A new service is being launched to provide extra help for those who need it with their tax and tax credits, and then the Enquiry Centres will close at the end of June
HMRC has announced that it is going to close all its local Enquiry Centres and introduce a new service to support people who need extra help with their tax or tax credits. Details are in the government announcement HMRC comes out of the office to support customers who need extra help
Here we consider the background to this change and how the new service will work, with some comments from the Tax Faculty.
Why close the Enquiry Centres?
HMRC wants to close the Enquiry Centres to save costs but also because they are under-used. The number of people who visit the centres has been falling, and HMRC has also found that many of them do not need face-to-face advice but can obtain what they need online or over the phone. HMRC says that of the customers using an Enquiry Centre in 2013, just 11% needed a face-to-face appointment.
The network of Enquiry Centres will close by the end of June 2014, after the new service for those needing extra help has been rolled out. Enquiry Centre staff will be redeployed to the new service or elsewhere, if possible, or offered a voluntary exit package.
After that, the main source of information about HMRC will be online, and the primary point of contact will be by telephone to the Contact Centres. Face-to-face advice will be offered, but only to those qualifying for the extra-help service.
HMRC says the new service will save its customers around £17m a year in lost time and travel costs, and will save government costs of over £27m a year as a result of the closure of the Enquiry Centre network.
Consultation and pilot
HMRC announced these plans in February 2013 and invited comments on the proposed new service. The Tax Faculty responded in TAXREP 31/13. HMRC published a summary of responses in July 2013; see our news item Summary of Responses: Supporting customers who need extra help – a new approach
Since then HMRC has been testing the new service in a pilot in the North East of England, which involved the closure of 13 Enquiry Centres. HMRC continued to consult on the new service during the pilot.
The new service for those needing extra help
The new service will be rolled out nationally in May 2014.
There are details at Extra help for HM Revenue & Customs customers, but in outline:
- HMRC helpline staff will identify when a person needs extra help, and will direct them to the most appropriate tailored service.
- Specialist phone advisers will take the time to resolve tax and tax credits queries in-depth in one call, accessing experts from different parts of HMRC during the call, so that callers do not have to speak to multiple advisers.
- Where a face-to-face meeting is most appropriate, a new team of mobile advisers will arrange to meet people at convenient locations in the community, or at their home or place of work.
HMRC will work more closely with voluntary and community sector organisations. They will be able to direct people needing extra help to HMRC, and HMRC will direct people to appropriate voluntary organisations where they need independent advice or someone to act on their behalf. HMRC will make more funding and support available for voluntary sector organisations for this work.
Tax Faculty comments
The announcement that all Enquiry Centres will be closed is hardly a surprise, and we can understand the cost pressures. Nonetheless, it is disappointing for those of us who thought that HMRC should retain some sort of high-street presence, albeit scaled down, and a face-to-face option for those who are not in the extra-help category.
The new service has yet to prove itself, but we welcome the idea of more tailored and flexible support for those who need it. If it works well, it could provide a much better service than what is currently available for such people.
However, we are concerned that the route in to the new service is via the telephone Contact Centres. It will be a challenge for HMRC front-line staff to identify those needing extra help: there will be a huge variety in both the help needed and the people needing it, and a risk that some will not be able to access the help they need. And crucial to the success of the new arrangements is that callers must be able to get through easily to HMRC on the phone. This applies not just to those needing extra help but to anyone, including those who might previously have used an Enquiry Centre.