Tempers, terror and tension mount as tax deadline nears

Susie Currie examines the impact of self-assessment on public and staff

It's enough to make you pity the poor taxman - a quarter of a million phone calls a month; 150 personal visitors a day to each tax office; 75,000 forms delivered each day. With just a month left before the deadline for self-assessment forms to be handed in to the Inland Revenue, the pressure is on the beleaguered staff to cope with the huge workload.

Pity the poor taxpayer too. Doug Smith, head of the tax assessment operation, says it took only 15 minutes to fill in his form. But many of those calling helplines across the country take several hours just to work out what information is needed to take part in one of the biggest changes to taxation this country has ever seen.

Even Mr Smith admits it took him an hour to assemble the paperwork necessary to work out how to answer the form.

This is the first year of self-assessment, and dealing with the 8.5 million people affected has become one of the toughest jobs ever handled by Inland Revenue staff. Resources and tempers are being stretched to the limit. Despite the 2.5 million forms expected by the 30 September deadline, no extra staff have been recruited.

Indeed, the original idea, as set out by Norman Lamont in his 1991 budget, aimed to save pounds 75m a year, and achieve 3,000 job cuts by1999. In practice, the Revenue has spent the past three years and pounds 25m preparing the public for self-assessment, and almost as much on training staff and setting up their computer and support systems.

Despite this, frontline staff in in local offices are daunted by the prospect of dealing with the self-assessment forms and are constantly bombarded by people calling in to report how flummoxed they are.

Janice Hart has to deal with around 30 face-to-face interviews per day in the Taxpayer Enquiry Centre at the Woolwich Taxpayer Service Office in south-east London. On top of that, she takes about 20 phone calls from members of the public needing to be coached through filling in their forms. Some callers need 10 minutes' help, others need three-quarters of an hour.

A couple of people have even brought in bags full of their papers, and Mrs Hart has spent an hour-and-a-half talking them through their return. "Thank God not everyone's like that, or else we wouldn't get anything done," she says.

The Plain English Campaign says it has had hundreds of complaints from people who find the forms incomprehensible, and more from others who are petrified by them. The word "penalty" appears three times in the first two pages of the Tax Return Guide, a reference to the automatic fines which will be imposed on forms returned after the final deadline, and on people who set out to "deliberately mislead" the Revenue.

The campaign has complained but at the Revenue they are not taking any notice. "They just sit there in their ivory towers and keep sending the notices," said the campaign's director, Chrissie Maher. "The people on the receiving end are scared to death."

She is unimpressed by Mr Smith's boast that it took him just 15 minutes to complete his form. "It just makes people feel stupid when he says that. It's all right for him, he's been working on it for the last two years. The rest of us will get used to it eventually, but it doesn't help when you're doing your first one with the threat of a big fine hanging over your head," she added.

"Maybe if we charged the Revenue per hour for the time it took us to fill the returns in, they'd start making things a bit easier for us."

The Inland Revenue has tried a variety of ways to get its message across, including persuading soap operas like The Archers, EastEnders and Brookside to mention self-assessment. But they seem to have been a hindrance rather than a help - especially their recent adverts.

Mrs Hart has had a lot of calls from people who have seen the "Hector the Tax Inspector" adverts on television and think that everyone needs to fill in a Self-Assessment tax return. In fact, only one in three do.

Among the worried callers to the tax helpline are people who have sold their building society windfall shares and want to know if they are liable for Capital Gains Tax. Most of them are not, although one lady's pounds 8,500 gain did push her over the tax threshold.

Mrs Hart says that most people keep their tempers when they ring, although one caller did slam down the phone. One lady who came in to see her trembled for much of the interview, and she had a visit from an elderly man who had been up all night worrying because he thought his tax code was his bill.

However difficult you find it to fill in the self-assessment forms, the advice from the professionals is to complete them and return them to the Inland Revenue by 30 September if you want your tax liability to be calculated by the men from the ministry. Otherwise you have to calculate it yourself - a task even experienced accountants say is fiendishly difficult.

The Inland Revenue Self-Assessment Helpline on (0645) 000444 is open until 10pm and at weekends.

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