HMRC backtrack shows UK public service delivery still needs human support

After announcing plans to reduce helpline provision to just six months in every 12, feedback prompts a lightning-fast u-turn for the tax office. 

Last week, HMRC announced its intention to significantly reduce its self-assessment helpline support from 8th April onwards. The intention was to close the service completely until early-October, at which point it would reopen to handle ‘priority queries’ only.

The government department had also confirmed that its PAYE helpline ‘will no longer take calls from customers relating to refunds’, and its VAT telephone support would be limited to just five days a week until the deadline for filing returns. The changes would equate to around 50% of previous support, and had been conceived to direct people to automated online services, ‘a vital element of HMRC’s modernisation of the tax system.’

But within 24 hours of news being made public, a decision was taken to scrap all proposed changes after feedback from users was taken into account. The agency has now promised to engage with sole traders and businesses to ensure ‘needs are met as HMRC shifts more people to online self-service in the longer term.’

In a trial last year, the self-assessment helpline closed entirely for three months and operated as a ‘priority online’ support service for the seven weeks running up to 31st January tax deadline. Analysis showed this did not negatively impact tax return filing or payment rates compared to previous years, although the official conclusion was that ‘it is too early to say if there has been a long-term shift from phone contact to online self-service but there are encouraging signs’.

‘Making best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers and get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity. Our helpline and webchat advisers will always be there for those taxpayers who need support because they are vulnerable, digitally excluded or have complex affairs,’ said HMRC Chief Executive, Jim Hara.

‘However, the pace of this change needs to match the public appetite for managing their tax affairs online. We’ve listened to the feedback and we’re halting the helpline changes as we recognise more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met, whilst also encouraging them to transition to online services,’ he continued. 

While the u-turn clearly shows demand remains high for public support services delivered by ‘real people’ as oppose to automated online portals, after a sluggish launch the UK Government’s GOV.UK One Login is beginning to show signs of success. 30million logins are expected this year. 

The system allows registered users to access a range of government services, including ‘Apply for an HM Armed Forces Veteran Card’, ‘Request a Disclosure and Barring Service Basic Check’, and ‘File a Self Assessment Tax Return’. This replaces the previous patchwork of 191 separate account systems used by government agencies, requiring a total of 44 different individual logins. 

‘The GOV.UK One Login system is fully operational providing a simple and secure way for people to access government services online,’ she Cabinet Office minister baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe. ‘Users can create an account, login and prove (and then reuse) their identity – through either a web-based journey, smartphone app or in-person route – to access an initial set of 30 government services. 

‘More than 3.8 million people have so far proven their identity through GOV.UK One Login, while its app has been downloaded more than five million times,’ she continued. ‘GOV.UK One Login’s customer contact centre and technical service desk are now live. Further government services – from HMRC to DWP and DVLA – are due to come on board over the next year. GDS will also continue to optimise GOV.UK One Login’s user journeys, for example by broadening the range of documents and evidence that people can use to prove who they are online.’

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Image: HMRC


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