Taking on the taxman, energy price hikes and dodgy doorstep sellers

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The Independent Online

As has become a regularity in recent weeks, an energy company announced a massive price hike. On Thursday it was Scottish & Southern Energy's (SSE) turn, revealing rises of 18 per cent to gas prices and 11 per cent to electricity. The move is in line with recent increases announced by Scottish Power and British Gas.

There are two small crumbs of comfort for SSE customers. The first is that the increases won't hit until 14 September: Scottish Power's hike takes effect from 1 August, while British Gas raises prices on 18 August. The second slight bit of good news for SSE customers is that the energy supplier has promised it will not increase prices again until1 August 2012 at the earliest.

But it's only a matter of time before the other big three firms – EDF Energy, E.on and nPower – announce their own increases.

With energy prices soaring, more people will be pushed into fuel poverty – which is when their power bills account for more than a 10th of their income.

But the energy hikes will also help to push up the rate of inflation, which is bad news for savers already struggling to to get anything close to real returns on their nest eggs. The current fear is that inflation could soon top 5.5 per cent, last seen back in 1992.

But the energy companies are not just making life tougher financially for everybody, they're still sending round their armies of dodgy salespeople to haunt our homes with their pressure selling.

This week's price-hiker, SSE, is the only one of the big six to suspend doorstep sales (after it was prosecuted for using a misleading sales script), but the others must follow. Consumer Focus is today calling on the energy industry to end cold-call doorstep sales. This time the industry has to listen.

Have you ever been fined by the tax authorities for paying late or failing to file your returns on time? You may have been wrongly penalised, according to tax specialists at the law firm McGrigors.

The firm says HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has lost more than half a dozen cases in the last few months in which it has been criticised by the courts for wrongly fining taxpayers.

"The spate of recent cases suggests that HMRC has been imposing penalties far too harshly on taxpayers who have genuinely tried to comply with the law," says Jason Collins, a partner at McGrigors.

He claims the recent rulings may represent the tip of the iceberg as the majority of taxpayers do not appeal against fines because they assume that HMRC issues fines in accordance with the law.

But the courts are taking a far more lenient view of the law, which says taxpayers should not be fined if they have a "reasonable excuse" for late payment of tax or an overdue tax return. The courts are sending a signal that HMRC's official interpretation is too narrow.

"HMRC has – quite literally – become a law unto itself where fines are concerned," says Collins. "The courts have made it clear that HMRC's guidance on fines is at odds with the law, and that its definition of 'reasonable excuse' should not be taken at face value."

Thousands of taxpayers could have been wrongly fined, and more are likely to be after the next tax payment deadline passes on 31 July. Most may assume that they have no chance of challenging the taxman's fine at a tribunal.

With evidence now seemingly suggesting the opposite, anyone who thinks that they may have been unfairly fined should challenge the HMRC's decisions.

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