Up to 37 Customs & Excise VAT advice centres are set to close over the next 18 months as part of a massive rationalisation programme being implemented by the department. Customs is preparing to introduce a ground-breaking telephone hotline to deal with enquiries under the as-yet unannounced new structure. It is being piloted in South-West England and will mean taxpayers or their representatives wanting information will call a single national number and be diverted to the nearest of a network of call centres. The rationalisation of the existing 43 offices is expected to result in six regional call centres for general enquiries, probably based in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Plymouth and Belfast. Specialist offices - such as the air-passenger duty office in Uxbridge and the insurance-premium tax office in the City of London - will continue to handle specialist enquiries. Customs is also looking to develop Internet services that will benefit the taxpayers who only need to make contact occasionally, for example to deliver quarterly VAT returns. Prime minister Tony Blair has said that 25% of transactions with the government should be possible electronically by 2002. A live pilot for the electronic VAT return system is due to be completed by next year and forms a major part of plans to centralise the Customs & Excise service. 'It cannot come soon enough from our point of view. It's certainly something we will do,' a Customs official told Accountnacy Age. 'It is just a matter of when and how. But it is likely to happen in the next financial year.' Rationalisation, while welcomed by many accountants and businesses, has met with scepticism from some practitioners. As part of the restructuring, the local VAT office in Bristol was closed recently just three years after Customs' Bath office closed to be merged with its near neighbour. The closure means local accountants and taxpayers now face a 40-mile journey to visit their 'local' office in Cardiff. They also face tolls for crossing the river Severn. 'The main problem I foresee is if people need to go and collect or deliver forms,' Soloman Hare tax partner Ian Stinson explained.
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