Jeremy Hunt intervenes to order HMRC to abandon phone line closure after mass outrage

Proposals by HMRC to shut down its essential phone line for six months over the summer have been kiboshed after Jeremy Hunt intervened to order a U-turn.

The announcement yesterday by HMRC sparked instant fury, with the Express revealing that a top committee of MPs may be forced to investigate the body’s increasingly shoddy customer service standards.

Under the new proposals, taxpayers would be unable to call the tax office for help from April 8 to September 29, and would be instead forced to use the online service.

Amid accusations the change would be a “disgrace”, Jeremy Hunt has now stepped in to order the change does not go ahead.

It’s understood that Mr Hunt feels much more needs to be done to ensure all taxpayers’ needs are met by HMRC, and as such the helpline services must not be closed.

Prior to announcing the major shake-up, HMRC also failed to sufficiently assure ministers that there are relevant safeguards in place to ensure a smooth transition to digital tax services.

Ministers are now demanding a far greater focus on improving HMRC performance before any similar proposals to shut the phone line are revisited in future.

Mr Hunt leapt into action when it became clear that stakeholders were concerned about the proposals, and will now aim to ensure the Government engages with them further about the best way forward.

A Treasury source said: “Encouraging customers to self-serve online wherever possible is the right thing to do, but that cannot be at the detriment of the general public and the vulnerable who need access to the helplines to support them with tax matters”.

“That’s why Ministers have halted this change immediately.”

Yesterday, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee – which only last month published a report slamming HMRC’s customer service standards – warned they would be forced to re-investigate any changes.

Mark Francois demanded to know: “Who is this proposed change intended to benefit? Is it taxpayers or accountants with genuine tax queries, or HMRC?”

“I cannot speak for the whole Committee but I nevertheless suspect that the Public Accounts Committee will want to look at this very closely.”

Fellow committee member Sarah Olney said the proposed phone line closure was a direct contradiction of the Committee’s recent recommendations.

She told the Express: “The decision to close customer phone lines is directly in contrast to the recommendations made in the Committee’s latest report into HMRC performance”.

“I urge the Government to re-think this tone-deaf decision which will adversely affect thousands of pensioners and vulnerable people.

“Our Committee has heard the frustration felt by the many taxpayers and organisations who bear the brunt of the current problems with HMRC. Ministers and officials would be well-advised to do the same.”

Dennis Reed, director of the Silver Voices campaign group blasted the proposed change as a “disgrace”.

“The solution to their appalling record on customer service complaints is apparently to close down their telephone service completely for half the year, making a long wait for an answer into an eternity.

“With millions of older people being caught in the tax system for the first time because of the freeze on personal allowances, there has never been a greater need for human-to-human advice.

“Going digital by closing down all other avenues really takes the biscuit and the Government should not be allowing this to happen. What can the 80-year-old caught in the tax system because of a small widow’s pension, who can’t afford broadband or a smartphone, do to remain inside the law?”


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