Did HMRC really 'lock taxpayers out' from their online accounts?

Did HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) really “lock taxpayers out” from their online accounts, as The Guardian has claimed?

It’s a situation that arose from a predictable and – according to HMRC – well planned and publicised move. Over the coming 12 months, the Gov.uk Verify digital identity system is being finally shut down, after more than 10 years in development and more than £200m spent. It never achieved what it was meant to do – to be the standard method for signing into all UK government online public services. It didn’t even get close.

HMRC never wanted to use Verify, and never made a secret of it. Despite public pronouncements of support – made under instruction from the Cabinet Office – HMRC was happy to use its own Government Gateway system to confirm users are who they say they are, and subsequently log in to their personal tax accounts, needed to access online services for tax credits and self-assessment.

While Verify was offered as an option when HMRC customers set up an online account, it was always listed below Gateway. Across all of government, Verify accumulated a little over nine million accounts. According to estimates (HMRC doesn’t appear to publish exact figures), Gateway alone has around 16 million user accounts.

It’s very likely that Gateway was used by the vast majority of HMRC users in preference to Verify.

Verify failed because less than half of all the people who tried to set up a digital identity were able to do so. Verify’s noble and ambitious goal – to prove someone’s identity entirely digitally – simply didn’t work for anyone without a sufficient digital footprint, such as passport, driving licence and a credit rating built through use of financial products such as mortgages and credit cards.

At HMRC, the problem was even greater. Verify only deals with individuals – it has never been intended to register companies or intermediaries, such as the accountants who look after millions of people’s tax affairs. Gateway, of course, handles all three types of user.

When the government finally gave up on Verify – a decision that should have been taken several years and tens of millions of pounds earlier – Whitehall departments such as HMRC were put on notice to withdraw the service and look for alternatives.

The developer of Verify, the Government Digital Service (GDS), is spending £400m to create a new single sign-on system, called One Login for Government, (a reminder that Verify was intended to be, erm, the one login for government), but the new system is only just entering the stage of a limited beta version being tested on a single service. It’s nowhere near ready to replace Verify for a large and complex service such as personal tax accounts.

HMRC, no doubt only too pleased to finally ditch the unloved and unwanted alternative to Gateway, set 1 April 2022 as the date to finally switch off Verify.

According to The Guardian report, HMRC “unexpectedly withdrew” the Verify service. Clearly, many Verify users were caught unprepared. But there was nothing unexpected about it.

HMRC told Computer Weekly that it made extensive efforts to publicise the withdrawal, including:

  • Sending letters to people who completed self-assessment returns using Verify.
  • Adding a message to people’s personal tax accounts to warn all users ahead of decommissioning that, as of 1 April, Verify could not be used to access HMRC services.
  • Updates were made to Gov.uk pages ahead of time to advise anyone attempting to create new Verify login details that they could no longer be used as of 1 April.
  • The two external Verify partners – Post Office and Digidentity – ran a message on their services advising customers that they could not use Verify to access HMRC services from 1 April 2022.
  • Intermediaries, such as accountants, were warned about the decommissioning of Verify.

Despite all this effort, it’s inevitable that some people slipped through the gaps.

Gateway is a clunky and cumbersome system when you register for an account – but it works. In a statement, HMRC said: “Most customers can deal with us securely online and we are continually looking at how we can increase accessibility to Government Gateway without reducing protections. We always provide alternative ways for customers to access our services where they cannot use Government Gateway.”

For many taxpayers, the withdrawal of Verify by HMRC has proved to be a problem – but they’ll be better off with Gateway.

Millions of other Verify users will face the same problem during the next year as other online public services have to find new ways to register users – and the new One Login system will not be ready for most of them.

All nine million Verify accounts will be back to square one very soon. The departments responsible for that transition will need to proactively and publicly reach out to those users to ensure any disruption to their access to online services is minimised. But many will fall through the cracks.

Sadly, nobody will be totalling up how much all this costs, but we can certainly add the decommissioning of Verify to the hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds it has already lost.

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