Hector gets it horribly wrong

News that the Inland Revenue has messed up again and managed to mislay 5 million tax returns, which it admitted last week, sadly sounds all too familiar. OK so it has a lot of tax returns to deal with, but really, three years after self-assessment was introduced, its success rate in processing these returns leaves a lot to be desired.

News that the Inland Revenue has messed up again and managed to mislay 5 million tax returns, which it admitted last week, sadly sounds all too familiar. OK so it has a lot of tax returns to deal with, but really, three years after self-assessment was introduced, its success rate in processing these returns leaves a lot to be desired.

Out of 22 million taxpayers in the UK who have to fill out self-assessment forms, some 9 million brave souls calculated their own tax bills for the 1998-99 tax year. The rest relied on the Revenue to work it out for them, thinking this would be much easier than struggling with the calculations themselves. But unfortunately the Revenue has lost 5 million of these records - bad news for those people who might not receive the tax refunds due to them. And because they did not work out their own tax calculations, they won't know whether they are due a repayment or not.

While the Revenue takes time to sort out who is owed what, you can bet that those who are due a refund won't get any interest added on for late payment, even though the Revenue is quick to penalise those who are late handing in their returns with an automatic £100 fine.

No wonder we are disillusioned. Earlier this year, a series of computer failures was followed by the Revenue's own admission that more than 2 million, or 25 per cent, of self-assessment tax bills are incorrect. The Revenue was also forced to shut down its heavily advertised internet tax-return filing service in order to allow it to upgrade the software.

Since internet filing was launched in April, it has repeatedly experienced problems. At one point, Revenue staff were printing off tax returns submitted over the internet and then completing duplicate forms. The details were then re-entered by computer, significantly increasing the chance of making an error.

If you're worried about your current tax return or think you might be one of the 5 million affected by the latest botch-up, it is worth getting in touch with a tax expert. Or try virtuallyanywhere.co.uk which has hundreds of ex-Revenue staff advising consumers online. There is a free online tax checker so you can find out if you are paying the right amount of tax.

Personally, I don't trust the Revenue to calculate my tax accurately. Yet it was with some trepidation that I sat down to complete my own tax return the other day as, having gone through the tortuous process last year, I vowed at the time that I would leave it to the Revenue to do the calculating in future. This year, of course, the process is even more arduous - with 29 pages of calculations. But it is worth doing if you can bear it. Otherwise, pay a tax expert to do it for you.

Whether you have opted for expert help or are confidently going it alone, don't leave it until the last minute. With computer problems causing delays and errors at the Revenue, taxpayers should send in their 1999/2000 tax return as soon as possible, well ahead of the 31 January deadline.

* m.bien@independent.co.uk

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