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Public accounts committee takes HMRC to the woodshed

Parliament’s public accounts committee has taken HM Revenue & Customs to the woodshed for its approach to an internal IT system nightmare in the offing.

The committee absolutely laced into HMRC, calling its approach to an enormously challenging IT issue complacent, even though it could cause absolute havoc for taxpayers and government officials alike. The problem stems from a maintenance contract for its hardware and software that expires in 2017 – and with the importance of what the tax authority deals with on a day-to-day basis, the fact that HMRC has yet to line up an IT contractor to replace outgoing contractor Aspire has gotten the parliament finance watchdog’s hackles up.

The committee really let the taxman have it, remarking that HMRC not only lacked any sort of contingency plan in the event of any serious isues but that it didn’t even have the skills needed to negotiate new IT deals that wouldn’t have the government office raked over the coals or taken for a ride. These issues were raised just ahead of the 650,000 emails HMRC is preparing to send out to taxpayers who have yet to submit their self-assessment tax returns. With 31 January quite literally just around the corner, the tax authority is of course expecting to be inundated with last-minute assessments, and that could put a strain on IT systems in ways that I’m sure has the committee up at night tossing and turning.

Look, I’m not about to come out and defend HMRC for its ability – or lack thereof – to get things done or to negotiate contracts with IT professionals. I’m not going to jump all over the committee either, but I am going to say that for a government entity that’s responsible for collecting and keeping track of billions of pounds in tax revenue it seems like having a strong enough IT backbone to keep records sorted and make sure data is flowing in the right directions is something of a bloody priority, don’t you think?

Honestly the taxman isn’t helping itself out any, as it’s already suffering from a poor reputation either from real or perceived slights. Taxpayers losing confidence in HMRC is probably the last thing that needs to happen, especially if the tax authority is trying to encourage more people to pay what they owe and not less.

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