In the press this week, was a report that the DVLA thinks that they have lost £200m in road tax revenues since introducing the new disc-free tax system. It caught my eye because, about a year ago, the Chancellor announced how they will now do away with paper tax returns and replace them with an online tax account. Many of us wondered at the time how the IT would work.
In the 1970’s (I know I don’t look old enough) I recall how we all thought computers would do away with almost all mundane work, and we would live lives of leisure, and only do the work that humans must do. It was a Promised Land, delivered by second class post via Royal Mail (like most government mail), it seems. Is Government trapped in a 1970’s time bubble, desperately doomed to failure, yet hoping to save costs by computerising our lives? Or does government have a long term strategy?
The geek in me has always been quite strong. I am an early adopter of technology. I love gadgets and I am really quite childish. Yet I have never thought that computers will do away with human work. Even the incredible artificial intelligence systems being developed in the current era only really do repetitive tasks incredibly quickly. Because computers use circuits to emulate logical processes, and because, as Edward de Bono always told us, comparing logical thought to lateral thinking, logic does not create, it only explains, humans always have to be there somewhere along the line.
Computers do several things better than humans. They store data so it can be quickly retrieved. They process it very fast, and very accurately, as long as the process is correct, and it is sequential and not lateral. They present it, summarise it and share it so well that data on the Internet is rarely fully secure. But in order to get data into computers, they have to connect with the source of that data, and in the end, that is humans.
Most of us have not found that computers reduce our work load at all. They merely change it and dumb it down. Sometimes they change who does it. Where once, I would dictate a letter and it would be typed by my secretary, now I tend to type the email myself, meaning that I have acquired the skill of typing, and spend time doing for the computer, what my secretary used to do for me. But she is not out of work, because there is a myriad of other computer related tasks for her to do, which once were done by administrators, who now have become IT engineers and consultants. Likewise, until very recently, you wrote out numbers and put them on your tax return (or we did it for you) and sent the return to HMRC, who entered the data onto their computers and told you how much tax you owed. No more, my friend! Now you do HMRC’s work for them. The result is that you have to pay someone to handle your tax return, or you do it yourself, in your own time.
Either way, government has taxed you – taking either your time or money to interact with their computers instead of it being they who do the work. And, that is how they have saved money. Not by reducing the work involved at all, but by making the taxpayer do their work.
And getting back to the tax accounts, we see what is happening. In 2012, 10.5 million people submitted tax returns, and this increased to 11.1 million in 2015 (Daily Mail, 12 June 2016), even though tax free levels have increased, doubtless because of the child benefit fiasco. Government wants 20 million people to be using the online tax accounts by 2020 and 50 million (pretty much everyone) by 2025. This is made possible by IT.
What will actually come to pass is that government will reap the benefit of high quality information about all of us, even those who at present do not interact with government at all, and, they will do so at the expense of the taxpayers, who will dutifully gather, collate and summarise all this information for government, and then enter it onto the government’s computers. All in their own time or at their own expense. All so that the government can tax them. Assuming, of course, that the government IT works.
Tax doesn’t have to be taxing on government resources.