A spot of tax and sympathy: Neasa MacErlean on the new breed of independent, mobile advisers

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The Independent Online
ANDREW HICKSON carries his business around with him in the boot of his car. Like the local vet or social worker, he spends each day driving his Volkswagen Polo along the streets of East Devon visiting his clients.

Mr Hickson is one of 9,000 members of the Institute of Taxation who believe that accountants are not always the best people to advise individuals over tax. The majority of his clients have never been to see an accountant because they were frightened of the costs. But in 90 per cent of cases he can save them more than he is likely to charge them. 'Very rarely do I come away saying there is nothing I can do to save them money,' he says.

Because of his low overheads, he can keep his fees to pounds 50 for a straightforward case and pounds 180 for 'a more complex tax return involving small accounts'. Many of his clients are retired or elderly people who feel more confident on their own territory. He also visits people in the evenings and weekends.

Most people probably consider accountants and solicitors as the only port of call when they want to sort out their tax. But many accountants and solicitors have no particular experience of tax, beyond passing the basic tax papers in their professional exams. And their fees will quickly go beyond pounds 300 for even the simplest matters.

A former tax inspector, Tim Hardman of the consultant Hardman Ross offers a similar service in Durham to Andrew Hickson's service in Exmouth. He charges an average of pounds 150 to pounds 200 for dealing with the tax return, but fees can be less than pounds 100 for simple cases. For a one-off chat or letter on a particular problem - inheritance tax planning, for example - he makes a minimum charge of pounds 20.' I work on the basis that most tax returns are quite straightforward. The hardest bit in personal tax is getting the information from people,' he says.

He believes that the personal skills of getting pensioners to talk about their finances are more important in most cases, than a detailed knowledge of difficult points of tax law.

Mr Hickson and Mr Hardman have both become full-time tax consultants in the last three years - at a time when many tax specialists in both the Inland Revenue and the large accountancy firms have set up on their own. The Institute of Taxation will give out lists of its members in particular areas to people who ring their office in London.

However, any inhabitant of Britain is at liberty to call themselves a tax consultant. And, according to The Institute of Taxation, the number of people setting themselves up in business is increasing. Consequently, says the secretary, Ronald Ison: 'The problem is so many people go to so-called tax advisers who have no qualification and who then let them down very badly.'

Institute of Taxation 071-235 9381

(Photograph omitted)