Time the taxman got a grip

One of the worst IT disasters in years has been steadily unfolding for HMRC.
Tax agents are unable to electronically file perfectly valid self assessment
forms because of hundreds of errors in HMRC’s new back-end systems.

HMRC has had to publish an extensive list of work-arounds to help with the
many validation errors that its new systems are generating during online filing
of its self assessment forms – see

The current list is 19 pages long with more than 71 items listed. It has been
suggested that HMRC is reluctant to add new problems to the list in case it
opens up too many grounds for appeal.

This year, HMRC radically changed the layout of its self assessment forms
and, under Lord Carter’s recommendations, changed its back-end systems to
streamline electronic filing.

Like many experiences in the past, HMRC did not allow enough time for testing
of its systems both internally (with its outsourced partner) and with
third-party software developers. It did not effectively communicate the changes
to the forms with tax agents who are finding it difficult to understand the new

These problems have resulted in huge numbers of callers blocking its support
lines and those of the software developers.

The bulk of the validation errors relate to the new Schematron validation
tool used by HMRC. This is rejecting perfectly valid online entries or insisting
fields are mandatory when they are not.

These are content errors, which only started to show up when tax agents
started filing real data. The sample test data that was used initially to
validate the systems did not show up these errors.

One would have thought that with so much egg on its face, HMRC would have
taken dramatic action to fix these problems in as short timescale as possible –
but no. The HMRC website shows the status on each problem will be
reviewed/enhanced in year 2008/09 – so no urgency there, then.

So what can tax agents do in the meantime? They are presently being asked to
undertake work-arounds and contact tax offices directly. Luckily, it’s not the
silly season for self assessment e-filing yet – that is January next year.
Perhaps some of these errors will be sorted out by then.

When will HMRC take a responsible view of system changes? It’s as if common
practice in delivering IT systems does not apply to the government

Dennis Keeling is a software analyst and was CEO of BASDA and chairman of its
taxation special interest group

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