Personal Finance: Time for a tax-form amnesty

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Time for a small confession. A few months ago, taking my courage in both hands, I actually completed my 1996/97 Inland Revenue tax return. Despite my allegedly knowledgeable status in such matters, I hate filling in these forms, and it was with a great sense of relief (and some pride) that I mailed mine off to Edinburgh.

Imagine my surprise a few weeks later when a letter arrived from the Revenue telling me that I was owed more than pounds 570. Uncertain if this was so, I called Edinburgh. Twenty minutes later, the truth: I had messed things up and actually owed the taxman pounds 2,200.

Cue belly-laughs and a great wave of Schadenfreude from readers of this section. At least, unlike more than 3 million people, I actually returned my form. Earlier this week, the Inland Revenue admitted that, with barely three weeks to go before the final deadline for their return, out of 9 million forms sent out in April last year, some 37 per cent had not been sent back.

The Revenue claims the majority of unreturned forms are from accountants and tax agents, who always leave things to the last minute.

Perhaps this is true: we shall see. But it strikes me that despite the Revenue's protestations, there is the very real prospect that hundreds of thousands of people will miss the 31 January deadline to complete last- year's tax returns. Fining late returns pounds 100 each, as it has given itself the power to do, could net the Inland Revenue tens, possibly hundreds of millions of pounds.

A couple of years ago, I attended a Revenue press conference where self-congratulatory officials described the forms they would be asking us to fill out as "the easiest to understand in the world".

That, too, may be true (which leaves me wondering just how awful everyone else's forms are). What is clear is that ours are nowhere near as simple to understand as Hector the Inspector and his mates first reckoned - as the mass of mistakes (apart from mine, that is) detected in the forms that were sent back prove.

Under such circumstances, for the Revenue to fine anyone this year would be a disgrace. Treasury ministers (perhaps even Geoffrey Robinson himself, the Paymaster-General and Government tax expert) must declare a temporary amnesty towards late returns. One month would help most people, two months would solve nearly everyone's problems.

Secondly, the Revenue should also go back to the drawing board in respect of the form itself. Not for my sake (although I clearly need all the help I can get), but to assist the hundreds of thousands of others whose only crime is to have a perfectly understandable phobia.

Welcome back to our 12-page Your Money section, halted temporarily during the festivities. This edition, the first of the year, has a "what to do in 1998" slant. We hope to cover similar areas in the course of the next few weeks, ahead of (yawn) the end of the 1997/98 tax year in April. If there are any points you wish to see covered, please write in to me: Nic Cicutti, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL.

One issue you may be interested in is how to make your investments work for you. If so, this is the subject of a new guide, written by Steve Lodge, my colleague on the Independent on Sunday, our sister paper. The guide is available free to readers of The Independent. Call 0800 137 97 49 for your copy.