Revenue shifts the burden

THE Inland Revenue is spending pounds 25m on its new cartoon campaign to make the 9 million income-tax payers who receive an individual annual tax form aware of the change to self-assessment starting in April 1997. The total cost of the change, including the modernisation of the revenue service's computers, is expec ted to reach pounds 200m.

The Inland Revenue is probably right in thinking it needs to start a campaign now to overcome the ostrich attitude most taxpayers adopt on tax matters, and get them to find out what will be expected of them before the first revised tax-forms drop on doormats.

At the very least, people will be expected to start keeping full records from April next year, and get their affairs up to date by April 1997.

There is a phone line to ring for an information pack, but there are no new-style forms yet available for taxpayers to practise on, and a large proportion of this first attempt to inform may fall on stony ground.

However, the campaign needs all the time it can get to reassure taxpayers that this is a genuine attempt to simplify the methods of assessment and payment of tax, including capital gains as well as income tax., and is not an attempt to extract more money faster and force them to pay for professional advice or face the consequences.

We are told the change to self-assessment is not expected to increase the amount of tax collected, or even significantly to speed up the rate of flow.

Self-employed people are assured that although the basis of assessment is being advanced from the previous year's income to that in the current year, only one year's tax will be levied, and that will be based on the average of the two figures in the transition year. No one will have to pay twice.

The Inland Revenue expects the majority of taxpayers affected will complete the forms and continue to leave the assessment to the Inland Revenue staff. All it requires is that they do so by the end of September, that is, within six months of the end of the tax year, in order to end the pantomime whereby the majority of taxpayers file their returns late, the taxman issues an interim assessment, the taxpayer immediately appeals against the assessment, and the routine begins again.

There will be pounds 100 fines for missing deadlines, and unspecified punishment for supplying misleading information, but no penalties for making genuine mistakes. It seems almost too good to be true. But the credibility gap starts to open over whether the change will mean more work for taxpayers. For anyone who supplies full information already, the answer should be no. But the fact that the Inland Revenue expects to save 3,000 jobs and at least pounds 500m a year on the change-over suggests that a real shift of the work-load is involved.

Sir George Young, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, emphasises that there is no reason why anyone who at present can fill in a form without the help of an accountant should not continue to do so. This has immediately been disputed by the accountants.

The Chartered Institute of Taxation welcomed the start of the publicity campaign, but it warned that taxpayers tackling self-assessment would find it more necessary than ever to seek professional advice or risk punitive tax bills.

There is a clear credibility gap to be filled here. Since roughly half the 9 million taxpayers who fill in an annual return currently do so without hiring a tax adviser to help them, there is a potential business bonanza ahead waiting for accountants if they are right and Sir George is wrong.

Inevitably, many taxpayers will see the campaign not as part of the taxman's charm offensive but as the thin end of a nasty wedge which will cost them time and money. The campaign's cartoon character, an archetypal taxman in a bowler, will have his work cut out to convince taxpayers of the contrary.