The horrible habits of Hector's Revenue henchmen

Millions of taxpayers face the final call for self-assessment forms to be sent in by 30 September. But, as a report on the Inland Revenue found, even if they do send in their returns, they are not guaranteed friendly treatment.
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The Independent Culture
Hector the Inspector is having a hard time. By the end of next week his colleagues at the Inland Revenue will know whether his increasingly desperate exhortations to eight million taxpayers to return their tax forms on time have succeeded - or failed.

So far, at least three million people are rudely ignoring Hector's pleas, threatening a nightmare of delays. As of last weekend, more than 4.5 million self-assessment forms had still to be sent in.

Officials at the Revenue hope for a last-minute surge of returns. But some experts say delays in mailing back the forms could leave the Treasury pounds 6bn short, disrupting the spending plans of Hector's ultimate boss, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

To cap it all, Hector faced scathing remarks last week which could ruin his efforts to dispel public fears about the Revenue. Elizabeth Filkin, the independent Adjudicator, lumped Revenue officials in with those from Customs & Excise and the DSS Contributions Agency, as sometimes showing "unhelpful, unsympathetic and unprofessional conduct". Complaints had risen by 22 per cent in the past year and most were upheld.

Ms Filkin, the only independent channel of complaints about these agencies, did say, however, that the Revenue had "improved tremendously" its approach to customers with a grievance since she published a damning report last year.

But she warned that taxpayers still faced Kafkaesque nightmares. Prolonged and unnecessary investigations, wrongly-obtained county court judgments, visits from bailiffs who should never have been instructed - and huge bills resulting from poor advice from officials were all apparent in cases she considered.

One taxpayer protested at notes of an interview by an official. The official wrote back: "You complain of bitchiness in reporting of notes of interview. Given your stated intention to complain ... I felt it necessary to convey a flavour of just how obnoxious your behaviour was throughout the interview."

When he complained, the official's manager told him: "I have the balls to meet you but I am not going to have them trampled on by half the population of [your county]."

Michael Slocock, a partner in a small sales and distribution business near Tolpuddle, Dorset, found himself the target of an Inland Revenue investigation shortly after he had successfully complained about earlier inspections by both the Revenue and the Contributions Agency. When he asked why he was being targeted again, an inspector told him the amount of money he took from his business for living expenses was unreasonable: not too high but too low for him to live off. Mr Slocock had already told the Revenue he drew other income from capital gains and investments. He suspected the real reason was flawed information from the team which carried out the previous inspection.

When he resisted having his affairs turned over again, the Revenue obtained a Notice under the Taxes Management Act to force him to disclose business records. The Adjudicator found the Revenue had indeed concealed the real reason for the investigation; it had never obtained evidence about what he took for living expenses. This, she said, was a "spurious and cosmetic" excuse. The Revenue had broken its code of practice on both investigations and mistakes. Compensation of pounds 1,000 was paid.

Mr Slocock says of his ordeal: "The office here was wholly unreasonable to me in all our dealings. We repeatedly asked for their investigation to be reviewed and it went up to some quite senior people. It was obvious that they were not following either the published code of conduct or their own rules. I have no evidence that these people were even disciplined."

Under self-assessment, the tax office no longer has to give reasons for an investigation. Hector, however, has gained plaudits for admitting his 50,000 colleagues are sometimes wrong.

However Elizabeth Filkin reserved her greatest wrath for the Contributions Agency, which collects national insurance payments. "I am alarmed at the standard of work I have seen this year. They were the poorest organisation I dealt with and I saw problems at all levels of the organisation. I'm concerned that some people tell me it is not worth complaining to the Contributions Agency because they think it's a waste of time."

People with complaints about the Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise or the Contributions Agency should contact Elizabeth Filkin if the agency fails to resolve their complaint through its own channels. Telephone: 0171 930 2298.

We regret that due to lack of space, the regular column on leaseholder issues by Karen Woolfson has had to be held over. It will appear next week.