raised in the Chamber today, and I will continue to discuss it with HMRC, because there are clearly some challenges with communicating what is available, where help exists and so on, but there is a wealth of information on the digital offerings, particularly the app, and I encourage people to adopt them, where possible. The hon. Lady makes a valid point that people who cannot adopt them will need other help, and we are listening.

It is clear that HMRC made a serious mistake, and the Government acted commendably quickly in intervening to put matters right. I am sure they will now take a close interest in what happens next. As a matter of policy, will the Minister ensure that, whatever the future holds, it will not be anything so sudden or brutal, and that there will be a trial period before anything so dramatic is implemented across the board?

As I mentioned a few moments ago, there has been a trial closure of telephone services. The recently reported results show that the trial worked quite well. As we heard overnight and are hearing again in the Chamber today, the important challenge is that the confidence behind that has not been effectively communicated. The reassurances that I personally received on what will happen to help those who are not able to access online services—including the disabled, those without digital access and those with particularly complex cases—were not communicated. That is important to making sure that, as HMRC moves forward and policy is developed, we move at a pace with which people are comfortable.

I hope that HMRC’s screeching U-turn is a result of the Minister’s action. If it is, I congratulate him on stepping in so quickly. Does he agree that, at a time when more and more people are being dragged into complex tax returns because of fiscal drag, when 1 million people had their calls to HMRC unanswered in January and when a record number of people are putting in their tax returns late because they cannot get information, HMRC should not have adopted such a policy? Will the Minister give us an assurance that this is not temporary and that whatever help income tax payers require to pay their tax will be made available?

I give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance on the latter point. As I have outlined several times today, I think we can all recognise that the move to digital, where appropriate, will relieve the burden on the people answering telephone calls and on some other services, allowing them to deliver precisely the end goal that he describes. Simplifying the tax system is a goal of Government policy. I gave an example of people on high incomes with relatively simple tax affairs—those who pay through PAYE, for example—and we are trying to remove as many of those people as possible from self-assessment. I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s points.

Although decisions on individual tax cases are rightly managed independently by HMRC, political and public pressure saw this ridiculous decision squashed. What steps will Ministers take to improve the accountability and performance of HMRC?

There are a variety of channels and tools, including my ministerial oversight. The Treasury Select Committee and other bodies also play an important part. I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that I am removing myself from responsibility for HMRC, as I have ministerial oversight. If colleagues have concerns, they can always raise them with me. It is my job to raise those concerns with HMRC.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.

Does the Minister accept that one of the more disgraceful aspects of this episode is that neither the trade unions nor the staff appear to have been consulted prior to yesterday’s announcement? Does he accept that this is no way to conduct industrial relations or to deal with staff? How does he see yesterday’s announcement in the light of the Public Accounts Committee’s comments that the Department has to improve its ability to reach out to taxpayers and that it needs additional resources? Why are the Government now restricting customer access to the Department?

HMRC and I have heard and respect the views of the PAC and other bodies, including their recommendations and suggestions for improvement. Of course, many of these bodies suggest that the continuing move towards digital and online is an important part of that process. As I have said, I do not have day-to-day operational responsibility for HMRC, but I do have oversight. I proactively requested a meeting with the unions several weeks ago, and that is what I have tended to do in all my ministerial roles.

This is a welcome U-turn, but does my hon. Friend accept that one of the problems is HMRC’s chronic lack of productivity? Is that not made worse because so many people are working from home?

My hon. Friend is correct that a focus on productivity is key, and I can assure him that these are exactly the kinds of conversations that I am having. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury is leading a cross-Government review of productivity. HMRC staff are required to work in the office for 40% of the time. I have asked HMRC to assess and monitor the productivity of staff who are working from home versus staff working in the office, and there is very little difference. Because of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and others, I will keep an eye on it.

The reprieve is welcome, but if we are to keep these helplines open, can we at least resource them properly and make them work? I spoke to a chartered accountant in my constituency this morning, and he tells me that when he recently phoned HMRC with a complex query on behalf of a client, it took 40 minutes to get an answer. When the phone was answered, there was an acknowledgment of the problem. He suggested that the answer might lie in his client’s wife’s data being incorrectly ordered, at which point he was told that the staff were allowed to handle only one case per call, and that he would have to hang up and phone back, with another 40-minute wait for an answer. Surely that is no way to treat a customer.

I am regularly contacted by constituents who have had poor services from HMRC, as I am sure many of my colleagues are. These people are pretty certain that they would still be waiting had they not got their MP involved. My constituent Mr McCall retired to care for his terminally ill wife in 2021, but has since been chased repeatedly by HMRC to provide a tax return for 2022-23. He does not use email and has described the diabolical experience he has had with the phone line; he waited 50 minutes for an automated voice, and the line then went dead. Does the Minister accept that that service level is not acceptable at all, and things must improve? Would he like to take the opportunity to apologise to Mr McCall for the distress that HMRC has caused him?

Yes, I am sorry to hear about those circumstances for the hon. Lady’s constituent. As I said, I have to be careful given the need to keep at arm’s length in individual cases, but she also raises a broader policy point. A lot of training and work goes on. I repeat that some 60,000 people work for HMRC, many of whom are dedicated, hard-working and well-trained individuals, and they often do a thankless job, but she makes a valid point, and I will happy raise that issue. I spoke incorrectly a few moments ago, so may I take the opportunity to correct what I said, Mr Speaker? HMRC staff are required to work in the office 60% of the time, not 40% of the time.

The Government were forced to extend the state pensions top-ups through to April next year because of unacceptable delays on the Department for Work and Pensions/HMRC helpline for that issue. The Minister has mentioned that a review will take place; will that helpline be in its scope? It is a concern to many, many constituents.

As I say, I have ongoing engagement with HMRC. It is operationally independent, but I do have some oversight, and ministerial guidance is appropriate. I appreciate all the comments made by hon. Members today. These will be live conversations, and HMRC is listening to the conversations today. I will be happy to raise with it the points that she makes.

First, let me thank the Minister for a positive response, and for trying to solve the problems; we appreciate that. Constituents have told my office about their struggle to get through to HMRC on the phone lines. There is no doubt that people still rely on services that allow them to speak to an individual. That is so important, as it is for us as MPs. We had 1 million calls unanswered in January alone, which illustrates clearly the problem that the Minister is trying to address. Does he not see that there must be an enhanced service for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ensure that all calls are answered and dealt with? The better option of a personal phone call is right, and we need a drastic change to be made.

It is important that HMRC commands respect—to a broad degree, it does—across the House and among our constituents, because that is how we can ensure that we comply with tax requirements. Where there is confusion, uncertainty or a valid question, it is important that people can get help, advice and support. For some people, it is appropriate to go online to get that, but that is not the case for everybody. As I said, the comments made today are very much appreciated. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, as I have said many times, it is important that all of us encourage and support the digitisation of these services, and the adoption of the app by our constituents, because that will help ensure that the time available is focused on those who most need help and support.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that His Majesty has signified his Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2024

National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) Act 2024

Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Act 2024

Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act 2024.