In plain English: the taxman wants your cash

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The Independent Online
Neil Munro's ample brow furrows when you ask him what was the last book he read. Maybe it was one by the "plain English" author Sir Ernest Gowers, he ventures. No, no, it was the American Bill Bryson on England - "You remember the title!"

The question only matters because Mr Munro is the Inland Revenue chief charged with rewriting the country's tax laws to make them more comprehensible to the average taxpayer; or to his accountant, at any rate. In this world, words do count. Money hangs on them.

Last week, Mr Munro was advertising for private-sector tax wizards to join his pounds 25m project in a comfortable eighth-floor eyrie in Aldwych, central London, hard by the Bush House headquarters of the BBC World Service. He is willing to pay up to pounds 40,000 a year, and pitches his appeal at fans of Lewis Carroll whose opening of "Jabberwocky" ("Twas brillig and the slithy toves...") is praised as "nonsense, but brilliant nonsense."

Much the same could be said of the advertisement, which promises would- be tax-law scribes "the opportunity to play an influential role in a prestigious project that will be a major CV builder for someone with your ambition". Maybe the first intake will be given the work of cutting out junk English in further job offers.

Officially, Mr Munro, a 49-year-old Wallasey man and a historian rather than a literary enthusiast, is Director of the Inland Revenue Tax Simplification Project. Not perhaps the catchiest of titles, in the circumstances. The staff prefer to call themselves the rewrite team. Up to strength, the Simplificators will number 40 at most, only half a dozen of them coming from the private sector at any one time, and certainly on nothing more than a two-year contract. Two hundred hopefuls have so far applied.

Yet their brief is colossal: to turn the 6,000 pages of tax law into understandable English over the next five years, a task akin to rewriting War and Peace half a dozen times, but with the added burden of persuading MPs that their version is acceptable. The project began as an unpredicted back-bench revolt by Tory MPs during consideration of a Finance Bill last year. It now has all-party support, and will probably be implemented by degrees, beginning with understandable tax rules for the self-employed.

Mr Munro sets his Simplificators two objectives. "We must rewrite the language of the tax laws into plain English, to make it as clear and simple to understand as we possibly can." The second? "We must also retain the effect of the existing law." Ah, yes. Do not expect to pay less simply because you understand what the Revenue wants.

Is that clear?

Mr Munro's department gets to grips with Section 54 (5) of the Taxes Management Act.

Before: The references in this section to an agreement being come to with an appellant and the giving of notice or notification to or by an appellant include references to an agreement being come to with, and the giving of notice of notification to or by, a person acting on behalf of the appellant in relation to the appeal (a)

After: "The inspector" includes any officer of the Board authorised to deal with the matter.