Off-the-shelf help with tax returns

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Self-assessment does not begin until the 1996-97 financial year, but the process of preparing for it has already started. And if the majority of taxpayers have yet to realise the extent to which their lives will be affected, the significance of the changes has not been lost on tax advisers.

Various services offering cheap, off-the-shelf advice have already appeared, and there are likely to be many more in the coming months.

But the Tax Pack launched this week by the specially established company 1995 Tax Return Ltd is supposed to be different.

Gordon Gilchrist, the company's director, calls it a tax product, as opposed to talking to an accountant, which amounts to a tax service.

As a result, there is just one price - £59.99 - rather than a sliding scale. This is because most people do not have tax-planning opportunities, he says, they just want help with filling in the forms they receive from the Inland Revenue.

"We're not looking for the Tiny Rowlands of this world, so we reserve the right to refuse orders," Mr Gilchrist said.

Such complex applications would be spotted through a simple form which has shaded boxes. If these boxes - which cover such potentially complex areas as share dealing and the making of gifts - are ticked, it alerts the company to make inquiries.

Applicants identified in this way will be referred to members of a network of tax advisers that the company is building up.

Mr Gilchrist says the product is similar to those that have been used in the US, where a greater proportion of taxpayers have had to fill in their own tax returns for some time.

It is not, however, an adaptation of them, since the details of US tax law are significantly different from those in Britain. He estimates that special software will enable the company to process each form in just 20 minutes.

Admitting that it is "an unknown quantity", Mr Gilchrist says he has no idea of the level of interest it will attract. But he is confident enough to be planning future developments. In coming years, those interested will no longer have to send off for the form. They will already have it, in the guise of an advertisement in their newspaper, and will merely return it with their cheque.

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