Inland Revenue: Internet too risky for DTI site

A new government site limits interactivity because of security concerns - but is the result good enough?

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) launched its minimum wage Web site tiger.gov.uk Friday, as the first step in its initiative to get all government services online by 2005. But the site, designed to tackle the problem of underpayment, has taken the facility for workers' complaints offline for security reasons, raising concerns over how achievable UK Online objectives may be.

The launch of "TIGER" -- Tailored Interactive Guidance on Employment Rights -- comes as the National Minimum Wage (NMW) adult rate is set to rise to £3.70 per hour, beginning 1 October. The site will enable workers and employers to anonymously investigate how the NMW applies to their own specific circumstances.

But workers who discover that they are being underpaid must further their complaint via the NMW Helpline managed by the Inland Revenue. The DTI and Inland Revenue have decided against placing the complaint form online in order to preserve their promise that all correspondence is dealt with anonymously and confidentially. The Inland Revenue's online service for self-assessment tax returns has faced a series of security concerns since its proposed launch in April.

"We are bound by Inland Revenue confidentiality rules -- we are unable to respond to complaints electronically as the information is too sensitive to place online," said Peter Grattidge, business operations manager for the Inland Revenue. Grattidge admitted that the Internet isn't secure enough to risk placing confidential personal information online, and said that the Inland Revenue will continue to use the traditional postal system for responding to complaints about underpayment.

A spokesperson at the Cabinet Office confirmed that for government services to classify as being online, they must be entirely accessible to the public via the Internet or Web enabled call centres. DTI minister Alan Johnson is however confident that TIGER is in fact consistent with UK Online objectives, despite its absence of an online complaint form. The confusion in government standards over a definition of "online" suggests that Blair's call to push all government services online by 2005 may be unrealistic and undesirable owing to concerns over Internet security.

Inland Revenue is hoping to incorporate an email link on the site before Christmas so visitors to tiger.gov.uk can contact them electronically.

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