So says the Inland Revenue in its publicity material. And, of course, we believe it, don’t we?
Well, a naive fool might, but only until he actually tries to file his return…
When I was working and my tax situation was fairly complex, the Inland Revenue didn’t bother to send me a form to fill in. Apparently, they knew everything about my income and contented themselves with sending me a coding notice every year.
When I stopped working and my tax situation became very simple, the Inland Revenue decided to start sending a form to fill in every year. Why they needed to do this is a mystery to me because on one occasion I got a figure wrong and they told I had got it wrong: apparently they knew my finances better than I knew them myself.
Because they had started sending me the annual tax form only recently, when I didn’t receive one in April 2010, I just assumed the IR had come to its senses and realized that it wasn’t necessary for my to fill in a form. That was naive of me.
In January, I received the form. The envelope was dirty and covered with boot prints. I don’t know where it had been but it had obviously been delivered to the wrong house (our post people do that far too often) and it had lain in a hallway being walked on until someone had decided to pass it on.
By now, the date for the submission of paper forms was long past. I phoned the IR’s helpline and, unmoved by my tales of undelivered mail, they told me to fill in the self-assessment form online. The deadline for online submission was January 31st. “Plenty of time,” they told me cheerfully.
To do this, however, I needed to register online and apply for a password which would be sent to me by post. It was now already the middle of the month and the blurb said it would take a week to 10 days for the password to reach me. And what if that letter also got lost? I would be stymied.
In the meantime, as a backup, I filled in the paper form, made a copy for my records and sent it to the IR with a covering letter. I even enclosed the envelope the form had come in, complete with boot prints, to substantiate my story. That letter never received a reply or even an acknowledgement.
The letter with the password arrived safely and I went online to fill in my self assessment. Now, I am reasonable computer and Web literate and, I think, not stupid. Even so I found the online form to be less than a model of clarity. (It was even more difficult to handle when, as I shall explain, I had to go back and modify it.) But I struggled through it, muttering the mantra “Tax needn’t be taxing”, and eventually reached the end, satisfied that I had done my duty. This was confirmed, it seemed to me, by a letter arriving with this year’s tax code.
Then the bill arrived. It told me that I was overdue with my payment of £3905.75. What!? I rang the number prominently displayed on the bill. This turned out to be a waste of time because the people who send out bills and put their telephone number prominently at the top of them are not the Inland Revenue and therefore cannot help with tax problems. How stupid is that?
I found the number for the IR helpline and after waiting in the inevitable queue where, every few seconds, a recorded voice tries to persuade you to do whatever it is you want to do online instead – something not guaranteed to improve your mood – I finally managed to talk to a human being.
The man I spoke to very quickly spotted what was wrong. I had included certain income, putting the gross amount, as required, but I had neglected to fill in the box for the amount of tax paid on that income. So it looked as though I hadn’t paid that tax. The annoying thing was that he told me the exact number that I had to enter in the box. Why on earth, if they know that I have paid the tax do they ignore this fact and give me a hard time? that’s just one of the things I find despicable about the IR.
According to my informant, I could go online and alter the form. “Will everything then be all right?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.
“Yes,” he said, “as long as you send us a payment of £49.75.”
What!? How the hell do I owe you £49.75? And if I do, why don’t you do what you have always done before and adjust my tax code to take it during the year? Because the date for asking to have underpayment included in the tax code has passed…
Swallowing my indignation, I asked him to send me a bill for the correct amount. He agreed to do this. However, I have never received this bill and as time was passing and I was afraid they would penalize me, I went online and paid the money.
I thought that had sorted things out. Need I say that that was naive of me?
Just to be sure that everything was in order, I rang the helpful helpline again. Was everything now in order? Oh yes, they said, just as long as you send us a payment of £47.41.
What!? How the hell do I owe you £47.41? My informant explained it to me – several times – but I didn’t understand. I did understand that it was somehow my fault because I had not filled in the form properly. “If you know I didn’t fill in the form properly, why didn’t you… oh, never mind…”
I decided to look through last year’s tax papers. There I found a letter telling me that there had been an underpayment of £47.41 which they would recover through the tax code. So why are they asking me for it again? Another call to the helpline…
This time, the helpline person managed to explain it to me. It took three goes but eventually I got it. You will not be surprised to learn that it was, once again, my fault, according to them. Apparently, there is a box on the online form where you are supposed to enter any underpayment of tax recovered during the year through the tax code. I had not filled it in, so they thought they had charged me too much tax and had adjusted this year’s tax code to pay it back. So now I was getting too much money and had to repay it.
I went online again and paid this money. Tomorrow or another day, I will call the helpline and ask if everything, finally, has been sorted out.
Reading between the lines, it seems to me that the reason why the IR are pushing online assessment so vigorously is because this is an automated system. Fill it in, and your tax is calculated automatically. Your assessment is untouched by human hand. It is only if something goes obviously wrong and you call the helpline that a human being looks at your file and perhaps diagnoses the problem.
I don’t know what you think, but I find this worrying. What if I am hopeless with money and figures and make a hash of the assessment form. Won’t I end up paying too little or too much tax? What if I don’t realize this and go on making the same mistakes year after year?
I am sure some apologist from the IR will say that this can’t happen and that they check. I won’t believe that. I will believe that if they bother to look, they will find mistakes (though it did take the helpline two goes to find all the mistakes in my assessment) but I don’t believe that they bother to look in the majority of cases. Automation and and the temptation to reduce staff because of it induces laziness and incompetence.
In future, I will keep an eye on the post and make sure I receive a paper assessment form and I will fill it in. I will avoid the online assessment like the plague. Of course, for all I know, some clerk may simply copy the details from my paper form onto an online assessment form but I live in hope that it might actually be dealt with by a human being.
I’m naive like that.
Update March 15th 2011
I had intended to check with the tax helpline that all was in order but kept letting matters slide. I was prompted at the end of last week, however, by the arrival of yet another demand for money. It came in the form of a letter dated March 1st which was, I realized, before I had made my recent payments. But that in itself deserves criticism: why does it take them 11 days to send a letter once it has been written?
I therefore rang the helpline once again this morning. I might also remark that the number has an 0845 prefix and that one has first to go through the usual wretched menu, at every stage being annoyingly reminded that you could go to the Web site for information that is irrelevant to the case, to be put in a queue where your call “will be answered as soon as possible”, a phrase that signals a long wait. In other words, phoning for help costs a not insignificant amount of money as well as time.
The person who eventually answered was polite, friendly and helpful, as usual, and confirmed that my tax situation was now settled. I asked whether there was any information that I should carry over to my next assessment form. The answer was “No, but you should always check with us to see that everything is in order.”
An offer I can’t refuse, would you say?