All the focus in this weekend's papers has, of course, been on Gordon Brown's chances of survival and the numerous accounts of unnamed Labour sources variously whinging, collecting names or generally scheming as to the best way to knife the beleaguered PM in the back. He is just "getting on with the job".
In the meantime, further evidence has emerged of the government's scary level of incompetence in its handling of our data. Stories leak out about hundreds of MoD laptops or millions of bank account details going walkabout with such depressing regularity that Government ministers seem to have become blase about it and we have become inured to it.
Whenever Gordon Brown is asked a question, he has a famous tendency to reel off a list of supposed Labour achievements in office. Guaranteed to be amongst them is his pet project of working tax credits. The Sunday Times today reports (here) that there continue to be severe problems in the administering of the tax credit system, with 2 million people per year wrongly being given overpayments, which now add up to a staggering £8 billion.
HMRC takes the line that any beneficiary of an overpayment has either deliberately understated their family income to boost their tax credit, inadvertently entered the wrong numbers into the myriad forms or, at the very least, should take responsibility for spotting a mistake even if it is HMRC that has made the error. HMRC zealots threaten court action, without any avenue for complaint, from their hard-pressed victims who might not be in a position to repay money they received in good faith. They are currently pursuing 1.5 million families.
The HMRC is institutionally incapable of handling such a labyrinthine project as the working tax credit system. Evidence obtained under the Data Protection Act by claimants reveals that data entry errors are usually the cause of problems, rather than the actions of the claimants themselves. An HMRC whistleblower gave the following wonderful explanation of what has gone on:
"We put duplicate files into the system because the software could not calculate the payments on original files that were inputted incorrectly. We were never able to erase those files and they have always been there in the background causing a lot of the errors." Got that? The fact that the Parliamentary Ombudsman, a pursued claimant's only source of redress, upheld 74% of the cases she investigated on behalf of claimants, tells us all we need to know.
Personally, I could never quite get my head around a system that takes income tax from working people with one hand and then gives it back to them in the form of working tax credits with the other hand. Why not just simplify the system and net the two things off? I know that would entail an awful lot of work and upheaval for HMRC but, let's face it, if ever there was a public body that was crying out for reform, the HMRC must be near the top of the list.