The new service from HMRC is to be launched across the UK this spring to replace the existing network of 281 enquiry centres which will close in May 2014 say Harris & Co accountants Northampton
This follows a consultation which ran from 14 March to 24 May 2013 and a seven-month trial in the North East of England which involved the closure of 13 enquiry centres.
The new service will be launched in May 2014 despite a number of concerns raised during the consultation which included the impact of the closures on those who do not speak English as a first language and the hearing -impaired; and the ability of the proposed HMRC call centres to cope with increased demand and complicated queries.
HMRC says that its mobile adviser support, for those who need face-to-face appointments, will be provided at a range of convenient locations – from government and community buildings, to a person’s own home or business – at a time that suits them.
Under the new service, phone advisors will be able to bring HMRC experts together in a single call to resolve multiple issues, without transferring customers around different parts of HMRC to different advisers who each deal with a separate issue.
Those who need extra help on any HMRC issue will be identified and referred to the new service by both HMRC’s existing helpline phone advisers and by voluntary sector partners.
Following the launch of the new service, the current enquiry centre network will close.
Ruth Owen, HMRC’s Director General for Personal Tax, said that although current Enquiry Centres offer a great service to those who can reach them, they are spread unevenly across the UK.
‘The number of people using them continues to fall, and our research shows that the majority of customers who do use them don’t actually need to. The new service will enable us to tailor help in a way that works better and is more affordable,’ said Owen.
Concerns with busy periods
The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) has welcomed HMRC’s aim to provide a better service, but remains concerned about certain difficulties that surfaced in the pilot relating to access to the new service.
The LITRG identified HMRC’s continued poor customer service performance at the call centres as a problem that could severely affect the roll-out and is urging HMRC to reconsider how they manage busy periods and peaks in the future, especially at the next tax credit renewals peak on 31 July 2014, with no enquiry centre network to fall back on.
It also says that HMRC must offer people who are unable to use the telephone service, such as those with speech or hearing impairments and non-English speakers, accessible alternative means of contacting the specialist service teams apart from the online channel which is only a partial solution.
In addition, the LITRG highlighted that the North East England pilot saw a significant increase in the voluntary sector workload and the latter must be fully funded to take on the extra work that will come their way as a result of the enquiry centre closures.
The LITRG says the above difficulties must be resolved before HMRC can say that new service is better than the one it will replace.
LITRG’s Chairman, Anthony Thomas, said they would continue to work closely with HMRC and other voluntary sector bodies in monitoring the new service very closely.
‘Our main worry is that taxpayers seeking help may simply drop through the net as a result of the enquiry centre closures and the fact that the sole point of entry to the new service for most users is by the telephone; we have seen nothing in the pilot to assure us that this will not happen.”
More details are on the changes are available at http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/extrahelp/