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Self-assessment tax returns: a rant

I have just finished filing my tax return for the 2007-08 year, using the online “service” provided by HMRC. This is the third year I have done it online and I cannot remember it being this difficult before.

I’ll preface this by saying that I have over 40 years’ experience in designing computer systems. The self-assessment system has these design and usability faults which delayed my successful completion of the form:

  • The self-employment section asks for your turnover, and in the next box for ‘any other business income’. I had none, so I entered £0.00 — how was I to know that I should have left it blank?
  • Having learned that lesson, there were several boxes which weren’t relevant to me so I left them blank. There was a supplementary question about these irrelevant boxes which wanted the answer Yes or No but I skipped them … mistake number two! I had to answer a rather pointless No.
  • In the unlikely event that the Revenue owe me money, they ask for my bank account details. Now my bank statements and cheque book both say my sort code is 30-95-76 so that’s what I entered. Another error, they wanted 309576.
  • Next, the gift aid section. As far as I can work out there’s no point in filling this in unless you earn enough to get into the 40% tax band, (which I don’t) when you can claim some extra tax relief. Remember all those places you visited 18 months ago run by charities, who ask you to pay a small premium so they can claim back the gift aid? Did you make a note of it? No, so you have to estimate it.
  • Almost finished. I noticed that the response time is dire, no doubt because everybody else is trying to do this on a Sunday evening. I dread to think what the response time will be as the deadline gets hours rather than weeks away.
  • Last thing: the box for extra information. I wanted to tell them about the gift aid estimate. I also wanted to tell them about the two directorships I hold, neither remunerated, in case a smart official cross-references tax returns with information on file at Companies House. So I tell them all this, which takes up about half the space in the input box, and press next. And get a tax return update failure which lists the three possible reasons. None of which applies to me. So I log off and leave it to the morning.
  • Logging on this morning the same thing happens. When I finally get through to the technical helpdesk, a very helpful Glaswegian suggests, almost immediately, that the reason was that my extra information exceeded 256 characters. Which it turns out was the problem. Not that there was anything about a limit on the form that I could see. Or a countdown of characters left.

Most of these are considerable annoyances but the last one is a showstopper. Anybody hitting this one as the deadline approaches could well go past it and incur the automatic £100 penalty. Don’t they test these things?

3 Responses to “Self-assessment tax returns: a rant”

  1. Linda W Says:

    Thanks for this info – I’m just making rough notes before filling mine in and found your comments while I was searching for help with estimated Gift Aid info, because as you say I can’t remember who I’ve ticked the Gift Aid boxes for now whenever I’ve donated anything. I didn’t know about the other glitches; this is my first time, so I was hoping that the online version would be easy! Hey ho, at least now I’m forewarned, thanks to you. Maybe they’ve fixed it since you’ve posted this; one lives in hopes!

  2. Roger Says:

    One does indeed live in hope. Your comment has prompted me to think that it’s about time I filled out my tax return too.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I’m sure you’ll only get more comments on this as the deadline approaches! Thanks for the informative post – your tip about the 256 character limit saved me just now 🙂 As you say, that’s a real show-stopper – and worse, it’s nothing to do with the complexity of the tax system or even UI design, but just simple common sense!

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