Inland Revenue online service doesn't add up

Less than 1 percent of tax returns are filed online

Wednesday is the official deadline for filing self-assessment tax returns, a process some hoped might have been made easier and quicker by online forms debuted by Inland Revenue last April.

But despite the theoretical appeal of filing online, the online returns process has been beset by glitches, and less than one percent of self-assessors used the online form.

Inland Revenue estimates 38,000 out of 9 million self-assessing tax-payers filed online for 2000. "We thought take-up might have been slightly higher," admits an IR spokesman. "But people are filing even as we speak."

The online tax system faced an immediate stumbling block at launch, in that the software it required took about two hours to download on a standard PC modem connection. A later version cut the download time to 40 minutes -- still a substantial wait for something that is aiming for convenience.

There are also problems with the way the software is organised. To file over the Internet, tax-payers must register for a user name, which is then posted not online, but via Royal Mail. So you should forget about going online to file at the last minute.

While the TaxSaver software does do all the addition for you automatically, it cannot correct mistakes you might make. One user checked his answers with TaxSaver and posted the form, only to discover the form wasn't complete. "Several days later the form is sent back, the inspector saying several fields haven't been filled in," the user said.

The IR admits it has experienced "teething problems" with its online initiative, which is a key part of the government's programme to get all services online by 2005. But the lack of error-correction is apparently not one of these problems. "The same form goes out to 9 million people, not everybody fills in the same boxes," the IR spokesman said. "The program wouldn't recognise whether you should fill out the form in a particular way."

Internal Revenue will give employers the ability to file year-end returns online as of April this year, and corporate returns are next on the agenda. The department aims to have 50 percent of its services online by next year.

Tax returns will not be penalised if they are delivered before 7.30am Friday, Inland Revenue has announced. The deadline for online forms, however, is midnight Thursday.

There are lots of ways of filling in computer forms. Every time you install a new piece of software, you probably see a Wizard which does exactly that; takes data from you a bit at a time, and stores it in a Registry. So Guy Kewney asks: why is it that nobody can fill in the Inland Revenue's tax forms online? Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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