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HMRC’s RTI systems experience first service outage

September 18, 2013


HMRC’s RTI systems were unavailable earlier this week, in the first significant service outage since RTI was introduced in April. Users were able to log in securely to the Government Gateway but experienced delays when attempting to communicate with HMRC’s RTI systems during their live Gateway submission sessions. The service interruption, which occurred on Monday 16 September due to problems with HMRC’s own internal systems, prevented some users from being able to see whether or not their submissions had been successfully received by HMRC.

The interruption was reported first by payroll providers who flagged the issue some time ahead of HMRC itself which normally reports systems issues on the relevant pages of the HMRC website. Tom McClelland of payroll software company 12Pay flagged the issue in a post on AccountingWEB.  FPS reports were failing to get past the “pending” stage of the submission process and the user did not get an email to confirm whether or not the submission had been successful.

There was a delay of around two hours’ system downtime before HMRC acknowledged that there was an RTI systems issue on their Service Availability Pages.  AccountingWEB user “neiltonks” reported that HMRC had informed developers of software packages supporting submissions that they (HMRC) were aware that there was a service issue and they were working to fix it. Self Assessment services were also down according to another AccountingWEB user.

Tom McClelland commented that such problems had been occurring with increasing frequency over the last six weeks, ‘as if HMRC’s servers struggle to cope as the data volume they’re dealing with increases.’ As the UK’s largest employers, those with more than 5,000 employees, were allowed to choose their own RTI start date before October 3013 it may be the case that HMRC’s RTI systems are only now experiencing a true test of their capacity, as the deadline for all businesses to be reporting PAYE in real time approaches.

The systems outage follows concerns raised by the NAO report on HMRC’s 2012-13 annual accounts in July about the ability of HMRC’s RTI systems’ capacity to cope with the high volumes of employer data RTI reporting entails. The NAO expressed concerns about the ‘operational capacity of [HMRC’s] systems and resources to manage take-on volumes over the April to October period’, and also highlighted the lack of robust contingency arrangements should RTI suffer a major service outage.

The issue of users not receiving timely confirmation that their RTI submissions have been successfully received by HMRC is also potentially significant because of the importance to employers and agents of being able to demonstrate compliance with the obligation to report RTI to HMRC ‘on or before’ the date employees are paid.

The ‘on or before’ rule is central to HMRC’s insistence that PAYE is reported ‘in real time’ and is also its most controversial: business groups and member bodies have repeatedly called for this rule to be relaxed. Employers and agents need to know that when they report PAYE to HMRC they can rely on the submission to be acknowledged and receipted in real time, at the time they report it. Automatic filing penalties, which come into force in April 2014, means the inability to acknowledge submissions in real time may prove contentious, as HMRC could potentially attempt to collect penalties caused by problems with their own systems.

The interruption to RTI services only lasted a few hours, so no significant volume of employer returns was reported as having built up during the outage. However, the cumulative effect of HMRC’s RTI systems not being available for prolonged periods could result in employer submission backlogs, making submitting data on time still more challenging.

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