Revenue’s SA system faces overload

A jump in demand on the Inland Revenue website, before and after the 30 September deadline to calculate paper-based self-assessment tax forms, has caused the site to become inaccessible to many users during peak times as people switch their attention to filling in the forms online.

A recent message posted on the Inland Revenue’s self-assessment frequently asked questions page states: ‘Due to an unprecedented increase in the number of customers wanting to use (self-assessment) online, at certain times some are currently unable to gain access … If you meet this problem, please try to avoid accessing SA Online between 19:00 and 23:00 in the evenings.’

This latest hitch is just one of a series of problems the self-assessment site has encountered during its existence and provides further embarrassment to a site which should have been one of the flagship projects in the push to get all government services online by 2005.

It previously suffered from a security breach that allowed visitors to access the confidential tax data of other users, and has also received criticism for being difficult to use and for frequently crashing.

Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of tax at ACCA, said given the problems the system has had so far, it does not bode well for the future. ‘Despite record numbers of people using it, it still represents less than 2% of all self-assessments, which after four years can’t be considered a success,’ he said. ‘The government says it’s prepared for a large increase in demand but given the current problems you have to wonder.’

But a large jump in the number of people using the online service was unlikely while the system remained difficult to use and reliability was patchy, according to John Whiting, tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

‘I’ve heard stories of people taking over two hours to do something online that could have take 10 to 15 minutes on paper,’ he said.

Whiting added that increases in numbers were likely to continue to be painfully slow until confidence is restored and there was a greater incentive to use the system. ‘Tax agents still need to fill in paper forms and get them signed by clients before they can be submitted electronically.

‘It’s sometimes easier to ask the client to post the return,’ said Whiting.

‘Online self-assessment is about efficiency gain, but at the moment 99% of this is with the Revenue.’ He added some form of recognition of this by the tax collector could encourage people to go electronic.

Related reading