Tax trials of the aged

Problems with draconian tax officials are not just reserved for football players and street traders. The tax office is checking up on people who are least likely to be able to cope with it - the elderly.

The Chartered Institute of Taxation says many old people are frightened of dealing with the Inland Revenue. "We could fill Wembley many times over with low-income pensioners being harassed by the Revenue," said John Andrews, chairman of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group of the Chartered Institute of Taxation.

The introduction of self-assessment is one of the main problems: although it was never meant to apply to pensioners, thousands on low incomes receive the forms each year, leaving them frightened of the consequences.

The chartered institute has received many letters from distressed pensioners. "I become a nervous wreck trying to understand the self-assessment tax form," writes one from Brackley, Northamtonshire. "I do not pay tax as I have insufficient income. I've never paid tax since I retired. In fact I could go out to work and earn pounds 60 per week and still be a non-taxpayer. Still they send the form each year." His problems are not unique.

The Government is at last recognising that a problem exists. From next April people with income up to pounds 2,500 which is not taxed at source, but which is dealt with through the Pay As You Earn system, will no longer be asked fill in a tax return because of that income. "This change will cut down on red tape and bureaucracy," said Dawn Primarolo, the Paymaster General. "The Revenue is committed to improving all its procedures where necessary."

The Revenue estimates that more than 400,000 people will be taken out of self-assessment as a result of this initiative, including up to a quarter of those older people who receive a tax return. However, the chartered institute is critical of the Revenue's action. "Some weeks back we sent the Revenue examples of the poorest pensioners, those who are generally outside the payments system, asking for positive confirmation that they will not be sent tax returns next April. We still await a reply," said Mr Andrews.

The institute is critical of the Revenue's booklets and leaflets aimed at older people. It considers they lack coherence and appropriate coverage; are inconsistent; out of date, and unsuitable for those with disabilities. "What is needed is a single accurate publication in plain English that covers all the matters that frequently concern the elderly," said Mr Andrews.

While local tax offices will give guidance to any taxpayer - either in person or via a local rate helpline - these are not always accessible to the elderly. Even when they are, there is evidence that they are found to be both intimidating and also of limited use.

There are calls for a publicly-supported tax volunteer scheme similar to those in the United States and Canada to help elderly taxpayers. The Revenue is understood to be discussing this possibility around Whitehall. However, it has yet to announce any initiatives.

WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

Local Tax Office Helplines are listed in telephone directories under Inland Revenue - Tax Enquiry Centres.

The charity TaxAid will help those on low incomes who cannot afford to pay an accountant. It can be contacted on 0171-624-3768, Monday to Thursday from 10am until noon.

Citizens' Advice Bureaux across the country can offer a broad cross- section of help.

The charity Age Concern publishes a range of fact sheets on income tax. For copies contact its information line on 0800 009966.

Help the Aged charges pounds 75 for a qualified tax specialist to complete and return the forms to the Inland Revenue. To receive a free self assessment tax pack call 0800-056 5535.

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