What didn't you do this week?

Last Wednesday saw the deadline for the return of self-assessment forms. Well, how was it for you? By Paul Slade

It is 9am on deadline day in Woolwich tax office, and already the first anxious tax payer is hunched in reception. There he sits, bearded and intense, his body twisted into a pretzel of concentration as he wrestles with the last few boxes on his return. Woolwich has half a dozen staff available in the room to help callers like him with last-minute queries. By 4.30 that afternoon, they will have dealt with 200 visiting taxpayers, all determined to get their forms safely completed and handed in that day.

Sometimes the callers they advise are less sweetly reasonable than the staff themselves, breaking into strange oaths when told they have left some crucial point of information at home. Barry Desaleux, the manager of the office's self-assessment team, is unmoved by these outbursts. "Sometimes people get shirty," he shrugs. "But that comes with the territory."

Last Wednesday - 30 September - was the last day for the 9 million taxpayers involved in self-assessment to get their returns in if they wanted to be sure the Inland Revenue would calculate the tax they owe. That makes it one of the busiest days of the year for tax offices.

This is the second year of self-assessment, and Barry is keen to make it clear things have improved since last year's debut of the system. "We didn't get off on the right foot last year, and we didn't start as we would have liked," he says. "This year we've made sure we've got a better handle on returns as they come in. It is 100 per cent better this year."

Barry can afford to observe the whole process with a degree of detachment, as his own tax goes through the far simpler PAYE system.

Upstairs from reception at Woolwich, a group of middle-aged women is opening that morning's post, which contains nearly 400 more returns - about three times the normal daily load.

The most urgent task on deadline day is to get all the forms logged into the system so that there can be no doubt that they arrived in time. This is done by entering each form's 10-digit UTR number into the computer. When the time comes to process the forms, they are handled more or less in the order they arrived. But anyone who envisaged this as a hi-tech operation would be disappointed.

Work at the Woolwich office, which serves about 50,000 taxpayers in south London, seems to depend as much as anything on the staff's own complex system of coloured cardboard notes. Each colour indicates the particular type of return contained in that bundle. The high-priority green cardboard tag, self-assessment team co-manager Alain Ilsley confides, means that a repayment is due.

Entering the UTR numbers first thing on Wednesday is a clerical officer, Vilma Selvaratnam, who tabs in each number by hand. Each form contains the same information in bar-code form but, because Woolwich does not have enough scanners, many forms must be entered by hand instead. No one is using the two scanners available. It is Vilma or nothing.

One of the most common errors people make when filing their returns is simply to forget to sign them. Less than an hour into the day, and Vilma already has a file of 20 or so unsigned returns balanced precariously on top of her computer screen.

The unsigned forms will be returned to the taxpayers involved with a note suggesting they sign them and get them back as soon as possible. Only when the amended form gets back to Woolwich is it registered as having been safely received.

Tax offices will accept not only their own return form, but also those rewritten by large accountancy practices, providing they fit the Inland Revenue's template. But the revenue will not trust the bar codes used on forms like these, which must again be keyed in by hand. It is no good thinking you can fax your form over, however, as these will not be accepted. "With our faxes, they'd probably get jammed up," says Alain glumly.

Most returns are relatively simple, and the figures can be entered on the computer in a few seconds. The software can perform a preliminary check immediately, which should flash a warning sign on screen if the figures entered are obvious nonsense.

Despite this, offices like Woolwich do occasionally present ordinary taxpayers with demands for heart-stopping amounts such as pounds 24m, when the true figure is a tiny fraction of that. Barry and Alain say this arises from simple human error, as a hard-pressed operator fails to register the warning and approves the entry anyway.

Perhaps, I suggest, the warning should be a little harder to ignore. Why not sound off a siren throughout the room and set off the sprinkler systems, for example? Alain does his glum face again. "That'll be the next thing," he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'