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Can tax and accounting cope without fax machines?

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In an era of AI, blockchain and augmented reality, the idea that Ofcom pulling the plug on fax machines might cause disruption seems implausible. However, reacting to news that fax services are to be phased out, accountants have pointed out multiple ways the humble facsimile machine still supports the tax and accounting world.

4th Nov 2022
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The whir of the drum, the smooth, shiny paper, the inevitable beep of the error message; all classic hallmarks of the facsimile or fax machine, which could soon be consigned to the museum of obsolete office items.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom this week proposed rule changes that will mean providers no longer have to support fax services.

Under current universal service obligation (USO) rules, two telecoms providers prop up the UK’s fax infrastructure – BT and KCOM (in the Hull area only, where it has a historical monopoly).

Last updated in 2003, USO rules are laid out by legislation, and Parliament recently removed fax services following a consultation in November 2021.

According to Ofcom’s update, the regulator considers it “appropriate for fax to be removed from the USO, given its limited ongoing use, as well as the fact that developments in technology now mean there are a range of alternatives available for people to use.

“Not only are alternatives to fax machines now more widely available, migration of telephone networks to internet protocol (IP) technology means fax services can no longer be guaranteed to work in the same way,” continued the Ofcom statement.

Ofcom is inviting comments on its implementation of change by 5pm on 1 December 2022, and expects to publish a statement in early 2023. Interested parties can download a response form here.

‘They can’t do that. HMRC still uses fax machines’

Despite Ofcom’s enthusiasm for consigning fax to the history books, AccountingWEB members have pointed out multiple ways the humble facsimile still supports the tax and accounting profession – pointing to an uphill struggle for the regulator’s efforts to extinguish the fax altogether.

Reacting to the news on the Any Answers forum, AccountingWEB member The Dullard simply stated: “They can’t do that. HMRC still uses fax machines.”

HMRC told AccountingWEB it "does not use fax as part of its communications with customers", but its guidance (such as its Inheritance Tax Manual) states you may use a fax machine “when correspondence must be sent urgently and it will not get to its destination on time if it is sent by post, or a taxpayer or agent specifically asks that documents are sent by fax.”

An HMRC spokesperson added: "Where fax is still used by our customers for business purposes they should continue to include on their tax returns".

The Revenue’s reluctance to embrace email as a means of communication may play into its continued use of fax machines. In sectors where sensitive information is handled regularly, such as finance and healthcare, fax is generally considered more secure than email, due to its limited exposure to the internet and internet-connected devices.

From a practice perspective, AccountingWEB member K81 said they still use fax machines on a daily basis. “A lot of our small employers use this means of communicating,” they said. “Once again life outside London is not taken into account.”

Based in rural Somerset the firm caters for “old-school small seasonal businesses”, where concessions take cash only, often with no tills. 

“It’s quite common around here,” K81 added. “In recent years we have seen a move away from online banking also. A lot of the older clients don’t trust it any more.”

Paul Crowley stated that up until a year ago, his firm had a client still faxing wages records, while Meadowsaw227 said they are still faxing a client’s monthly BACS summary to the bank.

More widely, AccountingWEB reader Open all hours stated that until a month ago Lloyds Teleplay, an outsourced Bacs Service allowing customers to make bulk payments without a PC, insisted on using fax. 

No fax please

During his time as Health Secretary, Matt Hancock tried to ban the purchase of fax machines. However, in spite of the jungle enthusiast’s best efforts, fax is still in regular use in the NHS, as outlined by AccountingWEB member Hugo Fair: “PFI T&Cs make it cheaper to just ‘order another one’ than to start a ‘conversion/upgrade process’ (which involves new guidance, extra training and so on).”

One incredible story from the forum thread laid out perhaps the best technology story this correspondent has heard this side of ‘CD ROM drawer as cupholder’.  

JB101 said: “I was out on an audit of a small computer repair company and was sat in a corner with a large Kalamazoo book next to the fax machine. It sprang into life and a fax copy of a floppy disk slowly appeared. Apparently, one staff member had asked an elderly gentleman to send him a copy of the backup disk so he could try and diagnose the problem he was having.”

4 November 2022: This article was updated to add HMRC comment

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Replies (24)

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By Justin Bryant
04th Nov 2022 11:30

I have since added to my comment re security issues, which seems a very good reason to retain faxes.
https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/any-answers/farewell-to-fax#comment-945138

You cannot do business in Japan without them apparently and they are not known to be a nation of dummies.

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By JustAnotherUser
04th Nov 2022 13:44

I don't see the issue here, with the change in telephone networks to IP replacing PSTN, you cannot have this, and retain fax support from providers.

Simple, remove fax from the USO... this is hardly a set of rules for phone services when its only imposed on BT (and a small part Hull).

Is this the end of fax, of course not.
Either demand is big enough for BT to offer none IP line services to these users and charge a premium.

or

A quick google search shows that Fax over IP exists (analogy to VOIP via T.38 protocol?) and adaptors can cost less than £100

Dear user, your land lines are moving to VOIP... this means your fax will no longer work, you have two choices.
- Purchase an adapter
- or for business, we will continue to offer landlines at a premium rate.

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Replying to JustAnotherUser:
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By listerramjet
10th Nov 2022 09:37

I doubt much business still uses landlines. Not least because of the cost and inflexibility.

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By Paul Crowley
04th Nov 2022 17:12

Who knows?
But make them fail and see what happens is a uniquely British way of asking a simple question

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
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By listerramjet
10th Nov 2022 09:36

nothing uniquely British about it. Very common practice around the world.

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By mbee1
07th Nov 2022 08:52

Ours was binned years ago.

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Ivor Windybottom
By Ivor Windybottom
08th Nov 2022 09:22

When HMRC provide a fax number it is a great joy. I then know I don't have to call and the letter will be dealt with within a couple of days, as faxes are so rare the staff assume they are super important and urgent so actually deal with them.

I sure will miss that.

If only HMRC had a way to communicate in another electronic form, besides person-to-person voice. Maybe some form of electronic mail system could be invented to allow written communication between two parties?

HMRC will want to invent their own protocol - fax seems to be the last time they accepted technology as designed. Digital first, my ar**!

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By TB93
10th Nov 2022 09:19

"What's a fax machine?" is what the youth of today will ask.

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Replying to TB93:
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By listerramjet
10th Nov 2022 09:35

to be fair you could say the same for CD, which is a lot more recent. Technology moves on!

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Replying to TB93:
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By Paul Crowley
10th Nov 2022 14:21

Answer:
Send him a detailed telex

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By richards1
10th Nov 2022 09:23

Scan to fax services exist, so whats the problem?

https://uk.pcmag.com/old-fax-services/140179/the-best-online-fax-service...

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By listerramjet
10th Nov 2022 09:33

We used to have the telegram, but I think civic society survived its demise! I wonder how much money the government wastes on obsolete technology and old inefficient processes. Most business survive with email and customer portals without too much fuss. And if someone really insists then you can make use of email to fax services.
What I find really hard to understand is why a government so committed to 5G would still want to use analogue telephone. Makes you wonder if somewhere in government they are still using smoke signals or pigeons

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By acceje
10th Nov 2022 09:40

I use a fax machine once a month to send a BACS by fax to Barclays for a client's payroll - I can't be the only person using this method.

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Replying to acceje:
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By gillsoffice
10th Nov 2022 16:26

I was doing this too until recently (when the client switched to online banking - much easier). I only had the one payroll to fax once a month and I'd imagined some poor soul waiting at Barclays just for me, while the rest of the world had moved on. Nice to know I wasn't the only one !

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By North East Accountant
10th Nov 2022 10:05

We chucked ours earlier this year when we moved offices.

What a machine! 25 years service with no hiccups, although it had an easy last few years before being consigned to the skip, after we smashed it up and removed the memory........RIP.

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Replying to North East Accountant:
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By Hugo Fair
10th Nov 2022 11:29

When I were a lad, 25 years service got you a pat on the back and a drink ... not a smack on the head with a hammer followed by removal of one's brain.

Oh brave new world!

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By Rgab1947
10th Nov 2022 10:39

Fax machines. People still use them? Do they use the quill pen as well?

There are virtual fax machines as well. Sort of moving from the quill pen to a fountain pen.

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By Michael C Feltham
10th Nov 2022 11:03

The origin of the facsimile system, back in the 1970s was for banks and similar, who used them to verify signatures for payment on security documents etc.

If telecom suppliers and the PTT do away with the facility, then such as HMRC will be compelled to provide email addresses and support.

As we all know, the Agent's Helpless Line is about as useful as a chocolate teapot!

Often, the ONLY modality, at present available to urgently contact HMRC is by fax, particularly when a case or document is time limited..

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By graemep
10th Nov 2022 11:24

Why is fax considered more secure than email?

These days almost all email is encrypted between mail servers, and relays between servers are rare. This means that it goes from mailbox to mailbox using the same TLS encryption used by websites including those handling sensitive information.

Faxes are not encrypted at all, and unless people are very careful about verifying the source (number it is sent from etc.) easy to forge.

The death of fax may finally cause the much overdue (by decades!) widespread adoption of end to end encrypted and cryptographically signed email. In the meantime there are workarounds. Uploads on websites, various other messaging systems, and so on.

The arguments in favour of fax assume that it is transmitted between traditional fax machines over PSTN. The use of fax servers and the like means that this is increasingly less often the case. In any case there are now better alternatives - including just ensuring mail server security.

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Replying to graemep:
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By unclejoe
10th Nov 2022 12:26

I have recently had medical issues and have received half a dozen snailmail letters from NHS in as many weeks. "Why not allow people to register for email communication instead?" I asked, in a bid to help Rishi save some government cash. The reason, I was told, is because email is considered insecure for personal medical information. They seem to miss the point that, in this neighbourhood at least, we regularly trot around redelivering post that has gone to the wrong address!

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Donald MacKenzie
By Donald MacKenzie
10th Nov 2022 11:34

I am of an age where the question "Do you have a fax?" was used, first, by someone wondering if we had bought a fax machine yet, then from some years ago, by someone wondering if we still had a machine, and more recently, with an exclamation mark, expressing surprise that someone might still have a fax.

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By chrisowen
10th Nov 2022 17:00

My neighbour sometimes flies to France in his own plane.
So he has to file a flight plan to the French authorities.......by fax.

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By Michael C Feltham
11th Nov 2022 08:57

A final comment on this issue.

Years back, I was FD of an international trading house in the City.

In those far off halcyon days, telex was a critical component of international trade and particularly, shipping. Telex numbers allocated by PTTs had Answer Back ID's.

A major civil court battle (I seem to recall Shell Tanker Division were one of the litigants), took place over the contract offered and accepted, finally determined that telex documents were prima facia proof of existence of the contract; and as usual, this determination flowed into precedent law.
It was very hard if not impossible to forge answer back IDs.

Email, at present, is an utter shambles: no longer do sent emails "Bounce" when the intended recipient does not receive the mail: all too often, sent emails simply evaporate into cyberspace.

A sent fax, when the sending machine is properly configured, prints off a report showing that the fax has been sent and has been received.

In the case of an urgent and critical document to HMRC which is time delineated (e.g. a taxpayer has x days and must appeal before day y), a fax report has power as proof of filing with HMRC and would be a killer blow before a First Tier Tribunal, for example.

Now, HMRC are notorious for incorrect information on all their website pages: telephone numbers are incorrect; fax numbers have been re-allocated etc.

However, it doesn't actually matter: HMRC is HMRC and delivery of a fax letter, even if it is now allocated to the janitor's department in Land's End, means that the correspondence has been provably delivered within the time scale to HMRC!

Standard Mem and Arts STILL tend to include wording that states "Good delivery of notification of (whatever) will be deemed made when notices have been sent by first class post." Well, that's yet another good larf these days!

Last cynical comment: when BLiar was PM he appointed the dipstick Patricia Hewitt as Minister for what BLiar called "Joined Up Government", you might remember.

Well, that worked well,didn't it!

Despite £billions spent, the NHS has yet to become fully integrated in terms of its ICT programme...

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