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Is the government mad to switch over HMRC’s website?

THE START of this month saw the rolling out of a new government web domain – encompassing 13 other government departments and agencies as the Cabinet Office looks to locate all government websites in one place.

The launch of ‘Inside Government’ on the GOV.UK domain supersedes the old HM Revenue & Customs site along with others, notably including Directgov and Businesslink.

On an aesthetic level, the site appears sleeker, easier on the eye – using pictures for the first time – and highlighting new stories and updates much more strongly than before. On that level, it’s a far cry from the clunky, dull site that previously existed.

Unsurprisingly, HMRC’s head of digital engagement Robin Riley hails the “dramatic” difference between the two sites and notes, crucially, that the site is now “cross-linked to overall government policy” – in other words, government sites are better interlinked.

There has, however, been criticism since the site was piloted in October last year, with users complaining technical details appeared to be located in the wrong areas of the site, and at times users were requested to supply the wrong information.

Of course, integrating the content of the original HMRC site into a new one requires a significant amount of information being transferred, which can potentially lead to data being lost or altered.

Indeed, that is the crux of the problem for many users – in that much of the site’s content has been re-written in order to fit into a sleeker, more simple theme – which in the complicated and vitally important world of tax has something that many feel is likely to introduce inaccuracies.

CheapAccounting founder Elaine Clark says that while it is understandable that the government does not want to spend significant funds keeping various sites running, it risks “losing sight” of the original purpose of the HMRC site.

Not only did the original site provide information to the public, but it acted as a Bible to tax agents, advisers and accountants, Clark says, and in re-writing the content, she fears HMRC will “dumb down the content beyond all recognition”.

It’s a legitimate concern. Indeed, many are asking whether it was at all necessary to change the pre-existing information. After all, re-writing affords the opportunity for interpretation – or, rather, misinterpretation – and human error.

Then there is the fact that this comes at a time of huge technological change for HMRC, with the advent of the substantial real-time PAYE project to commence in earnest from April.

It’s a scheme that will see PAYE reported on or before the date payment is made, while changes to a person’s circumstances will be made straight away rather than at the end of the financial year, and is something likely to demand a huge amount of resources, particularly initially.

It is hoped that the new way of reporting will be quicker, easier and more accurate, with more than four million individuals now reporting their pay through the scheme having taken part in the pilot.

And while HMRC has consistently heralded real-time as a resounding success, embarking on two major upheavals simultaneously is, at the very least, a bold move – and one which could not only define the taxman’s 2013, but years to come, too.

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