'No offence' is no defence, Mr Taxman

READERS' LIVES: Tax disputes ... early retirement for teachers ... problems with estate agents. Your financial queries answered

I was astonished and then plain angry at a letter I received from my tax office. "Information received in this office would suggest that your tax return is incorrect because either a wrong figure has been entered or a source of income, investment or capital gain has not been declared. Please therefore reconsider the entries made in your return and let me have your comments regarding any discrepancies." The letter went on to say that submitting a return which is believed to be incorrect is negligent conduct. I had told my tax inspector late last year that some further figures were to come. Apart from that, I haven't a clue what the letter refers to. What should I do?

LS, Bristol

Letters like the one you received are not intended to cause offence, according to an Inland Revenue spokesman. In that case, perhaps they should avoid phrases such as "negligent conduct". The problem is that your tax inspector is reluctant to tell you precisely what income he or she believes you have not declared, in case there is more undeclared income that your tax office does not know about. Otherwise, it would be too easy for taxpayers not to declare income and simply to own up to any that the tax authorities happened to find out about.

But that defence does not alter the fact that many taxpayers who receive this sort of letter may genuinely have no idea what they've left off their return. It is possible that you have left nothing off and there is an easy explanation for the "information" your tax inspector apparently has.

In the first instance, you should write back to your tax inspector to say you have no idea to what the letter refers. You should then be given a hint as to what area to look at.

If it's any consolation, you should not initially receive confrontational letters under the new self-assessment tax collection system, which comes into effect in April. Tax inspectors will be able to carry out "enquiries" into the accuracy of tax returns as a result of a tax inspector's suspicions or on a purely random basis. The procedure will be the same whatever the reason for the enquiry and the fact that some will be random should ensure a non-confrontational approach. It remains to be seen what happens.

I'm a member of the teachers' superannuation scheme. I understand that the Government is changing the rules from 1 April. Can you provide details? Are the changes definite or just proposals? Is their implementation dependent on the Government's survival?

M Mattick, Southampton

It will become much harder for teachers to get early retirement from April. A generous early retirement scheme, initially for teachers over 55 and later extended to teachers over 50, was introduced in the 1970s. It was designed to encourage older teachers to retire to make way for younger, unemployed teachers.

In principle there has been no automatic right to early retirement: certain conditions have to be met. But, in practice, teachers applying for early retirement have rarely been refused. In recent years, schools now in charge of their own budgets have had an incentive to encourage early retirement because older teachers can be replaced by younger, cheaper teachers yet to climb the salary scale.

To date, pensions for prematurely retired teachers have been paid by central government. But the cost has been criticised by the National Audit Office. Under a proposed change, local councils will pick up the tab from 1 April. They won't have any extra money to fund the scheme so won't be able to allow as many teachers to retire early. Hence, the rush of teachers applying for early retirement.

Other changes include an end to ill-health pensions for teachers who, for example, return to work as supply teachers. On the plus side, death grants for those who die in service are being doubled from one to two years' pay. And severance pay for younger teachers is being more than doubled.

The consultation period for the proposed changes ended last week. The regulations to alter the scheme are likely to be introduced in the next few weeks. And don't expect a change of government to give a stay of execution to the current system.

"It is unlikely that a Labour or Labour/Liberal government would change the regulations back," says Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. "They would be seen to be acting against the advice of the National Audit Office, which no new government would do lightly."

I am unhappy with the way my estate agent sold my house. Is there an official regulator or watchdog to whom complaints can be directed?

D Wilson, London

There is no statutory regulator, however your estate agent may be covered by a voluntary scheme. The Ombudsman for Corporate Estate Agents covers the 15 largest chains and will handle complaints from buyers and sellers. The address is Beckett House, 4 Bridge Street, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2LX (phone 01722 333306).

Alternatively, your agent might be covered by the National Association of Estate Agents. Write to Arbon House, 21 Jury Street, Warwick, CV34 4EH (phone 01926 496800).

q Write to Steve Lodge, personal finance editor, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, and include a telephone number.

Do not enclose SAEs or any documents that you wish to be returned. We cannot give personal replies or guarantee to answer every letter we receive. We accept no legal responsibility for advice.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor