Inland Revenue washes its hands

Draconian measures over NI data cleansing are an arrogant shirking of responsibility by the Revenue

Draconian measures over NI data cleansing are an arrogant shirking of responsibility by the Revenue

IT departments that have squandered precious time and money on complex data-cleansing exercises must this week be wondering why on earth they went to so much trouble, now that details of a daring and innovative Inland Revenue initiative have come to light.

As with all the best ideas, its genius lies in its simplicity. In essence, this is its premise: shift onto your customers the onus of responsibility for cleaning up your data.

Insurance companies, banks, credit card firms and loyalty card issuers will no doubt be calculating exactly how much of their systems support they can reasonably outsource to their customers. Retail chiefs will be carrying out feasibility studies into the possibility of customers stacking supermarket shelves before doing their weekly shop. Pub landlords will be demanding that their regular punters clean the pipes and empty ashtrays before their first pint is pulled.

Needing to standardise all national insurance (NI) numbers in order to be able to support the new Working Families' Tax Credit scheme, the Revenue has written letters to hundreds of thousands of UK taxpayers, informing them that they have incorrect NI details and exhorting them to update their employers' records themselves. "It would appear you have been using an incorrect national insurance number," the letters bluntly state, before advising that failure to act could have a detrimental effect on your state pension.

The Revenue's policy smacks of arrogance and non-accountability: it has shifted the onus of responsibility for updating and cleansing the UK's NI records onto the general public simply because it is able to do so.

If the Computerised Operation of PAYE (COP) system (whose data it is that requires cleansing) is flawed, it is because the Revenue has never needed to confront the errors and duplications that it carries. Until now, duplications have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But the much-vaunted Working Families' Tax Credit scheme requires a flawless database of NI numbers - a costly and time-consuming project.

The government of this nation is becoming an ever more complex, and technology-dependent business. Transient ministers cannot be expected to comprehend the nature of the systems they nominally manage, leaving the Sir Humphreys at liberty to treat their customers with the disdain that only a non-elected Whitehall mandarin can muster.

By adopting its Draconian and intimidatory approach, the Revenue does itself no favours. Its correspondences have caused widespread consternation and even panic.

Had it admitted that the COP system was being cleansed in order to deliver efficiencies in public services, the Revenue could have spun itself a useful good-news story. Who knows, perhaps the population would have responded positively to a genuine plea for help.

But there has been no such admission. Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt.
This was last published in September 2002

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