Joined-Up Realities

It’s the 31st January and on the BBC Breakfast News, I watched an amused Declan Curry warn self assessment taxpayers that they had until midnight tonight to file their annual return or face a one hundred pound fine. However, said Curry, so many people are trying to access the self-assessment website that the system is unable to deal with the last minute strain, with the Inland Revenue, by way of excuse, pointing out that people had had months to submit their returns.

Now imagine if this was Amazon.Com or some other popular online site on the last shopping day before Christmas. Picture a spokesperson for the company telling angry and frustrated customers, “I’m sorry, it’s all your own fault, you had three hundred and sixty four days to do your Christmas shopping and you can’t blame us if the Website can’t cope.”

Last year, of the approximately 9.5 million taxpayers, nearly 10%, 900,000 missed the deadline and received an automatic £100 fine as a result and of course, there’s the interest charge of 7.5% on money owed, with a 5% levy if the debt has not been paid by 28 February, and another 5% on any money still owed on 31 July.

The Inland Revenue reported that by the end of December, it had received six million completed returns, paper and electronic, which very much looks as if the last minute rush, will be a repeat of the previous year, where once again, the system suffered under the strain of being one of the few online government systems tested by taxpayers in any real volume.

The 31st January effect on the Revenue’s servers is wearily predictable and if you follow the critical work of the Public Accounts Committee, the same may be said of the overall efficiency of our national tax collection system, which mixes unreliable IT systems and coercion in new and interesting ways that do the department and the government little credit. It is, after all, no closer to discovering how many tax records on the PAYE database were accidentally deleted as part of a “routine” housekeeping process last year, and has admitted that this is not a high priority. What I wonder happens if in future it discovers any records that were either underpaid or overpaid. Will the tax payer be subsequently fined, with compound interest or repaid in full?

Last week, I met Roger Gale, the Member of Parliament for Thanet North. Pointing to a file of correspondence almost a foot thick, he asked me to highlight the failures in the tax-credit system is causing poorer families in his constituency. A much publicised software error caused the system to generate incorrect payments resulting in overpayment of tax credits to 455,000 households, amounting to some £94m. Of this amount, the Revenue is to write-off overpayments individually less than £300, affecting 373,000 households and costing £37m. It will seek to recover larger amounts from 82,000 households, amounting to £57m.

The problem”, says Roger Gale “is that the Inland Revenue freely concedes that in these cases it has made mistakes in the calculation of family tax credits. It apologises and then demands repayment of money that has already been spent. This causes very real distress and hardship.”

Recently, I attended the eGovernment awards in London and listened to Government’s CIO, Ian Watmore describe the overall success of the eGovernment programme, in the face of what he views as frequently unjustified criticism from the media. I would argue that the programme has been successful in spite of and not because of central government and principally at local authority level. The evidence shows that big government IT, whether this be the Child Support Agency or the Family Tax Credits, continue to fail the to the very people that need help most. This shouldn’t happen, it’s a scandal that cannot be solved by throwing more taxpayer’s money at technology and a cabal of failing public sector contractors. This is however a government in denial over the success of IT and until it wakes-up and realises that processes and social justice hold an equal position with new technology we will all continue to be victims of the joined-up government experiment and not beneficiaries.


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