Is online filing finally working?
In 2011 a job that famously never finished came to an end, as contractors finally put the last coat of paint on the Forth Bridge.
After 100 years of constant maintenance, advances in scaffolding and paint technology meant that the famous rail crossing would not need another makeover for 25 years.
Speaking at the time Colin Hardie, a construction superintendent for the project, said that the "old cliche" of the bridge as a never-ending job was now over.
While the online system for self assessment filing hasn’t been with us for as long as the Forth Bridge, from a purely statistical standpoint there are indications that the system that turned 20 last year could be heading in the same direction - even if it is about to be ushered to the exit.
This year, a record 10.7m completed returns were submitted before the 31 January deadline, with 92.5% of those returns completed online (up from 89% in 2016).
Detractors may point to the fact that 745, 588 returns were left outstanding, but this is down from 840,000 missing in 2017, and 870,000 in 2016.
With the odd exception, the current system also seems to have held up to the traditional last-minute rush, that this year saw 758,707 people complete their return on the last day before the deadline.
At its busiest between from 4pm to 5pm on 31 January, HMRC received 60,596 returns (that’s 1,010 per minute, or 17 per second if you like your stats broken down).
Compared to the war stories told by practitioners dealing with the system in its early days, where it would regularly crash with the influx of last-minute tax filers.
It would, of course, be remiss of me not to point out that this self assessment season also saw the list of self assessment exclusions regularly chopped and changed, frustrating accountants and their software providers in the process.
And while the direction of travel seems to be generally positive, a new broom, or should I say paintbrush, is coming to the tax system in the form of Making Tax Digital.
The government’s digital taxation scheme should eventually lead to the end of all submissions, never mind late ones, but RSM head of tax George Bull warned in his post-self assessment comments it took a long time for the system to become as reliable as it now is.
When MTD finally replaces the tax return, accountants everywhere will be hoping that when the scaffolding comes off the new system, any fixes or upgrades won’t be a never-ending task – even if we are missing a cliché for that now.
*6 March 2018 - this article was amended to correct the number of outstanding self assessment returns remaining after the 31 Jan deadline - TH*