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HMRC locked me out of my personal tax account
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Unable to Verify customer in the tax account area

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I’ve not had a great experience with my personal tax account. This is the story of a relationship that took a wrong turning.

5th May 2022
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Last week, I felt like I’d been ghosted by the government. I went to check on my personal tax account (PTA). When I got to the relevant page, it told me: “You can no longer use Gov.uk Verify to prove your identity.”

Bill Mew warned that this day would ultimately come in recent articles about the government’s sorry ID saga. Sure, Verify was destined for the dumpster where all the other discredited government IT projects go to die, but the lever was pulled on the third-party ID verification system early, with no warning.

Those in the know might have read Bill Mew’s articles or seen briefings from the likes of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) or the ICAEW Tax Faculty, but unless you paid a lot of attention to those sources you wouldn’t have heard a peep. As a result, thousands of taxpayers were unexpectedly locked out of their tax accounts as the end of the tax year approached.

The comments on AccountingWEB’s coverage included six separate examples where people struggled to regain access to their PTAs via the gateway.

I write about accounting technology, so I should have been on the alert. But covering subjects as a reporter is different to how they affect you as an individual. After getting over the initial shock, I realised the experience offered me a chance to tell the story as a participant rather than an observer.

The “customer” experience

My first encounter with Verify and HMRC’s PTA came in January 2016, when I became one of the 5m taxpayers that HMRC boasted had registered for the online portal.

For me, it was a pretty casual affair. After registering with the Post Office version of Verify I flirted with it a couple of times. Once the initial novelty wore off, I typically checked in once or twice a year to look around and see what was there.

Things got a bit more serious a couple of months ago, when I logged in to see if it was possible to claim the working from home allowance through the PTA, as Gov.uk suggested. But the visit ended in disappointment. After going through the online filtering process, it said that because I submit a self-assessment tax return, I would have to claim the allowance that way.

So, as useful as ever, the PTA sank back into the untended margins of my daily life. When I did check back in last week, the shutters had come down. If I wanted to keep in touch with my PTA, I needed to create a new government gateway account. Despite all the difficulties other users experienced, I was able to pass all the checks and log back in within 10–15mins.

What struck me going through the whole rigmarole was that the government already seemed to hold huge quantities of data about me. So why was I was now being asked to renew my identity like it was a new mobile phone operating system?

Lack of direction

Back in March, I mentioned some of the weaknesses of the agile approach to big software projects. One vulnerability I forgot to mention then was the occasional tendency for such projects to set off first in one direction until the strategy reaches a dead end and then go back and try another way, until that avenue proves fruitless too.

These intermittent, poorly explained shifts add to the minor irritations and simmering resentment taxpayers feel and make them wonder when they became lab rats in HMRC’s never-ending digital experiments. But is anyone at the supposedly customer-centric tax department considering the user’s point of view?

My own history suggests not. Here is an organisation that helps itself to portions of my income and wants to know everything it can about what I own and what I earn. It keeps a lot of that information to itself, except for the morsels it doles out to me in the PTA or in those dull letters it occasionally sends out.

Any time the department wants to communicate with me, it does so on its own terms. If I want to get in touch, HMRC usually plays hard to get. After the latest setback in this one-sided online relationship, I’m beginning to sense why so many taxpayers and advisers are starting to ask if it’s worth the hassle to keep it going.

Replies (4)

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By Hugo Fair
05th May 2022 20:14

Congratulations, John, your damascene epiphany was a long time coming!

I agree with every point made - and it's good to see the light shone on how interwoven all the problems are (which only becomes apparent when you experience it all as a 'user').

It is (or looks like being) the same with MTD ... hence the agitation on here by practitioners..

Thanks (5)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
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By Paul Crowley
07th May 2022 16:15

Would that be the MTD ITSA that the advertisers here think of as the pot of gold?

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By Silver Birch Accts
06th May 2022 14:14

You will recieve an email from the Post Office, I received my Dear John 'you are dumped' this week.

I welcome your honest and integrity in writing this article, you have earned some brownie points with us.

Thanks (1)
John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
06th May 2022 16:45

A c'mon you guys, don't think soften me up with your love bombs!

I didn't really have as much a Damascene conversion as Hugo suggests. I'd say I'm closer to the Paul Aplin school of thought, but a bit less diplomatic at how I express myself. I think there's a lot for taxpayers and HMRC to gain from moving to more responsive and accurate digital accounting and filing methods. It's just that HMRC continues to ignore some of the basic tenets of system design and user needs assessment while trying to implement those systems.

And I've always chewed on a corner of my desk in frustration with the whole "customer" shtick. If you're going to play that card, then you have to live up to it by understanding the basic principles of customer service - like simplicity, responding quickly to problems with honest and clear communication and consulting people about changes that might affect them.

The Verify experience gave me a convenient hook to vent some of those frustrations - so I'm glad it provided an opportunity for us to discover and enjoy some common ground on these issues.

Thanks (1)