HMCE signed a £929m infrastructure deal with Fujitsu Services, which runs until 2009. But if it is to reap the cost savings it promised in order to get the funding, Customs will need more than half of UK businesses to file VAT returns electronically.
This will be a tough target to hit. A previous e-VAT trial attracted less than one per cent of eligible companies. And senior customs officials have admitted that small businesses may be reluctant to move away from the relatively easy to use paper-based system.
Michael Eland, acting chairman of Customs and Excise, told a Public Accounts Committee meeting that it was considering incentives to encourage take-up, but may enforce electronic filing on certain firms.
‘We will look at a mandatory scheme in some areas, for certain types of business. We’re looking to get 50% take up by March 2006,’ he said.
This will most likely be aimed at large firms, with sophisticated IT systems, as Eland acknowledged the problems of persuading smaller firms of the benefits.
But a new pilot scheme, due to be launched in June 2004, has already slipped two months behind schedule because of software faults, Eland confirmed.
MP’s were critical of HMCE’s e-delivery programme, calling for tighter boundaries governing when contracts should be re-tendered, rather than just renegotiated.
HMCE originally paid Fujitsu Services £500m for a 10-year IT infrastructure deal signed in 1999. This was renegotiated two years later, with the price rising to £929m. Government watchdog, the National Audit Office, said final costs were likely to exceed £1bn.
Eland insisted that costs were unlikely to rise significantly, pointing out that they had been incured because Customs had bought more services from Fujitsu.
With the government’s trusted trouble-shooter Gus O’Donnell currently reviewing the operation of C&E, Eland’s insistence that costs will not rise could be significant.
One option O’Donnell is known to be considering is merging the department with the Inland Revenue. Merging their IT systems will be a lot easier with Fujitsu being part of the consortium that won the Revenue’s outsourcing contract last week.
PAC chairman Edward Leigh said the HMCE’s cost benefit analysis was ‘wildly optimistic’, but critical if the department was to benefit from the e-VAT project.
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