HM Revenue and Customs has defended its call for tax payers to tweet enquiries to @HMRCcustomers after criticism from MPs.
The move came in response to a rise in average waiting times for HRMC contact centre telephone queues, which reached 10 minutes and 53 seconds in September – more than double the five minutes and 21 seconds recorded at the same point in 2013.
Stephen Hardwick, director of communications at HM Revenue and Customs, told the BBC that Twitter was a “supplement” to calling helplines at the organisation, which are struggling to cope as the self-assessment deadline approaches.
Hardwick said people should not tweet any personal data, which was one concern expressed by MPs.
Hardwick also apologised for long waiting times on HMRC’s phone lines, and promised more staff to cope with self-assessment calls this month.
Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, previously described the HMRC Twitter enquiries plan as “laughable”.
Conservative MP Mark Garnier said he couldn’t think of any simple tax queries that could be expressed within Twitter’s 140 character limit. In addition, shadow Treasury minister Shabana Mahmood said it “beggared belief” that the government would encourage people to “publicly tweet about their tax affairs”.
Hardwick told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are serious about the use of Twitter as a supplement to going online and using the telephone.
“What we don’t want people to do is to give us any personal details.It’s a very useful social media device to get guidance, to help point people to where they can get information online.
“It’s a pilot, it is starting small, but the whole point of social media is you answer a question once and hundreds or thousands of people can see the answer, rather than answering the phone to all of those people asking the same question.”
“What we are doing for the self assessment peak in January, which is one of our two big peaks in the year along with the tax credits peak in July, is we are putting 1,500 people on the phones to help,” he said.
“We are a bit like the Royal Mail with the Christmas post – you don’t staff up all year for a very short-term peak, so we are moving people flexibly in and out of the telephones.”
The deadline for filing an online self assessment tax return is 31 January.