Every tax enquiry centre is to close for good next week
The move is bound to save money for HMRC - which is under pressure to cut costs - but what will it mean for people who need help with their tax affairs?%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%
No great loss?HMRC is quick to say that help will still be available. You'll have to call the relevant helpline (the details are listed on the website), and then you'll be asked a series of questions to determine which of the specialists teams you need to be put through to. If you are unable to use the telephone, you can arrange a face-to-face meeting instead by completing and submitting the booking form.
Ruth Owen, HMRC's Director General for Personal Tax, argues that there's no need for physical offices any more. She says: "Our Enquiry Centres offer a great service to those who can reach them. But 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."
HMRC adds that demand for face-to-face meetings at enquiry centres halved from five million visitors between 2005 and 2006, to fewer than two million in 2013. It says that of the customers using a centre in 2013, just 11% really needed a face-to-face appointment. It also highlights that demand has been so low in some areas that the centres only open for one day a week.
ConcernsHowever, there will be those who look at the kind of service they receive from other telephone helplines and wonder whether this is a positive step. Much will hinge on the quality of the individuals manning the phones. The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group Chairman, Anthony Thomas, commented:"It is now crucial that the new telephony and mobile service is suitably resourced and skilled to serve those who most need help with their tax affairs. Most people will access help through the normal telephone lines and it is very important that the performance of those lines is at the top of HMRC's planning to ensure that no-one is turned off or left out in their quest for specialist help."
There is also the question of what happens to people who currently visit enquiry centres because they want to see someone face-to-face. While HMRC may not think they are worthy of a meeting, these people may be unable to conduct their tax affairs over the phone, and will be left in limbo. Thomas says the most likely outcome is that they will approach organisations like Citizen's Advice.
He says: "We have said before that the closure of the enquiry centres will almost certainly see a very significant increase in the voluntary sector workload as people seek extra help and support. The LITRG will therefore continue to push HMRC to provide adequate and sustainable funding to those organisations whose help is sought so they too are able to meet increased demand."
We will have to wait and see what will happen. Will the new enquiry services be expertly staffed by plenty of people - and the systems set up so that getting hold of the right expert is straightforward and speedy? Does HMRC have a reputation for excellence in this area?
Will the government provide plenty of funding, vastly boost the resources of the voluntary sector, and ensure they will be able to step in and offer an excellent specialist service to those who need advice in person? Does the government have much of a track record in this area?
What do you think?