Sean O'Grady: My tangles with HMRC's culture of bullying and fear

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A polite, rather sterile word for the way that HM Revenue and Customs interacts with the general public would be "asymmetric". Thus, if your tax return is late or you happen to have misinterpreted one of their internally contradictory rules, these supposedly cuddly "tax doesn't have to be taxing" folk will threaten you, fine you and generally mistreat you in a manner that would have their counterparts in Pyongyang cooing in admiration at such unbending zeal. If HMRC bugger up your tax affairs, there is no compensation for you. Simple as.

Thus, my abiding memory of contact with HMRC was a threatening call from the Inland Revenue Collections Centre in Bradford, which seems to be the HQ of HMRC's elite squad of sadists. A woman – who might easily have got a role on a West Yorkshire version of The Sopranos – told me that unless I paid my tax bill by Monday, I would be sent for trial and probably jailed. Monday was a bank holiday. No matter. My problem. When I later complained about this, the Revenue had no record of the exchange, presumably because while calls made by you to their no-help-at-all "helpline" "may be recorded for training purposes", their money-with-menaces communications with you are subject to less care. Asymmetry, you see. Then, when my tax records were lost in transfer from Manchester to Edinburgh and I complained, all I got was a semi-apology. I wasn't able to extract £100 for every couple of months that my records remained lost. But that is what they always did to me if my return was late.

Last example: If you make a wild stab and just guess the tax you owe then you are guilty of a crime. When they do the same to you and grossly overstate your tax bill because you're very late with a return, then there is no appeal to reason, even if, as was the case, the tax bill exceeded my freelance earnings. One tax official confessed to me once that they did this simply to frighten people into paying up. They even once insisted that I must be a company if I received the odd fee for going on the radio. So they forced me to fill in a corporation tax return for a non-existent enterprise, even though that was technically no doubt some sort of offence. So they're mad as well as bad.

The worst, institutionalised asymmetry of all is the scam called "self-assessment". Back in the 1990s, Norman Lamont decided to make us all calculate our tax bill rather than have the tax clerks do it. "Self-assessment" was spun as a way in which we would gain a valuable insight into the way that our taxes made their contribution to the national good. All cobblers, of course, as anyone who has wrestled with HMRC's byzantine rules and defective website will attest.

HM Revenue and Customs runs on a culture of bullying and fear, but regards anyone who tries to tangle with them as a fraudster. No one likes a tax cheat, so successive governments have granted them unparalleled powers over the individual, often pursued for trivial sums while the non-doms and the oligarchs are offered personal consultations and have their tax affairs settled by negotiation.

My advice to anyone who gets a letter from HMRC demanding money is to ask for the same courtesy, at which point you will be able to explain patiently why the failure to gather tax is their fault not yours, that you await the inevitable legal challenges and the time has come to make your relationship with the tax authorities a little more symmetrical. Tax doesn't have to be taxing, you see.

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