HM Revenue and Customs plans to save £13m a year by closing all 281 advice centres stretching from Penzance in the south-west to Wick in the Highlands.
These provide face-to-face help on tax and will be replaced them with a mobile service which will see advisers making “home visits” and even meeting people in coffee shops.
The decision will save HMRC £13m a year but there are warnings that “some very vulnerable people” would lose out. The move affects 1,300 staff around the country, though the Revenue said it would do everything possible to redeploy employees.
HMRC says the new service will provide “mobile, one-to-one support in a range of convenient locations”, including at home – a description that suggests the taxman will be taking to the road, salesman-style. It will be piloted in north-east England from June, with the network of inquiry centres due to be axed next year, when we in the south west will be affected.
People with tax queries are currently able to make an appointment to see an adviser at an inquiry centre. Most centres are able to offer assistance to those who are hard of hearing or who have a visual impairment, people for whom English is not their first language, and those who need help with filling in forms.
HMRC said customer demand for its inquiry centres had halved, from 5 million visitors in 2005-06 to fewer than 2.5 million in 2011-12, and added that the “vast majority” of customers never used one.
Costs, meanwhile, have rocketed: the average cost of a single inquiry centre appointment was £152 last year. In one centre the cost reached £500 per appointment. By contrast, the average cost of helping a customer by phone is £3 per call, while an online transaction costs just 9p, said a spokesman.
HMRC said the new service was aimed at the 1.5 million people who needed extra help with their tax affairs. It is promising “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”. This could include someone’s own home or business, or a local coffee shop, said the spokesman.
HMRC said it would also make more funding and support available to voluntary sector organisations to help them to deal with customers who turn to them for help.
The consultation on the new service will run until 24 May, with the results to be published by the end of July. If successful, the Revenue will implement this new service across the UK between February and May 2014.
Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of taxation at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, said: “If we are looking at tax and benefits, some very vulnerable people will feel the full brunt of this cost-saving measure. While we wish HMRC success in saving costs and making their brave new world of roving inquiry staff work, we wonder whether the timing of this change will come to haunt them when you consider they are tussling with the introduction of child benefit taxation … and universal credit is due to arrive later in the year.
“A longer timetable for these closures might be better suited to taking account of the wide-ranging changes to the tax and benefits system.”
He added: “On the other side of this initiative, HMRC are clearly going to have to have some very difficult conversations with their staff who will be affected and may not be redeployed elsewhere in the public sector.”
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