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Warning of 'digital divide' for taxpayers

Government plans for services to be online by default

Experts have warned of a 'digital divide' for taxpayers, after ministers argued for public services to be increasingly provided online by default.

The Cabinet Office this week backed a new report by the Government’s ‘digital champion’, co-founder Martha Lane Fox, which calls for radical strengthening and simplification of the administration’s internet services, such as those for submitting tax returns, so that they are more open, agile and better used by being available from a single domain.

In her document – publically supported by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – Ms Lane Fox claims that shifting 30% of government ‘service delivery contracts’ to digital channels will not only deliver greater access for citizens but also has the potential to create gross annual savings of more than £1.3 billion, or £2.2 billion if 50% of contracts are transferred.

The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) responded to the proposals by insisting there should be always be alternatives to getting information and tax filing returns online.

The charity’s technical director, Robin Williamson, said: ‘Martha Lane Fox has pointed out that more than ten million people in the UK have never used the internet. This includes many older people, individuals with disabilities, and those living in remote areas where there is no broadband connection.

'Their interests are being seriously prejudiced by the growing tendency by HMRC to publish important guidance exclusively online.

Mr Williamson added: ‘There is a growing digital divide between taxpayers who can find out online about their obligations and rights, and those who cannot and who are not provided with a reasonable alternative.

'While we support all moves to help and encourage people to take full advantage of the internet, we believe that effectively compelling everyone to use the medium, whether they are capable of doing so or not, is counterproductive and probably unlawful.’

The Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) welcomed the Government’s intentions to improve the delivery of its online services, and the professional body criticised current practice for making it difficult for taxpayers to find vital information online.

Tax policy director John Whiting said, ‘Providing taxpayers and agents with adequate, accessible information and reliable services will aid people and HMRC alike, helping both to work more efficiently, and increasing compliance.

‘However, this is contrary to what is happening at the moment, where tax information that used to be available in one place is fragmented across three websites – HMRC, Business Link, and DirectGov – making it hard for taxpayers and agents to find the information they need.’

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