Accountants and software developers have raised concerns about the testing of the UK’s new digital tax system due for rollout to millions of self-employed in 2024, after HM Revenue & Customs revealed it had just nine people taking part in the pilot.
The UK tax authority confirmed the figure to the Financial Times after a Freedom of Information request by the accountants Saffery Champness showed a sharp decline in the uptake of volunteers to test the new software since the trial began three years ago.
The numbers signing up fell from a peak of 900 people in 2018-19, the first year of the pilot, to just the nine who are currently participating, according to HMRC.
The low participation rate has led to concerns about the extent of the testing of a system that 4.3m self-employed and landlords will have to use when they are moved over in April 2024 to the new tax assessment regime, known as Making Tax Digital for Income Tax.
Stuart Miller, product compliance and industry engagement manager at Xero, a software provider, said the trial size was far too small. “Until there are a significant number of taxpayers included in the pilot, it’s difficult to determine how fully robust the system will be.”
Zena Hanks, a partner at Saffery Champness, described the numbers as “stark”. She warned there may be problems when the system goes live if the number of people who have tested it was too small to be representative.
“I worry what we will have in the end will be an amazing system for nine people,” she added.
Under the new system, about a third of taxpayers who are self-assessed and have income from a business and/or property exceeding £10,000 per year will have to keep digital records of their earnings and expenses. These will have to be filed to HMRC every quarter, using third-party software, rather than submit an annual tax return.
Software providers and tax professionals said several factors were making it difficult to attract volunteers to join the pilot, including HMRC’s decision to limit it to volunteers who only have property or trading income. Anyone who has received state Covid support was also excluded, which tax experts said ruled out large numbers of self-employed.
Anish Mehta, managing partner at Apari, one of HMRC’s approved software providers for the new system, said more people were ready to join the trial but HMRC’s eligibility criteria were “still really narrow”. He added: “The service is untested until you let more people in.”
HMRC said it had always planned to keep the initial numbers in the pilot low so it could “provide additional support to the first customers in the service before testing at scale”. It added that it planned to open up the trial to more people from April two years ahead of launch.
Emma Rawson, technical officer at the Association of Taxation Technicians, a professional body, said there was also a lack of awareness about the new system. Many self-employed people she had spoken to had not heard about the change and were “quite horrified to learn they’d have to buy software in a couple of years [to do their taxes]”.
Users of the new system will have to choose from a government approved list of software providers. Some offer a free service but tax specialists have warned these will only be suitable for those with the most basic tax affairs and expect many people will have to pay.
This article has been amended since publication to clarify that anyone who is self-assessed and has combined income from a business or property of more than £10,000 a year will have to keep digital records.