Ah, another great day for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
On the day of the deadline for people to file their self assesment tax returns, the HMRC website experienced severe technical difficulties, for six hours.
When I rang up HMRC, they insisted that 104,000 people had actually managed to file their tax returns online today, but admitted that "some" customers had had difficulties.
"The problem affected a minority of our customers," said an HMRC spokesperson. When pressed, the spokesperson couldn't say how many people had not been able to file their assessments. Surely it's difficult to say whether a 'minority' were affected, then?
"I haven't got a figure for that number," said the spokesperson.
Luckily for those people who didn't manage to get their assessments in on time, HMRC has extended the deadline until tomorrow night - midnight of February 1 - so they can avoid the penalty of £100 for late submissions.
"HMRC takes any disruption of service very seriously and to reflect this no-one who files electronically or by paper by midnight Friday 1 February 2008 will face a penalty," said an HMRC statement.
However, what I was really interested in was why the site had gone down in the first place. The spokesperson was unforthcoming, but assured me the site had not gone down due to the number of people trying to file.
"There was no volume problem," said the spokesperson. "We are currently investigating [what caused the outage]."
When I asked to speak to a member of technical staff to talk about the problems, I was told the technical staff were far too busy keeping the site up and running at the moment to talk to the press. O--K. Situation all under control then.
Meanwhile, HMRC put out another statement admitting that some MPs were also unable to file their tax returns, because their taxpayer reference numbers were not recognised on the authentication system. Whoops!
From the statement:
"Some newspapers and broadcast media have claimed that HMRC's online filing systems are not secure because Members of Parliament and a small number of other taxpayers cannot use the Self Assessment service.
This is completely untrue," said the statement. "A small minority of taxpayers, including MPs, cannot currently use online services because the additional internal safeguards on their records mean that their taxpayer reference numbers are not recognised on the authentication system.
This therefore has nothing to do with the security of our online services. HMRC online services use the highest levels of encryption generally available and authentication processes similar to online banks."
Hmmm, these would be the same banks which lost £7.2m to online banking fraud from January to June 2007, according to APACS? And how come HMRC didn't use the "highest levels of encryption generally available" when sending 25 million personal details to the NAO, which were subsequently lost in the post?
I'll leave the last word to Rob Steggles, the UK marketing director for NTT Europe Online, a managed hosting company:
"In both the public and private sectors, if an organisation’s online presence goes down at a critical time, its reputation and revenues will suffer," said Steggles in an email statement. "In the private sector, the commercial damage can be significant, but for a government website, it is those tax payers attempting to abide by the law that are suffering."