If you operate a business in the UK you are required to file tax returns for that business by the 19th of May every year for the previous year. Obviously the earlier you get this done the better. I oversee all our accounts and I’ve been particularly busy over the past few weeks so this week was my first opportunity to try to get the returns done.
UK Government IT projects are notoriously heavily criticised, particularly for being absurdly complicated, insecure, broken and expensive to the taxpayer. It’s not a problem if you’re super rich, famous or a Member of Parliament since the online system is not considered to be secure enough for you.
Tax Return Hell
If you combine the pain of filling out tax returns with the frustration of using HMRC’s own decrepit online filing software then you’re in for some fun times. This is particularly frustrating if accountancy is not your mother tongue or if you don’t have a masters degree in accountancy or an accountant sat beside you to explain every single input field. In my experience even calling HM Revenue & Customs to ask for an explanation as to, “What do I put in this box” simply receives, “Hmm, it could be x, or it might be y, or I would put that in here instead”.
The truth seems to be that nobody really knows the answer to the question “What do I put in here?”, “How do I calculate x, y, z?” or “Is my tax return correct?”. Therefore, it is impossible to self-assess tax and to put the year behind you. This seems somewhat intentional as if loose interpretation by tax investigators was the goal. Needless to say, if you do get stuck and call HM Revenue & Customs; record the telephone call, note down exactly what advice you get given and where you’ve gotten certain key figures from and add this to your war-chest. I can’t finish without mentioning the tax investigation insurance. I bought some to cover my business and can highly recommend Abbey Tax Protection: http://www.abbeytax.co.uk/. It helps to cover the fees of an investigation.
Anyway, I recently wrote an article on “Unloved Software“. And everything that’s bad about how software can be done is shown up by the whole online filing fiasco. Here’s one example. I’m attempting to log into PAYE online for employers and I see the following error message: “Error: TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED“:
Ok now. Ticket? Book? Expired?
To me this means that a book of tickets is no longer valid. My mind flashes back to the recent televised coverage of online filing cock-ups; there’s always crashes reported in January and April/May whenever there is a spike in demand for people accessing the online filing service. According to an HMRC spokesman it was a malicious attack. According to Marcus Brigstock (TV presenter) it was only 6,000 legitimate users filing their self assessment in January that brought down the whole service for everyone. Perhaps those same 6,000 “malicious” people stole my ticket book? Or perhaps HM Revenue & Customs ran out of raffle tickets for a charity auction? Just what does “Error: TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED” mean?
It was none of these things. What this error message means is that somewhere on your computer the online filing service has left a cookie which corresponded to a previous session. In other words, HM Revenue & Customs have a crap online filing website which doesn’t adhere to standards or best practices. The software that HM Revenue & Customs use (you know, the one that that costs us all £300,000,000 per year for ten years) simply does not handle sessions correctly. It’s broken. An internet search for this error message reveals this particular bug has been known about since at least 2005. There is no public acknowledgement or fix (at least that I could find). The solution by the way, is to delete all your cookies and internet temporary files.
Come on, people! Telling your users “Error: TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED” is close to the most unhelpful thing that you can do. You might as well say, “Error: We can’t be bothered to write a decent explanation of what just happened, but something went wrong and we’re going to be really, really ambiguous about it. It doesn’t involve tickets or books and only a handful of people in the world will understand this, but here: Error: TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED“. I know this will probably be blamed on your software contractors, Cap Gemini (replacing the original developers, EDS), but somebody had to write the functional specification and someone else had to sign it off on behalf of every taxpayer in the UK. Somewhere along the line, someone from HMRC approved this message. Since the solution to this problem is so simple (delete your cookies & temporary cache), why couldn’t the message have said, “There was a problem accessing the online site. This is because the temporary files this site downloads to your computer are out of date and need clearing. Please follow these instructions to clear your temporary internet files and try again or use another computer. Please contact email@example.com or call: 12345 if you need any further help with this“. If HMRC want to use my wording please contact me first as we need to arrange a suitably Cap Gemini/EDS equivalent price for them.
Assuming you get past any ambiguous error messages, you’ll find making the tax returns themselves counter-intuitive and ambiguous also. The design of the website doesn’t fit or flow and is not easy to intuit. Once inside the forms such as the P14, this is where that chartered accountancy qualification you’ve got will come in useful because the fun doesn’t start properly until you try filling one in. You’re not an accountant? You better pay someone who is since you’re never going to figure this out in a reasonable amount of time on your own. Luckily, I do have contact with several chartered accountants as well as a computer science degree and a wealth of expertise on the Government Gateway!
Third Party Software, and how we do it
If you use third party software you might not be fully comforted from these cold error messages. In fact HMRC pass these same silly messages through the Government Gateway to your own online filing system. At Evolved Software Studios, we have written our own software to decipher these rather stupid error messages and provide human-readable explanations of the problem. For example (click for more):
If the Government Gateway responds with a silly message that we know about, we show clear and concise messages, with buttons to get more help on each of them. The “Get More Help” buttons take you to our user manual which has a detailed explanation, examples on how to rectify as well as links to get even more help if you’re still stuck. Now why can’t HM Revenue & Customs do this? Presumably because HMRC believe that an obscure error message and a helpline telephone number will suffice. We don’t, and neither do our users who report excellent satisfaction with our software.
On the plus side
Filing this year will net you an online filing incentive of £100 which can be deducted from your PAYE account amount owing or can be sent to you via a cheque (I prefer the cheque so that the amounts are easier to identify on a bank statement).
As a last note, there’s going to be a heck of a lot of frustration come October 2008, when HMRC are expected to wipe all your historical data from your online filing account. If you’re like me and you only log in every quarter to make your returns you might miss this notice. Make sure that you have downloaded copies of all your P35/P14’s, P11d’s, P60’s etc from the online system before October or you may well lose access to them forever.
What’s your experience of online filing?