By a Newsnet reporter
HM Revenue and Customs, the authority responsible for the collection of UK taxes, has announced that it is to close all 281 of its public enquiry centres, which will affect 1300 staff. The cost-cutting measure has been attacked as “short-sighted” by Stewart Hosie MP, the SNP’s Westminster Treasury spokesperson.
HMRC intends to replace the service with call centres and home visits, and says the new arrangments will save £13 million per year. Existing staff will be redeployed, and HMRC hopes that redundancies can be avoided, although fears have been raised that some staff will not be able to be redeployed and may lose their jobs. The closures will come into effect in 2014.
The tax agency said that the move came as its public enquiry centres report falling numbers of users, with enquiries down from five million in 2005-06 to 2.5 million in 2011-12.
HMRC says that it plans to introduce “a more specialised phone service for customers whose affairs can be resolved over the telephone, and face-to-face help to those who need it, visiting them at a place convenient to them, saving them both travel and time”.
HMRC also said it would provide more funding and support to voluntary sector organisations in order to assist them in dealing with clients with tax enquiries.
A pilot scheme is due to be introduced in North West England later this year, and the new phone-line service will be introduced across the UK starting from February 2014.
However the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants has expressed concerns about the planned closures of public centres and their replacement with call-centres. Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of taxation with ACCA, said:
“The government is pushing through a lot of changes to the tax system at the moment, so is this the right time to close these support centres? One wonders whether this should really happen to a later and longer timetable to take account of the wide ranging changes to the tax and benefits system.”
SNP Westminster Treasury spokesperson Stewart Hosie MP added to the criticism, saying:
“This is a shockingly short-sighted decision by the Westminster system which epitomises their disregard for people seeking help.
“The impact of these closures and staff cuts will only cause more difficulty, but that clearly isn’t high on the priorities of the Westminster government.
“The UK economy is still extremely fragile, and there is still a need for face-to face advice. And besides, this is no time for the UK government to be adding to the dole queue.”