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What really happened to the SA website in January?

24th Feb 2005
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The self assessment online filing ran "more slowly than otherwise would have been the case", but did not fail in late January, The Inland Revenue told AccountingWEB.

Both AccountingWEB users and industry insiders reported that for all practical purposes, the SA Online server failed on Sunday 30 January and was only intermittently available to Web users during the final few days. The Revenue acknowledged the situation with online and press statements apologising for "the disruption to the service".

But in reply to a set of questions from AccountingWEB about the site's performance over the final days leading up to the 31 January self assessment deadline, the Revenue said the problem was not to do with the availability of the SA website itself, but was caused by an unanticipated bottleneck between the self assessment Web Gateway and the back-office mainframe that declines or accepts tax returns and issues acknowledgements. The queue that built up eventually clogged up the system.

A Revenue spokesman commented, "The service was available throughout January, but we acknowledge that there were some customers experiencing slow response times."

As a Web publisher, AccountingWEB knows that it is technically feasible to add more servers to handle heavier than usual traffic loads, for example on Budget day. The Revenue and its contractor ASPIRE said they had undertaken capacity planning and volumetric testing to establish the peak load requirement for the SA deadlline. No extra mirror sites/web services were available in the final few days, but according to the Revenue's internal analysis, "The problems encountered were not capacity ones."

Without divulging what specific measures would be taken, the Revenue spokesman said, "We will work closely with our IT partners to make sure that the problems we experienced with the success/failure messages do not recur next year."

The Revenue said it is looking into the experiences of agents to improve and streamline the online service they get. The National Audit Office is also studying the Revenue's handling of self assessment tax returns - including the performance of its online systems.

To help inform both of these processes, this article offers some insights from TaxZone and AccountingWEB members from the final week of the 2003/04 tax season and puts forward some of the agents' own suggestions for improvements.

Internal SA bottleneck?
One reason the internal bottleneck may not have been diagnosed earlier is because the ASPIRE consortium took over responsibility for the Inland Revenue's computers from EDS last year. That meant ASPIRE was having to analyse vulnerabilities of a system it did not design.

Warning last year that the Revenue's computer system was likely to suffer transitional glitches, IT Zone consultant editor David Carter commented, " No one at the Revenue knows how it works, no-one at Cap Gemini knows. Only the people who wrote it really know how it works, and now the Revenue has decided to dump them."

Support and communication issues
Officially, self assessment online was a success for the 2003/04 tax year. With 1.6m returns filed online, there was a 48% increase on the previous year. But it is clear from contemporary postings on AccountingWEB that the messages from the Revenue to frustrated taxpayers and agents - when they arrived - were not always consistent or helpful.

While officially there were no additional servers on standby to cope with the extra traffic, Revenue officals said on the 30th and 31st (and were quoted in several press reports) that bandwidth had been increased - without saying how.

In spite of the explanation that the self assessment site did not fail, David Evans informed the online community on Sunday 30 January that his attempts to connect to the SA Online site with IRIS software were met with the following responses, "The request has been acknowledged by the Gateway" and "Polling Gateway for a response" until the system timed him out.

When the website stopped responding, several AccountingWEB members commented on the site that they were unable to get through to the Helpdesk too.

On the final Sunday, AccountingWEB member Stephen Quay did get through to the Helpdesk by sending a fax. The official who replied to him that afternoon explained that the problem was with the machine that validated returns for acceptance or failure. But another AccountingWEB member, Bob M, told the community later the same day that he saw an online message saying the Inland Revenue site was unavailable and undergoing maintenance.

The official Revenue response is that no maintenance was undertaken on the 30th. As a spokesman told TaxZone editor Andrew Goodall that Sunday, "There is no question that we would schedule any maintenance work on what is the busiest weekend for the system."

In reply to a follow-up question, the official commented that responses such as "Unavilable due to maintenance", "Remote call procedure failed", and "Page cannot be displayed" appear to be browser driven, "as we did not put any of these messages out during the peak weekend".

AccountingWEB member Ian Clark commented: "Wonder if the Inland Revenue will learn from this, and give us a real status on their website, or even better give us agents a different filing gateway from the individuals who seemed to clog up the system over the weekend, presumably most of them using IR software, rather than external software?"

A separate server for agents?
David Griffiths backed Clark's call for separate filing facilities for agents. "In most cases, the individuals will be completing the return on screen, taking their time, and perhaps going off for coffee etc, while still logged in. Agents, on the other hand, usually have the return fully prepared and just need a few seconds to file it and log off."

Apart from delays in connecting to the SA Online site, several agents highlighted ongoing problems with matching their 64-8 authorisations from clients to the individuals' universal tax reference (UTR) online. During the final week, the lists visible to agents on their SA Online pages did not appear to be updated. This specific glitch reflected a wider concern over the Revenue's apparent inability to match 64-8s to agents. Philip Easton pointed out that the 64-8 problems fell into the grey area between the SA online system and the Government Web Gateway.

Management issues
The Revenue is so regularly subjected to criticism from all directions that it has developed a habit one informant described as "initial denial-silence-admission". By this measure, once the Revenue admits it is probably well on the way to dealing with the situation. Revenue officials have been willing to reply to our questions, but their replies suggest they may not have reached the "admission" stage just yet. That may require conclusions from other reviews besides this one.

We have already identified some of the communication problems and raised the concern over whether the ASPIRE consortium knows how to sort out the flaws in the EDS-designed SA Online architecture. But the most pressing questions for the Revenue's own review concern its planning and investment in the system.

AccountingWEB actively supports the move to online filing, and applauds the 48% increase in online returns submitted. But unless HM Revenue and Customs can cope with such increases in online filing, for example by ensuring there are adequate servers and support staff to handle the load, it will hand a stick to opponents of online filing.

We look forward to hearing contributions from the AccountingWEB/TaxZone communities and seeing the results of the NAO and internal Revenue reviews before the 2004/05 tax season gets underway.


Replies (18)

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By adam.arca
28th Feb 2005 13:50

In defence of the non FBI approach
In defence of those of us who do not worship the god of Technology or subscribe to the concept of "progress" just for the sake of it, I really must take up the cudgels against some of the comments that Nicholas Myles has made.

He has wilfully misunderstood the earlier posting about the benefit of paper filing and, not admittedly in quite those words, implied that paper filers are dinosaurs. In answer, let me direct your attention to Tax investigations: pre-empting the Revenue's curiosity.

The key reason I would imagine why many accountants have stuck with paper filing is not because we are old-fashioned but because, in our opinion, that provides much greater security for our clients in the event of an enquiry. So let me put the boot on the foot and ask the e-filers how they think they are doing the best for their clients when they are not routinely submitting accounts?

I was also struck by the comment that if ELS resources had been directed towards FBI, then there wouldn't have been any problems with FBI. Even as a non ELS user myself, this does appear to me to be both arrogant and offensive: just because Nicholas happens to find that FBI works for him, why does he assume that this must also be the case for everyone else and that money spent supporting another system (which, unlike FBI, works perfectly) is money wasted?

Unfortunately, it does seem to me that FBI proponents have swallowed the Revenue line that FBI is such a good thing that a) compulsion is the way ahead so that we can all "enjoy" the benefits, and b) there is no need to use persuasion or build a business case. And because of that, these proponents often come across sounding vaguely fascist in their enthusiasm.

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By carnmores
28th Feb 2005 17:23

Thanks for being so selective in choosing which comments to attack, talk about judicious editing!

To say that i have wilfuly misunderstood (whatever you think that means) is errant nonsense. if you look at my many postings on FBI you will see that i have also been highly critical of the system, i still belive that it is the right way forward.

you can FBI and still send in paper accounts if you wish, they are not mutually exclusive. i do not beleive there is a requirement to send in accounts tho so your comments must remain supposition.

i did not say that there would have been no problems if the ELS resources had been diverted to FBI i mused upon the possibility

i have not swallowed whole the Revenue arguement however for the record i am anti compulsion period, but in my mind there is a business case for both accountants and government to proceed with FBI.

i am absolutely convinced it is the least worst option we have!

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By Helen Crowley
28th Feb 2005 10:14

ELS for one more year
After a fair amount of research and tracking posts on Accounting Web we have now decided to stick with ELS for one more year for a number of reasons
1) We had no problems filing on any day, including 31st January. We need this reliability and stability.
2) As a firm we have over 10,000 returns to complete and lodge but the current agent online service is not designed for high volume users
3) We understand that improvements are currently being worked on, such as the shortcomings of the Users and Assistants functionality and moving towards a no 64-8 system in 2006. Electronic pdf attachments are also intended to be possible from April 2006.

So until those improvements are made to the service there is no benefit to us in dumping ELS in fact we'd be in a worse position

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By carnmores
25th Feb 2005 16:50

Hi John
glad to see we are still unanimous!

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By AnonymousUser
26th Feb 2005 11:19

client's experience
one of my clients has submitted his return online ever since it was possible to do this. this year he first tried in september 04, entered all the data but failed to get an acknowledgement so knew that the submission had failed. at intervals he tried again, up to mid january 05. in all, it took 6 attempts before he successfully lodged his return. his tax office, however, have efficiently issued an "estimated" assessment on february 1st!
how on earth can they expect agents to have confidence in the system?

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By User deleted
24th Feb 2005 12:31

Can they handle - Denial of Service Attack
You might like to ask the Revenue how they will handle a future DOS attack in the final week of submissions?

Their response will be interesting

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By Simon Sweetman
24th Feb 2005 11:47

online filing
It may be that the solution does not lie in redesigning the software etc so that the Revenue can deal with a peak that is increasing year on year as more people file by internet AND they file later (both of these happened this year) but in eliminating the 31 January peak.

Either you do not have the same deadline for everybody or you offer meaningful incentives for early filing.

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By Stewart Twynham
24th Feb 2005 12:33

Re: Server Messages
It's probably worth noting that the official comments that "Remote procedure call failed" and "Page cannot be displayed" messages were browser driven are complete and utter tosh.

As someone who encountered those very messages I can confirm that both were a result of their web server / application server (IBM websphere?) and backend databases failing to talk to one another.

A clear confirmation that officials at the IR have absolutely no idea how their system works (or doesn't). Perhaps they should just go back to randomly deleting tax records... something they are good at!


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By JSJ54
24th Feb 2005 14:43

Compare & Contrast
The day before yesterday the Companies House website wasn't working properly.

This apology appeared very soon after it was repaired:

23/02/05 - On Tuesday 22nd February, we experienced technical difficulties with our web site on two occasions from 11.55am - 12.25pm and 2.30pm - 2.50pm. During these times, customers were unable to access our services whilst the problems were resolved.
We would like to apologise to any customers that may have been affected and for any inconvenience caused

Why are the Revenue incapable of admitting their mistakes?

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By adam.arca
24th Feb 2005 13:23

UK not ready for all this online nonsense
As a sole practitioner with less than 100 tax returns to deal with, I'm still perfectly happy to do it the old-fashioned paper way; and in fact I prefer it that way.

I therefore felt very smug when reading all the problems at the end of Jan.

But I'm seriously unimpressed with being coerced into filing my payroll clients online. The government has no record of successful IT project implementation and it doesn't require a genius to say that this year's payroll filing will probably also be a complete shambles.

The wider issue for me, however, is that I don't feel it is either ethically right or practically possible to force everyone down the e-filing route. Let's face it, the government will soon need to make SA filing online compulsory if it is ever to meet its own targets for take-up. The honorable way to do that (if this government ever stopped to think about that sort of thing), however, would be to first provide a service which clearly worked all the time, which clearly provided workflow or other advantages to all concerned and which would effectively be a no-brainer. They've clearly failed so far and don't seem to be making any attempt to catch up on this "moral" shortfall.

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By John Savage
25th Feb 2005 13:12

Using good software
My software, Taxability Pro from Digita ( has made FBI a breeze. I have been using it to file my clients' tax returns from 2001/02 onwards using FBI, and no problems.

To simply turn away from FBI because of a few hiccups this year is a blinkered and grave mistake. The finger is pointed towards the Revenue for those hiccups, and it is they who must get any wrinkles sorted in their systems. This, I assume, is being done. I shall judge during the coming year.

And I shall continue to use FBI, it is so easy and quick, and I have a complete record through the tracker system in my software which returns are successfully filed and when.

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By carnmores
24th Feb 2005 17:47

Every body's favourite hobby horse
yes the IR comments at the time were very shoddy. as has been stated the peope there simply did not know they had a problem and therefore continued to deny one existed. it is clear from the '14 day amnesty' that they wised up eventually, nevertheless

I do not understand the logic of those who wish to file manually, do they also want to go back to completing their tax returns in long hand.

also the ELS supporters have been up in arms about the fact that their system is better and they should be allowed to keep it: consider a couple of points

1) if the resources used in keeping ELS going had been curtailed a year ago we may never have had FBI problems this year. i accept that IR changing supplier did not help.

2) how many tax returns were sent by ELS and by FBI. i think that probably more were sent by FBI but it would be interesting to know for sure

3) for ELS you need more than just an internet connection?

4) the great thing about FBI and it is a largely unsung one is the rebate effect. people entitled to rebates are getting them almost immediately. this is mentioned in tax tips and tools, ELS and manual do not have anywhere close to this response

as far as i am concerned the IR are right to push ahead with their internet filing policy though i accept that there are some kinks in the system and i look forward to filing PAYE and everything i possibly can electronically.

Companies House electronic filing is also good as i belive, and am yet to use, company tax filing.

where i agree with most correspondents is with a dedicated agents server and wouldnt it be lovely if we could have the same codes for all G2B services we provide.

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By carnmores
25th Feb 2005 12:51

'ELS repayments are issued as rapidly as those from FBI returns.'

i take your word for this, but where do you get that info?

'The 14 day extension is not new and it is not an amnesty. If a return is rejected by the Revenue through ELS it has always had 14 further days to be resubmitted.'

i used the term in quotation marks! i think most people understand what i mean

'If you failed to log onto the web site, or having logged on could not send, the Revenue do not know, and you cannot prove, that you tried to file.'

not so - your software should be able to provide a report which i am sure could be used as evidence if required

'I am afraid that there is a long way to go before the 'FBI' system reaches the level of satisfaction ELS has now achieved.'

well thats a matter of opinion i have used FBI for 2 years and we only had a problem for a couple of days this year. seting up and operating FBI is very simple. a lot of people have used FBI this year and that incudes the public as well as agents.

as far as i am aware ELS is only for agents and the great british public have to use FBI

lets get on with FBI

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By Albasas
24th Feb 2005 19:39

FBI, Post R & D Era?
I think, overall, FBI is a success. Teething problems are to be expected with an old dinosaur like Inland Revenue and its relatively bottomless pit of public resources, especially in cases of disaster recovery, is a distraction in the IT decision making process. The money will always be found somehow to righten any bad decisions. However, any criticism of them should be tainted by the fact that they granted a two week extension to those having gateway problems filing so or close to the deadline. I think criticism of their system designers is blinkered as well. Technology changes so rapidly money could have been lost in implementing expensive systems which rapidly grew obsolete. Instead they went for a tried and trusted method, being; let those agents keen enough to join in with their FBI experiments be the guinea pigs!

My grouse is in amending returns.

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By Simon Sweetman
25th Feb 2005 11:04

els ? fbi ?
Two small points

As far as the numbers are concerned the figures I have seen indicate that the number of returns coming in by ELS is static or falling slightly at (I think) about 400,000. So ELS is a drop in the ocean and all the growth is in FBI.

The other matter is the Revenue's "limitless resources". I think this is far from the truth as budgets have been slashed constantly in the quest to eliminate "waste". The tax credits fiasco is substantially down to the Revenue not deploying enough staff and not training them properly, and that was for financial reasons.

HMRC is, I understand, braced for some substantial staff cuts very soon.

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By User deleted
24th Feb 2005 11:39

IR/HMCE/Government Gateways
And what is going to happen after 06 April leading up to 19 May when businesses will be trying to file their P35's and P14's online?

As for SA...
We continue to use ELS for tax return filing and would suggest that we already have an "alternative gateway" - therefore the plan ought to be to extend the use of ELS up to at least 2009/10.

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By AnonymousUser
25th Feb 2005 09:07

Reading the comments filed so far -
ELS repayments are issued as rapidly as those from FBI returns.
The 14 day extension is not new and it is not an amnesty. If a return is rejected by the Revenue through ELS it has always had 14 further days to be resubmitted. If you failed to log onto the web site, or having logged on could not send, the Revenue do not know, and you cannot prove, that you tried to file. It is only the rejected submissions that are covered.
The technical note issued on 16 February re pension schemes says that all pension scheme returns will have to be files electronically with effect from 6 April 2007. Compulsory fbi is already on the way!
I am afraid that there is a long way to go before the 'FBI' system reaches the level of satisfaction ELS has now achieved.

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By teezer
24th Feb 2005 17:41

Stick with ELS or risk filing on line
Having used ELS from its inception 97/98 I had
decided that 2004 would be my last year and I would switch to FBI for 2005. Now I am not so sure. Until reading of January delays I had not realised that there is no server dedicated for agents.
I have never had any problems with ELS. Yes it takes 24 hours before acknowledgement.
So what! There is an audit report proving the time and date of the original submission if required - I have never had to use it.
My nightmare at 4 o'clock on the afternoon of Monday 31st January was a local power failure caused by a workman cutting through an electric cable outside the office. After the initial paralysing horror ( there were still 3 tax forms to finish and 4 more in the "pipeline" to send) I was able to move files,computer,printer my home 1/2 hour drive away, finish off the work, plug in the old fashioned dial-up modem and off they went. No reconfiguration or waiting required.
The problem was in my control to resolve myself - however awkward.
ELS still seems attractive. Should I stick with it another year?

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