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HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has said that 2,600 parents were affected by technical issues that hit its Childcare Service website earlier this year.
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This represents just 1% of applications – although 5% of users received at least one error message during the application process.
The figures were revealed by HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson, in response to a letter from Nicky Morgan, chair of the Treasury Committee, who wrote to him earlier in August demanding more information about problems with the Childcare Service website after users reported difficulties applying for new childcare benefits.
The website was launched in April for parents to apply for two new government benefits – tax-free childcare and 30 hours’ free childcare.
Parents subsequently reported repeated technical problems on the site, including failed log ins and misplaced applications. The service was launched as “digital by default”, so parents are unable to make applications by post or phone, although there is a telephone helpdesk for queries. People who called the helpline also reported that operators were unable to provide help.
Thompson apologised for the issues, and said: “With regard to the problems that some parents have experienced, we are working to improve the way the service works. In the meantime, where necessary, we are issuing 30 hours free childcare codes manually, and are paying parents the government top up for tax-free childcare when they’ve had difficulty accessing the service because of technical issues.”
Morgan said further improvements to the website are clearly still required. “While it is welcome that HMRC has made ‘significant improvements’ to the website since it was launched in April, thousands of parents are still unable to apply for the childcare to which they are entitled in the way that the government has envisaged,” she said.
“The committee will no doubt want to question representatives of HMRC on the technical issues with the Childcare Service website when they are called to give evidence.”
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Two years ago, the service failed its initial assessment by the Government Digital Service (GDS). All new digital services go through a standard assessment – run by GDS at the time, although relaxation of the GDS controls process means departments can now conduct their own assessments.
The August 2015 assessment was intended to establish early progress on developing the tax-free childcare system. GDS assessors highlighted several areas for improvement, and said the HMRC team “did not present an end-to-end service” and lacked certain key skills required for development.
However, a subsequent report in October 2016, as the service passed from the initial “alpha” stage to testing with users in a “private beta”, was successful. No further assessments – typically required to move from testing into live use – appear to have been published yet on Gov.uk.