HMRC closes local offices

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Biased research could have been presented to government ministers to secure approval for HMRC plans to close all tax enquiry offices, overturning a previous ministerial commitment to keep them open, reports Harris & Co accountants Northampton.

That’s the fear of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union which reacted with shock to HMRC’s announcement that it will close 13 tax offices in the North East between June and September this year, putting 1,300 jobs at risk, as part of a trial that could lead to the closure of all 281 UK offices.

It said the government wants to shift all tax advice and enquiry work into call centres, with people only offered a face-to-face meeting in exceptional circumstances.

The PCS says it has learnt that market researchers calling on behalf of HMRC had asked whether taxpayers would prefer to deal with the department ‘by phone, post or online’, but when told they would like to speak to somebody in person, they were told that was not a valid option.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘Closing all face-to-face tax offices would break the link between people in communities and an essential public service they rely on.

‘If, as we fear, flawed research has been used to justify these closure plans then ministers must put an immediate stop to them.’

But HMRC has described the move as ‘a new, flexible support service for 1.5m customers who need extra help with their tax affairs’.

It says the new service will provide ‘mobile, one-to-one support in a range of convenient locations, including a person’s own home or business’ as well as phone support. It also vows to provide more funding and support for voluntary sector organisations HMRC says ‘customer demand’ at the centres had halved from 5m visitors in 2005/06 to under 2.5m in 2011/12, adding that ‘just’ 16% of users needing a face-to-face appointment in 2012.

HMRC adds that the cost of enquiry centre appointments was also high, with the average cost being around £152 per appointment in 2012, while the cost of serving a taxpayer by phone is £3 per call, with online transaction costs plummeting to just 9p.

It says the new service "will save customers almost £12m a year in lost time and travel costs’, and ‘will be more than £13m a year cheaper to run than the current service, as a result of the closure of the Enquiry Centre network in 2014’.

In December 2012 the National Audit Office reported that 20m calls to HMRC enquiry lines went unanswered in 2011/2012. It also estimated the public spent £33m in call charges while on hold and estimated the value of their time while in the queue was £103m.

The union is urging members of the public to take part in HMRC"s consultation, which ends on 24 May 2013, and to write to their MPs.

HMRC said it was ‘discussing the impacts of these changes with staff in enquiry centres and its unions, and will do everything possible to redeploy staff within HMRC, or help them to find another role in the Civil Service’.

Meanwhile, Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) chairman, Anthony Thomas, said: ‘HMRC will not be surprised that we shall be monitoring the new service very closely indeed to ensure the services are freely available and easily accessed by all who need help.’

A five-month pilot to test the new services will run in the North East from 3 June to 31 October 2013.

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