The HM Revenue and Customs Website is Laughably Incompetent

Warning, this is a personal view and I’m sure doesn’t reflect the views of the trustees or directors of yadayadayada. Actually, it probably does, but I’ve not checked because they’ve got grown up day jobs and stuff.

Today is the 31st January 2008. That means all around the UK millions of people will be trying to pay their tax – it’s the last day before you start having to pay the government interest.

Where do you go if you want to pay your tax then? How about the HM Revenue and Customs Website?

Brilliant, there it is. Right…. now, erm…. hang on. How do I actually pay my tax? There’s no obvious button! In fact, the link to help you pay is below the fold on my browser, is in about 3 point text, being link number 8 in one of no fewer than 5 lists of links on the homepage. Once you click through the experience becomes even more unforgivably awful. In fact, I can’t actually bring myself to write it up.

Hilariously, there IS a great big homepage link to apply for online tax returns “In time to do it”, even though it’s now too late to apply. Genius – why not warn your users with menaces only to show your own ineptitude in the process: that way they’ll love you more!

This sort of incompetence isn’t as high profile as the loss of those two famous CDs, but it drives people away from the more efficient online services towards more costly phone and paper based transactions, and inconveniences millions of people at the same time.

I’m concious I’ve probably just blown any chance of mySociety now ever doing any usability improvements for HMRC, but some things just have to be said. It’s a bit like the former NHS home page that had over 100 links, none of which was “I’m sick – what should I do?”, but at least they’ve improved that a bit…

The total cost of the HMRC IT systems of which this is part is apparently about £8bn over 10 years. That makes it about as expensive to run per year as Google’s general running costs (exc R&D) in 2006.


  1. went to
    clicked on “File online now” and got

    Online Service Temporarily Unavailable
    We are sorry but the service is currently unavailable.

    More info says:
    Thursday 31 January
    We are currently experiencing problems with this service and are working with our IT service provider to give this our urgent attention. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause. This does not affect users of Third Party Software.

    Oh dear! Glad I didn’t leave my return to the last minute but I suspect this will confuse/scare-away lots of people who have.

    I wonder how jammed their telephone service is right now.

  2. Ah! It’s ironic, as when you get to the right page the actual tax return form filling in software is pretty good, and the paying software isn’t bad (it requires less authentication).

    But finding the sites is too hard… I had similar trouble myself a couple of years ago:

  3. I second Francis – the form is okay (with one exception: the field where you say how much you’ve paid in advance disappears from your final submission, which refers to a box with a different number – your advance payment disappears!), but the uptime is atrocious and the help documents *really* shouldn’t 404: (“This has possibly been caused by a number of pages being deleted or moved as part of the migration to the new HM Revenue & Customs website”)

  4. I’ve used the online system for some years and found it to be buggy, confusing and not very robust – sometimes it can be unavailable for days.
    More annoying for me though was this year I had to do a paper return because the site will no longer recognise my login even though I had been using it for years prior to this January.

  5. I was a fairly early adopter, but gave up trying after 2 years of frustration and anger. The last 3 years I have paper filed – and since the Revenue has stopped giving receipts there has been a noticeable deterioration in service (but don’t mention Tax Credits!). Losing one return might be regarded as a misfortune ……. but then refuse to acknowledge that, reply to letters, or provide another one of their forms for 11 months smacks of something worse.

    Could it be that they want to coerce people to file on-line, and only that way? The deadline this year is hauled back to October, I believe.

    The service at public offices has effectively been eliminated. At Bush House there are no forms or leaflets, just someone at a desk who points to an array of phones where you can call – for free – ‘inquiry lines’, who seem to be ‘personned’ by persons who seem to have no real grasp of how the tax (or tax credit, which is neither tax nor credit) system works, or customers’ concerns, but can send you out a leaflet or form in the mail!

  6. I just had a look at the Revenue site. It’s not just the tax side that’s having problems.

    Perhaps someone can translate the phrase ‘claims for for reasonable excuse’.

    Pension Schemes Online filing service problems

    If you experienced problems filing your Pension Scheme Return or Event Report online

    If you experienced problems with the Pension Schemes Online service in recent weeks, and were unable to file by midnight 1 February, please file your Pension Scheme Return or Event Report as soon as you possibly can. Our systems may issue an automatic penalty notice, and if you receive one, we will accept claims for reasonable excuse. This means we will remove the late filing penalty and treat your return as filed on time where the problems with the HMRC service were the cause of the delay.

    There’s a not so helpful ‘availability’ link – this seems to be more about planned unavailability rather than real-time unavailability!

  7. How does this 8bn over ten years figure compare to government IT projects for similar work in other countries?

    Brazil’s government is on open source IT, and I think they’ve released the code for some of the projects they’ve worked on, but I’ve no idea about if there are any comparable figures or services they’ve put together.

    Anyone know if there’s anything comparable here, or even if such a comparison is even possible?

  8. why do people bother paying tax ? with the site as incompetent as you describe, what chance do they have of knowing whether they owe you tax or you owe them ?

  9. I’d like to speak up in support of their online form-filling application. I’ve used it for several years, and it was impressive years ago and is still impressive now. What impressed me was the good design, which allows you to go forwards and backwards through the form, filling things in, changing them, and at all times maintaining sensible state information. (So going back doesn’t lose information.) Also impressive: the speed with which it worked, and the universality of browsers. A few years ago many sites with fancy interactive features were sluggish and didn’t work well in some browsers. Final impressive feature: having filled in the forms online in an application that feels a bit like filling in a paper form, you can download a pdf that is exactly like the paper form, all filled in nicely, and all the sums done. Their website may have other flaws, but this major part of it is excellent.

  10. Completed my first UK tax return online in November last year and submitted.

    Flash forward to last week when I received a fine for not submitting! Tried to log on to the system but couldn’t, nothing would work.

    Rang support and they told me, you’ve been locked out (no feedback on the site to say this). “You’ll have to try again in two hours”.

    Finally got on, there it is – unsubmitted.

    So I re-submit and this time I get a receipt (as it was my first return I didn’t know that I should have expected one). And of course there is no hand holding explanations.

    I had fortunately printed it off in November when I reached what I thought was the final stage having clicked the ‘submit’, so I am now appealing as the system failed me. We’ll see whether they agree with my appeal. It is kind of like mailing it in and it not arriving.

    Usability is so important in an application like this one, and constant feedback is required for the tentative user. i.e. “Your return has not yet been submitted” in large red writing through every stage of the process until it actually IS submitted.

    Oh well.

  11. Several years ago, I was willing to be an early adopter of online VAT returns. At the time, they were offering £50 to encourage this, but after wasting a whole morning struggling with their site, I gave up. It transpired that I needeed an SSL licence which would cost upfront more than the £50 I would eventually get back, so it was a con. (I did email SSL to enquire about a licence but never heard back.) I have also had bad experiences with the Conmpanies House site. My experience of websites is that public sector ones are consistently the worst to use – badly designed and not properly tested. Even small companies with tiny budgets do much better. So the lesson is, when it comes to public sector websites, be a very late adopter. I have good IT skills and a fear of paper forms, but it is easier for me to fill in a paper form that I am used to than to waste time on an unknown process in which I have little faith left. After all, I can’t see much benefit for me in doing stuff online – the benefits are theirs. They say it means one can leave paying until the last minute, but what if the website isn’t working. Will that excuse count? Of course, if we all did it online, costs would be lower and therefore taxes lower. But if the whole taxation system was made very simple rather than made ever increasingly complicated by chancellors of the exchequer trying to make it look like they have some ideas, then we would all save a lot of money and unnecessary stress. Best idea is for Gordon Brown to appoint me chancellor now. Even better, make me state God for a day – then I could also wipe away all the unnecessary regulations that possibly can’t be enforced anyway (so only the good guys are bogged down by them). Although the cost of all the resulting civil service early retirement deals at age 50 whilst the rest of us are expected to work until 68 would probably bankrupt the state. Cynical? Moi?

  12. The whole system is awful, i understand there is alot of security, but its taken me 3weeks and 3 phone calls just to get my gateway password, and now it seems i have the wrong user name, i have the user name for VAT not self assesment. its almost as if they dont want me to do my taxes!

    the government is so awful, look at the state of the country now. me you and everyone else are looked down upon by government, they throw OUR money around like water, spending here and there then raise taxes to pay for it all, all the while inflation is thru the roof. I HATE GOVERNMENTS, it doesnt mater which one it is. I dont vote because i dont believe any of their policies, they talk the talk but as soon as they get into office it all goes out the window.