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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

Day In a Page

Read Next
These young British men featured in an Isis video urging Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria. About 30 British jihadists are believed to have died fighting alongside IS  

Isis in the UK: How the 'War on Terror' radicalised a generation

Alyas Karmani
Dance yourself happy: strutting their stuff is, apparently, better for people than visiting the gym  

How should we measure the 'worth' of our nation?

Dan Holden
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?