HMRC is trialling sending SMS text messages to some individual callers to its helplines, directing them to online services and guidance. ICAEW is concerned that some taxpayers will get stuck in a ‘loop of doom’, making repeated calls and not being put through to an HMRC adviser.
From 19 January, callers to HMRC’s income tax helplines from a mobile phone will be routed in one of the following three ways:
- they will be sent an SMS that matches the key words they used to describe their query. The call will be automatically disconnected after a message explaining that an SMS has been sent;
- they will be offered the option of receiving an SMS or continuing to hold for an adviser;
- they will hold for an adviser to deal with their query.
The key words and services where an SMS will be sent (sometimes with an option to hold to speak to an adviser, sometimes without) include:
- find your unique taxpayer reference;
- help registering for HMRC online services;
- lost or forgotten online service password, or user ID;
- queries on whether to register for self assessment, or the need to complete a tax return;
- requests for income and employment history;
- lost national insurance number, or a letter confirming their number; and
- help filling in their tax return.
ICAEW has been assured that the service will not be used on the agent dedicated line.
HMRC believes that the technology is sufficiently sophisticated to recognise when an SMS is appropriate, but this remains to be proved by the trial. For example, HMRC has not been able to confirm it can recognise calls that are from basic mobile phones with no internet connection.
HMRC has said that those who need to call back, because the SMS response is insufficient, may need to word their query differently (or call from a landline) to get through to an adviser. It is not clear how taxpayers will be aware of this. There is also a risk that those who need the extra support service, don’t get through to an adviser if they use key words that mean they get directed to SMS. At the current time the technology being used does not identify repeat callers, although this functionality may be available in the future.
Caroline Miskin of ICAEW’s Tax Faculty says: “We welcome HMRC using innovative approaches to solving its chronic problems with customer service. However, we are concerned that this trial, in particular the ‘hard disconnect’ cases, will make it even more difficult for individual taxpayers to get the assistance they need. HMRC needs to proceed with caution and be prepared to scale back or stop the trial if this happens”.
HMRC has updated various pages to reflect the use of SMS messages to callers to its helplines:
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