Money: Tax tips: Knuckle down and fill in that form

AT THE last count, no fewer than 6,342,163 dutiful souls had laboriously completed their first self-assessment tax returns, writes John Andrews. But the forms of thousands more - myself, a supposed tax guru, included - still stare sullenly at us from desk, mantelpiece or dusty corner. Why have so many, even at this eleventh hour, failed to complete what the Inland Revenue assure us is a simpler tax form in a simpler tax system?

Well, for a start, I hate filling in forms. Also, I know I shall forget something. The tax year, which ended 5 April 1997, seems such a long time ago.

There is, of course, a problem with this ostrich approach. Even submitting a partially-complete return now - just beating the 31 January deadline - is no good, since by the time it is rejected it will be too late to have another go. So, as with those who don't send in a return at all, you will get a pounds 100 automatic penalty.

So the best advice is to put your qualms aside, knuckle down, find all the bits of paper you tucked away somewhere and get on with it - now.

But what if you can't find all the necessary paperwork?

q Don't panic.

q Use your best estimate of the missing figures.

q Tell the taxman on the form what you've done.

q Calculate the tax using the estimate.

q Send in the form and your cheque.

If you don't at least give an estimate, on top of the pounds 100 penalty you can expect interest to be charged on the tax owed and could also pay a surcharge. The rate of interest charged is now 9.5 per cent, and that will be levied from 31 January. If tax is still unpaid by 28 February you face a surcharge of 5 per cent of what is owed. The longer you delay the worse it gets: another pounds 100 automatic penalty if the tax return isn't in by 31 July, and a further 5 per cent surcharge on that date. And they charge interest on the unpaid surcharge!

I trust, like me, you are now motivated enough to sit down and sort it out. There is only one thing worse than filling in Inland Revenue forms, and that's getting a bill for not doing so.

q John Andrews is president of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and partner at Coopers & Lybrand. Taxpayers who want help filling in their tax returns can call the Inland Revenue's self-assessment helpline on 0645 000 444; they can also get a free list of tax advisers in their locality by calling the Chartered Institute of Taxation on 0171-235 9381.