Julia Irvine 10 Jul 2018 04:05pm

HMRC uses Alexa to offer tax credit renewal help

Amazon virtual assistant Alexa has been drafted in by HMRC to help people renew their tax credits by the 31 July deadline

The government department has developed a service which allows customers with Amazon Alexa-enabled devices to command Alexa to “open HMRC” and ask for help and information relating to a change in circumstances, payment information or a renewal.

However, it makes clear that Alexa does not store personal information and users cannot renew their tax credits via the virtual assistant. Renewal can be effected though through smartphones using the HMRC app.

“We know our customers have hectic lives – full of interruptions and distractions – which is why HMRC’s online services are available at all times of the day and night,” said Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s director general for customer services.

“As the 31 July deadline for tax credits renewals approaches, customers can feel reassured that they can renew their benefits online or via the HMRC app at a time that suits them. And if they need to access help and support, Alexa can help customers find out about what to do when they receive a renewal pack, how to change their circumstances, or how to find out about payment information.”

The new services are part of HMRC’s programme to develop the use of artificial intelligence and big data to help increase efficiency and make life easier for its staff and taxpayers in general.

In March this year, Brigid McBride, HMRC’s then-acting digital transformation director, revealed that the department had set a target of automating 10 million processes by the end of the year and was looking to use AI and big data to help it in compliance and complex tax cases.

This use of technology is already paying dividends for the department, according to research by Pinsent Masons. The lawyers detected a 30% drop in property raids by HMRC – down from 669 in 2016/17 to 471 last year.

The firm points to HMRC’s use of a state-of-the-art analytical system, called Connect, which was designed by BAE Systems to collect data from a range of public and private sources, including banks, local councils and social media to create a complete picture of taxpayers’ spending habits.

The data also includes information about UK residents with offshore bank accounts sent under the Common Reporting Standard from foreign jurisdictions – including the Channel Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda (currently) and Switzerland and the UAE (shortly).

The database then employs sophisticated algorithms to compare the information supplied in tax returns with data collected by Connect to identify individuals and businesses for investigation.

Pinsent Masons partner Steven Porter warned taxpayers to expect more investigations in the not-too-distant future as HMRC develops new and more efficient ways to collect data.

“HMRC’s big brother-style data collection on taxpayers is giving it the material it needs to ramp up its tax investigations and at the same time, is reducing the need for it to actually raid properties,” he said.

“Falling numbers of property raids by no means indicates a drop-off in activity. HMRC’s growing emphasis on data collection means it now has increasingly large pool of information from which to draw on when launching future investigations.”

HMRC’s access to personal data would also take a huge leap forward if its proposal to access individuals’ bank accounts without permission was approved. This is contained in its consultation on amending its civil information powers, which was launched today.