Scrutator: Ten per cent misery tax

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THE INLAND Revenue, which admits in its annual report that the 'collection of tax can never be a popular task', has pulled off a small public relations coup. It commissioned someone to talk to 1,678 of its clients, found only 10 per cent of them actually dissatisfied with its services and published the results in a survey. This attracted such headlines as 'Most Taxpayers Happy', even in normally sensible papers like the Financial Times.

Quite a trick in a year that has seen the Revenue's investigative methods subjected to an almost unprecedented level of criticism. A flurry of horror stories about harassment, use of bullying and anonymous informers, and examples of secret surveillance have forced the department on to the defensive.

Needless to say, those senior officials who have been persuaded to show their heads above the parapet on radio phone-ins and in the professional accountancy press have put up a spirited counter-attack.

But their case took a distinct battering when, at MPs' insistence, a copy of the internal manual on investigative interviews was placed in the House of Commons library. It was found to contain references to sobbing taxpayers who, it recommended, should be ignored 'until the crying stops'.

It is not hard to find people with no particular reason to shudder when they see one of those OHMS envelopes on the doormat. The great majority, whose tax liabilities are either deducted at source or by employers, need do little more than fill in the annual return and make sure they sign in the space provided.

But rather a lot of fish fall into the Revenue net each year and even 10 per cent amounts to 2.5 million people. Perhaps unhappiness on that scale deserves a bit more than self-satisfied dismissal.

By no particular coincidence, that figure relates pretty closely to the 3.5 million people who gain some or all of their income from self-employment. This is a condition that far too many tax inspectors appear to regard as good prima facie grounds for suspicion of malfeasance or worse. It is almost exclusively from the self-employed and their advisers that the most poignant complaints arise.

Naturally the Revenue hierarchy, from its chairman, Sir Anthony Battishill, down, denies that there is any discrimination. All taxpayers are treated the same, it says, and only the bad apples get squeezed.

But one cannot help feeling that Keith Deacon, the IR's head of operations, slightly gave the game away earlier this autumn, when he dismissed yet another flurry of concern. 'Let's bear in mind that we are talking about businessmen's accounts and the accounts of businessmen, not pay-as-you-earn taxpayers,' he said.

As a High Court judge remarked in the year that I was born, the nature of the tax-gathering situation is that 'equity and income tax are strangers'. It will need rather more than 1,678 market research interviews, I suspect, to overturn that realistic opinion, which is now more than a half-century old.