Good news: HMRC offers a Linux version of Basic PAYE Tools. Bad news: It broke

Python 2 has been dead for four years

Updated Did you know that His Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) offers free Linux tools? Sadly, though, they recently stopped working.

Reg reader Pete Donnell alerted us to the fact that the UK tax authority offers a Linux version of its Basic PAYE Tools, which the download page describes as "free payroll software from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for businesses with fewer than 10 employees."

Sounds good. We were impressed to see that, alongside its Windows and Mac versions, there's also a version of the software that supports "Ubuntu Linux version 20.04 LTS and 23.10." There's a detailed User Guide too, and more than one service status page, ranging from rather dated to extremely dated.

Of course, we wouldn't be writing about this if there weren't a snag. This story has been brewing for some time, but Pete told us that on February 5:

Basic PAYE Tools updated itself (per HMRC's recommendations), and promptly broke. I spent hours trying to fix it without success. The bug is definitely in the software itself rather than my setup: I installed a clean copy of Ubuntu 20.04 in VirtualBox, installed the latest version of the tools, and it still wouldn't work.

Despite the service status pages not showing any problems, it's been broken ever since. He tells us that he's had the software set to automatically update for about 15 years, and it's never failed before. He's tried it on both Ubuntu 20.04 and a clean install of Xubuntu 23.10, among other things. Mac users are also reporting problems.

Worryingly, Donnell notes that the software is seemingly written in Python 2. That version has been unsupported and dead for just over four years.

We contacted HMRC and put them in touch with Donnell. He subsequently spoke with them, and provided them with some troubleshooting information. A month later, he let us know that nothing had changed yet.

It seemed like a welcome surprise to find that a government department not merely acknowledges the existence of Linux, but supports it and offers Linux-specific downloads … but every silver lining has a cloud.

If anyone else is using the PAYE tools and has similar problems or, indeed, if you have the software working or can help Donnell troubleshoot what looks to be a Python 2 and Django app, do let us know. It's a free download and he tells us that it fails before any form of employer's account is needed. ®

Update to add

Mr Donnell has got back in touch to let us know that the combined powers of The Reg readership helped him to isolate the issue and resolve it. He tells us:

Turns out it's a locale issue. My test VM was in English, but it defaulted to the locale from the host machine ... If I override the locale to an English one when running the `rti.linux` executable then it seems to work.

Thanks to "pigeon" and Natalie Gritpants Jr for setting me on the right track.

I can't fault HMRC too much for not testing this particular case as it's a bit of a niche area for a specifically British piece of software.

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