Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

SIR NICHOLAS MONTAGU KCB, MR BARRY GLASSBERG AND MR TERRY HAWES

MONDAY 18 MARCH 2002

  120. Can we now please look at the last one of those four "Make time to monitor subsequent developments closely." In particular the last sentence "If an unacceptably high percentage of users have difficulties using the new service, it might be better to withdraw the product". Do you agree with that recommendation?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) If it was an unacceptably high percentage, yes, I would.

  121. What is an "unacceptably high percentage"?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) I think it would depend very much on the nature of the system and the complaint. You cannot say X per cent is acceptable, Y per cent is unacceptable.

  122. What percentage in this case would have made you think you ought to withdraw the system?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) I think it would have to be an exceptionally high percentage of people finding that the system simply was incapable of doing what it set out to do.

  123. What it says here is "If an unacceptably high percentage of users have difficulties using the new service . . .".
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) Yes.

  124. What percentage of people having difficulties using the new service would you have said meant that you ought to withdraw the product?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) If, Mr Rendel, this is a round about way of coming back to the number of faulty submissions or of unsuccessful submissions, that is a good example of what I do not think would have been a good reason to withdraw the whole self assessment service. Indeed the fact that now we have totally reversed this is, I think, indicative that my view is right.

  125. What you are saying is in this case there was no unacceptably high percentage of users having difficulties that would have caused you to withdraw the service?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) What I am saying is that I do not consider—

  126. You have accepted this paragraph but now you seem to be saying in this case it is not relevant.
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) But remember what we are talking about here—and I suspect that I was right in thinking that was what you had in mind—is submissions, Mr Rendel, we are not talking about users. Sir John's report makes very clear that a lot of people tried a lot of times. I do not know, do you use e-mail?

  127. Yes.
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) You must, as I have done many times, have typed an extra letter, missed out a dot or whatever, tried to send it and back it comes "undeliverable", that is an example of an unsuccessful submission. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the system that would I think have justified our withdrawing the facility. What, of course, we tried to do and have succeeded in doing is to improve the rate of successful submissions, so that now four out of five are successful.

  128. This does not actually say "an unacceptably high percentage of users cannot use the new service" it says "If an unacceptably high percentage of users have difficulties using the new service . . .". You seem to be now saying that you would only have withdrawn the service if an unacceptably high percentage could not use the service.
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) I think that is probably right.

  129. That seems to be changing things.
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) What I am saying is that if so many people have difficulties using the service that it is unfit for purpose—because that is what "unacceptably" means to me—then I would consider withdrawing it. That was not the case with self assessment.

  130. My next question is to the C&AG for a moment, if I may. Figure eight on page 15 has a light blue line for initial estimated take up, a slightly darker blue line for revised estimated take up and a very hard blue for actual take up. I was wondering, C&AG, if you could tell us what you meant by "initial estimated take up". I think it answers an earlier question to Mr Davies. Sir Nicholas indicated that those figures were not actually initially estimated take up but possible maximum take up. Was that what you meant by that or did you really mean that was an estimate of how many people would take it up?
  (Mr Gibby) We understood that figure to be a projection of the estimated likely take up in the first year.

  131. Do you have any comments on that, Sir Nicholas? That did not seem to be what you were saying to Mr Davies.
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) I think that is common ground in the sense that the first figure certainly represents our projection of taxpayers who might want to use the system. I think if there is a difference it may be only over that. That was based on specific research with customers, general internet surveys and trends at the time. If there is a difference it is a very fine one. The second column represents the profile that we would need to hit our targets if growth is in a straight line. I have indicated already that what I share with Sir John is a view that the target is unrealistic for self assessment.

  132. I understand there is a significant difference between those who might want to take it up and those who it is estimated will take it up. It may be that you have a different understanding of what this chart shows. It seems from what you are now saying that there was a different understanding of what was meant?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) I note Sir John uses the words "projection" which is also the word that I use. Neither of us has pretended for one moment that this was a prediction. It could not be a scientific prediction and it was never intended to be.

  133. Can I ask this. When somebody obtained a CD-Rom and then found they could not use it, if then they submitted late as a result because they went back to using the form, would they still have been fined?
  (Mr Hawes) If somebody obtained the CD-Rom say in August or September, chose not to use it, went back to paper and filed late, my understanding would be that would not be grounds for not imposing a fine.

  134. Was anybody let off their fine because they said "I had the CD-Rom. I got it two or three weeks in advance. I understood that would be plenty of time to file. I tried it out. Actually I could not get it to work and then I had to get the forms and was not able to submit on time after all". Was anybody let off their penalty because of that?
  (Mr Hawes) I do not have that information. I can assure that we did look at a number of individual cases around the deadline date as we always would.
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) I can give you an example which might help, Mr Rendel. We do not, as Terry says, have that answer, but there was a famous problem with software produced not by us but by another organisation. The difficulty with it was not of our making but people who used it thought that they had filed when they had not done so. Where people were able to show that they were late as a result of that we did not take penalties.

  135. Do you have the information, not now but—
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) No, we do not have that information I am afraid.

  136. So you do not know if there was anybody who did not file who you did not fine or impose a penalty on because they said they were late because they had to get a form?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) No, we do not have. I have to say that given the volume of my post bag and indeed the volume coming in to the electronic business unit, had it been a significant issue we would have known, I think.

  137. The incentive is currently £10 I think you said?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) No, there is no incentive now. It was a pump priming one.

  138. Right. There was an incentive in the first year and now there is no incentive at all for doing it?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) No.

  139. I will go on to another question about that incentive in the first year. Did you get the £10 if you had overpaid and were due a repayment?
  (Sir Nicholas Montagu) Yes.


 
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