Employers receiving HMRC's latest mailshot were confused to find the accompanying CD did not contain the promised payroll software but children's stories - read aloud in fluent German.
The February edition of HMRC's thrice-yearly "Employer Bulletin" normally contains a CD of software designed to help small firms deal with their tax obligations. There should be an employee database, tax calculators and automatic form generators. "Install Immediately", the taxman's packaging urges. The CD is updated and mailed out twice per year.
Alas, for many there was nothing to install this February. Would-be payroll administrators instead received 16 CD audio files with titles such as Zwei Ordentliche Kinder (Two Tidy Children), Der Flohzirkus (The Flea Circus) and Gespenster (Ghosts). Each features a kindly-sounding woman reading a short children's story, Jackanory-style.
Which is nice, but isn't going to help with tax bureaucracy.
An HMRC spokeswoman said the error had affected only "a few hundred" out of the more than 1.5 million employers issued the CD. She stressed that there had been no loss of data and blamed the problem on a commercial contractor who has produced the CDs for several years.
"Although the buck stops with us at HMRC, it is something we contract out because it is cheaper to produce [the CDs] in a commercial environment," she added.
The spokeswoman declined to name the contractor, citing "commercial confidentiality". The CD packaging, however, revealed the disc was produced by High Wycombe-based Software Logistics Ltd. According to this case study it has produced 1.6 million CDs twice per year for "a central government department" since 2001.
Software Logistics managing director Barry Hurley said a mix up had occured in the manufacturing process which meant CDs of German children's stories were printed with the HMRC label and so wrongly packaged. "We aware of the situation. It's a very rare occurence," he said.
"It's of course regrettable and we are working with HMRC to ensure replacements are sent out as soon as possible."
The HMRC spokeswoman apologised to employers who received the German children's stories and encouraged them to call the helpline number supplied with the CD. It's planned that new software will be sent to callers within a few days.
She said she couldn't say how the error occured or whether HMRC would seek to recoup costs. "It's early days and the investigation is ongoing. It's too early to say," she said, adding that the cost will probably be small. Barry Hurley said he expected Software Logistics' guarantee would cover any extra cost.
HMRC's blunder isn't the first Teutonic takeover of technology in Whitehall. Last year a National Audit Office report revealed a new Department of Transport phone system was issuing password expiration warnings in German. ®
Thanks to the two Reg readers who tipped us off on this one.