Simon Read: Abuse of power - 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 turn, revealing increases 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. 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 in 1992.

But the energy companies are not just making life tougher financially for all, 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 (and only 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 must listen.

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

The firm says HM Revenue & Customs 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 says 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 that 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. But most may assume they have no chance of challenging the fine at a tribunal.

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

Tax credit deadline approaches

Tax credits could be cut down or stopped altogether if you don't act before an HM Revenue & Customs deadline in eight days' time.

Your annual tax credit declaration must be submitted by the end of July. In it you must inform the Revenue of any changes to your income or situation in the last 12 months. You will need to return an annual tax credit declaration if you have been sent form TC603D (or TC603D2) with your annual review notice.

"Anyone failing to return the annual declaration by 31 July risks payments being stopped, and could be liable to pay back any overpayment from both the previous tax year and the start of the new tax year," warns Andrew Hubbard at RSM Tenon.

"Many families are still unaware of their eligibility – it is not just those who are out of work who can claim," he points out. People with illness or disability, carers, recent parents or the widowed could be eligible, as well as over-60s or those working 16 hours a week earning less than £13,000. * HMRC tax credit line is 0845 300 3900.

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