Private Investor: Why must we slog it through the tax maze to fill in our own returns?

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The Independent Online

Self-assessment. Two innocuous sounding words, but ones which, today of all days, terrify the average taxpayer. For today, in case you'd missed the ads and ignored the reminders, is the last possible date for you to fill in your tax return and hand it to the Revenue, if you can find a tax office open.

Self-assessment. Two innocuous sounding words, but ones which, today of all days, terrify the average taxpayer. For today, in case you'd missed the ads and ignored the reminders, is the last possible date for you to fill in your tax return and hand it to the Revenue, if you can find a tax office open.

If you've still not managed to do your fiscal duty, the best advice I can offer is to keep ringing the usually busy Inland Revenue helpline (0845 9000444) until you get through, then use whatever charm you have to get the staff on the other end of the line to get you through it. I have found them to be invariably straight forward, expert and kind, unlike the system they are asked to administer. They are, I should mention, in a different league to those who staff the Department of Work and Pensions' social security offices. Don't know why that should be, but there we are.

Normally, it takes me two days' hard slog to get the thing done and this year was no exception. If I lose my P60, a more valuable document than a mere passport, say, or credit card, the process can take even longer. This year I managed to find it and it was all relatively plain sailing. The Revenue sent me the right supplementary pages to fill in and I have dutifully and honestly laid bare my financial details and, even more painfully, gone through the comprehensive tax calculation guide and worked out the sum I owe HM Government.

Note here that I mention the comprehensive tax calculation guide. For if you, like me, have a few shares that still pay scrip dividends, old-fashioned as they seem to be nowadays, you will need to ask the tax office for this rather than the tax calculation guide (the non-comprehensive one). If they don't send you a comprehensive one, you see, there are no boxes on the regular one for you to put the relevant numbers, so you can't work it out immediately. That means you have to ring the orderline and that delays things a few more days. Deeply dispiriting.

So it can be a bit of a nightmare. "Why don't you get an accountant to do it?" my friends ask. Because I'm too proud and too mean. In the first place I see my annual tax return as an intellectual challenge that must be met.

I regard fighting my way through the tax calculation guide's maze of boxes and meaningless numbers armed only with a pocket calculator and an Excel spreadsheet as the rough equivalent of taking on the entire SAS with a penknife. Daunting, but deeply satisfying when you achieve your objective. It is a 12-monthly exercise in proving that I must still be compus mentis. I also resent paying an accountant to do something I should be perfectly able to do for myself.

Much more to the point, is why we taxpayers have to go through this torture at all. I know that if I had filled the return in by September I wouldn't have to calculate my tax liability myself. So why do we individual taxpayers have to assess our tax ourselves? The short, truthful answer is that it is easier for the Government to offload this tedious task on to the citizenry than pay junior tax inspectors to do it. Plus there is the additional attraction, from the point of view of the Exchequer, of the forgetful and the badly organised having to pay a £100 fine each if their returns arrive late, plus interest on the tax owing. Of course, ministers and tax inspectors won't tell you that, oh dearie me no. The formal reason why this annual ritual of torture is visited on us is so we taxpayers are better acquainted as to the underlying reasons why we are being taxed as we are.

We are supposed to achieve a zen-like understanding of the logic of the tax system by filling in lots of boxes and subtracting X from Y, then subtracting Y from X and being asked which is the smaller, and if one of the numbers is negative then it counts as zero. Then you have to take the zero which is really a negative number away from the one you first thought of and divide it by 10 and take away zero and then ... well, you get the picture. Whatever else it does, it is not an educative exercise.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

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