The slow adoption of smart cards and other digital signatures has hit a number of other government online services and is seriously threatening the aim of providing all services over the internet by 2005.
The government’s e-envoy, Andrew Pinder, who last week launched a consultation programme on the issue, said: ‘Digital signatures are fundamental to the development of trust in e-commerce and e-government, but for a variety of reasons they are not yet in widespread use.’
Digital signatures are used to ensure transactions and other communications are authentic, secure and cannot be repudiated.
Increased use of such signatures is seen as vital in the development of electronic commerce.
Experts agreed tax and VAT returns filed over the net would logically need an electronic signature to ensure the returns were authentic. To date, the use of electronic filing has been very low.
According to Andrew Ball, indirect tax partner at Deloitte & Touche, there has been little feedback from clients about electronic filing. ‘Either it is so intuitive that clients don’t need help, or very few people are filing returns over the web,’ he said.
Electronic signatures generally became legally admissible in the UK under the Electronic Communications Act 2000.
The consultation process launched by Pinder will establish new policy working groups to help the government determine whether a more coordinated and strategic approach is necessary.
Pinder said: ‘The policy working groups will address the barriers to wider take-up, and consider how the technology should best be used to enhance online privacy.’
He added: ‘Smart cards are one way of making the technology of digital signatures easier to use and more secure, but they have many other uses too. People will expect to be able to use their cards with different systems and so the government wants to consider its role as a potential catalyst in helping schemes co-operate with each other.’
A spokesperson for HM Customs & Excise admitted take-up for electronic VAT returns was low but said this was not only because of digital signatures.
Security and confidentiality issues are also believed to be hampering the Inland Revenue’s push to get taxpayers to complete self-assessment forms online.The Revenue recently launched a massive advertising campaign, fronted by Mrs Doyle, a character from the Father Ted television series, to encourage more people to use the service.
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