TAX ADVISERS REACTED with astonishment at the news of HM Revenue & Customs’ decision to shut down all 281 enquiry centres in favour of a telephone- and home visits-based service.
Concerns around the taxman’s call centres’ capacity to take on additional traffic from the centres and simply getting in touch with the new service were raised, while some questioned whether the needs of vulnerable sections of society had been taken into account.
Berg Kaprow Lewis director of tax David Whiscombe said the move was “incomprehensible” and “just plain stupid”.
He said: “No doubt many taxpayers would be happy to deal with HMRC online or via call centres if either were reliably available. But there is a swathe of taxpayers who are uncomfortable with these methods including numbers of the elderly, less literate or less articulate sections of the population for whom face-to-face contact delivers the only sensible option.
“For HMRC to disregard them is arrogant, insensitive and, dare I say it, just plain stupid.”
A five-month pilot to test these new services will run in the North East of England from 3 June 2013 to 31 October 2013, and HMRC has launched a nationwide consultation on the new service today.
HMRC chief executive Lin Homer hailed the move as one which will allow the department to “tailor… help in a way that works better for customers and is more flexible and affordable than the service we currently provide”, maintaining it will save around £12m in time and travel costs and £13m cheaper to run than it is currently.
Alongside that pilot, the taxman plans to commence the closures in the area, something ICAEW tax faculty technical manager Jane Moore described as “disappointing”.
“I’m disappointed because I think a lot of people could still make use of the enquiry centres. For the last few years I don’t think the Revenue has done enough to publicise them or provide a comprehensive service.”
The number of visitors to the enquiry centres has halved from five million in 2005/06 to fewer than two-and-a-half million in 2011/12, the taxman said. As a result, it said, some centres are only open one day per week, while only 16% of visitors genuinely need face-to-face advice.
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