Monday, February 12, 2007



“Why not file your Tax Return online?” said the note enclosed with my tax return. Why not indeed? Surely its time for me to square up to technology, to join the 21st century, to realise that the computer is here to help me, not to create chaos with my life.

Of course it’s a nuisance that you can’t simply decide to fill in your return online and go ahead and do it. You have to decide in advance, apply online for an activation PIN then go away and spend days worrying whether or not you’ve done the right thing. But if a little aggravation this year is going to reap benefits in future years shouldn’t I overcome my resistance to dealing with what seems to me to be pointless bureaucracy and make the effort?

So I signed up and waited eagerly for the Activation PIN to arrive. A few days later an envelope plops through the door. The Activation PIN? No, a pretty plastic card telling me my user ID (which the HMRC website had already given to me when I had registered and told me to make a note of it, and which I had dutifully copied down). And, perhaps as a precursor of things to come, addressed to “Mr *R W* Maas PERSONAL”. But the next day the postman brought the Activation PIN (identically addressed) and a warning that it would self destruct, or meet some other such fate, if I did not use it within 28 days.

10.00pm January 29th, log on to home PC. Input Authorisation PIN. Yippee. I am now ready to do my tax return. The computer takes me back to the Self Assessment Main Menu. That is now headed “Robert William Maas” (with no asterisks). Unfortunately, it contains a message, “We are unable to display your tax return information. This may be because…if you have only just activated this service, there will be a short delay before we can display your information.” Stare at the screen for a couple of minutes. Wonder what “short” means in HMRC parlance. Log out and play a few hands of solitaire. Come back 15 minutes later. The computer now tells me that I owe HMRC £25.08. It also says, “We sent you a notice to complete a tax return on 06 April 2006. Why not file your tax return online this year?”

Grit my teeth. Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to do for the last half hour? Click, “file your tax return online”. Now screen, “Welcome to the Online Tax Return”. Click “next” Page headed, “My Details”. HMRC helpfully tell me my UTR, my NI number, my home address and my initials. They also say that I must tell them my marital status and date of birth if I really want to file my return online. Hang on! What’s that got to do with my tax? I don’t have to give HMRC that information if I file the return manually. Perhaps the conspiracy theorists are right. The government want to build up a dossier on me. If I give HMRC information manually they can’t be bothered to record it but if I give it to them electronically it will get relayed to the government’s Big Brother computer. Decide I don’t care if the government know how old I am, and fill it on the page.

Press “next” and am presented with a page headed Other Forms. This tells me “You cannot currently use the Online Tax Return to submit the forms listed below. You will need to use 3rd party products that support these forms, or complete a paper Tax Return. Disheartened, I read the list: Share schemes, foreign, trusts etc, capital gains, non-residence etc, Ministers of Religion, Lloyd’s Underwriters, Multiple chargeable event gains are also currently unsupported”.

Sadly I need a foreign page as, like I imagine several thousand others, I received shares in Abbey National when it floated and now receive dividends from Santander from which Spanish tax has been deducted for which I want a double tax relief credit. I also need a capital gains tax page because I have some transactions, albeit that my investment expertise is such that I have managed to amass more losses than gains.

There is a link to third party software; but HMRC very firmly tell me “We are not able to provide support for these 3rd party products. Any queries or difficulties experienced by users should be taken up directly with the 3rd party supplier”. I also notice elsewhere on the site a warning, “You cannot complete your Tax Return using a combination of different software”. In other words as I need to complete the foreign page I cannot use the HMRC online form at all, even for the rest; I have to rely wholly on third party software –some of which HMRC tell me is free and some of which I have to purchase. I look at the long list of supplier’s telephone numbers. It is now 10.45pm. What should I do?

Well, the answer to that is easy. I have had to collate all of the underlying information as I do every year. I have scheduled my dividends, my interest and my gift aid payments. I have worked out my capital gains. If I download a foreign page and capital gains tax page from the HMRC website it will take me 10-15 minutes to complete the form manually. I have already spent three times that trying unsuccessfully to complete it electronically. I doubt that any of the third party suppliers are eagerly awaiting my phone call at this time of night. And I cannot really see any point in seeking to acquire their software when, if something goes wrong, HMRC are going to say, “Nothing to do with us” and slap a penalty on me.

So I have filed my return again manually this year – and come to think of it, I will almost certainly continue to do so every year unless and until Lord Carter tells me that I can no longer do so. I cannot see any benefit to me in filing online. It takes me much longer to key in items than to write them out, so it is actually likely to be a lot quicker for me to complete the returns manually. I appreciate that online filing is far more convenient to HMRC but why should I care, particularly as they haven’t been very helpful to me. If when I had applied for the Authorisation PIN the computer had displayed a message, “You know this only copes with the simplest returns; it won’t even cope with people who own shares in Santander”, I would not have bothered to go any further. By not doing so they have wasted a good hour of my time, so why should I come about saving theirs?.

Robert W Maas


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