MPs are demanding more information from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) about problems with the Childcare Service website after users reported difficulties applying for tax-free childcare.
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Nicky Morgan, new chair of the Treasury Committee, has written to HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson as she considers a potential hearing on the issues.
The website was launched in April for parents to apply for two new government benefits – tax-free childcare and 30 hours’ free childcare.
Parents subsequently reported repeated technical problems on the site, including failed logins and misplaced applications. The service was launched as “digital by default”, so parents are unable to make applications by post or phone, although there is a telephone helpdesk for queries. People who called the helpline also reported that operators were unable to provide help.
At the time, HMRC acknowledged there were “intermittent issues” with the website.
“It is concerning that some parents have struggled to apply for childcare funding due to technical issues with the government’s Childcare Service website,” said Morgan. “To make matters worse, it appears that the Childcare Service helpline, for parents suffering problems with the website, is also experiencing technical difficulties.
“I have written to Jon Thompson at HMRC, which runs the website, to ask for further information, such as the duration of outages, the number of complaints, and the number of people who have been unable to access their Childcare Service account.”
Two years ago, the service failed its initial assessment by the Government Digital Service (GDS). All new digital services go through a standard assessment – run by GDS at the time, although relaxation of the GDS controls process means departments can now conduct their own assessments.
The August 2015 assessment was intended to establish early progress on developing the tax-free childcare system. GDS assessors highlighted several areas for improvement, and said the HMRC team “did not present an end-to-end service” and lacked certain key skills required for development.
“Lack of a content editor, a user/customer experience lead and a front-end developer are issues that need to be resolved urgently,” the assessment report said.
The report also identified issues around preparation for what happens if there are problems with the website.
“The team should be able to demonstrate how the telephone channel works and how this relates to the overall service operation, for example when the digital service is down,” it said.
The assessors also raised concerns over the “highly complex” technology architecture. “The team need to be able to explain and understand the relationship between the back-end technology and the front-end and how open standards will be used,” they said.
However, a subsequent report in October 2016, as the service passed from the initial “alpha” stage to testing with users in a “private beta”, was successful. No further assessments – typically required to move from testing into live use – appear to have been published yet on Gov.uk.