Just finished what seems like a trip through the looking glass (with accompanying bruises) to get my first proper tax return sorted and paid up. Who designed this system?!
I don’t think I was unprepared. I’ve got records of all my income, qualifying expenses, bank interest (all £1.95 of it) and gift aid for the year. I found my employment P60, my ex-employment P45, and have been keeping a neat little spreadsheet to tally everything up. I even worked out the figure I owed for the year in advance and read several dozen pages of notes across umpteen PDF files to make sure I’d got everything right.
To describe the system as “labyrinthine” is like describing climbing Everest as “a little uphill walk”. Of course I could have paid an accountant to do the hard bits (and they would probably have found a few ways to help me pay less tax), but I decided I didn’t want the bother, I don’t want to declare myself a board member of my own limited company or get involved in any clever schemes to shuffle money around tax havens. I just wanted to go “here’s the money, give me a fair bill, thanks” and believed the online self-assessment would make that fairly doable, if not quite as easy as finding out “What Star Trek character am I?” on Facebook.
So I admit I left it a little on the late side. I made the near-fatal mistake of assuming that when they send you a letter saying “log on and do this by Jan 31st”, you can think about doing it some time fairly close to Jan 31st. Ohhh no. For one thing, just because you’re registered and they’ve told you to do an online tax return, it doesn’t mean that they’ll actually let you do one. Turns out you need to register again and wait for them to send you a PIN code. By post. Why? If they needed me to prove I lived at my address, haven’t they already done that by sending my reminder letter there? Couldn’t they have put everything I needed into that letter? Far too easy. I can register for any other service online instantly, and confirm my identity using information they already know about me. I can confirm my electoral register details in ten seconds by text message. Obviously security is important, but there’s a difference between well designed security (an efficient process) and desperate arse covering (adding as many layers of frustration as possible in the hope that bad guys will simply give up and go away.)
Thankfully I got in just in time so the letter with my PIN came just before the deadline. It’s a single-use code, not useful for anything else once activated. So why are there multiple prompts to DESTROY it after use? That’s arse covering, not efficiency. I haven’t yet decided whether to burn it, shred it, eat it or sew it into my trousers for protection if it’s that necessary.
To be fair, the rest of the process went fairly easily (given the months of preparation), but with a few unexpected niggles. For one, if you mean “zero” you’re meant to leave a field blank. Under no circumstances enter a zero – that just confuses the machine. Except for the times when it tells you to do the opposite and complains if you don’t put in a zero. You’re just supposed to know the difference.
Weirdest of all is how every income figure gets rounded down to the nearest pound, and every “tax paid” figure gets rounded up. It’s nice, all the rounding errors are in my favour, but why do it at all? I can understand that for paper calculations, it makes life a bit easier not to fuss about the pennies, but can’t a machine handle it all very easily? Overall, deliberate rounding errors introduced into the process meant I had to pay about £2 less tax than I’d calculated. Nice! But doesn’t £2 x 30 million taxpayers add up to quite a lot? £60 million in a year would pay for something quite important, like a revamp of an antiquated system designed for an age before calculators. In the five year lifetime of a parliament, £300 million is almost a Nimrod plane or a half million pound second home for every MP.
But just as I was wondering what to spend my unexpected bonus on, it turns out I shouldn’t have worried about depriving the poor government. I needed to ask a quick question about reclaiming some overpaid PAYE (from 2008) which they haven’t got around to writing to me about yet. I tried to do this online, but the website said I had to ring up. When I got through the extensive menu system on the phone, it said I should go and do it online. I checked the exact page they mentioned while holding, and it said to ring them. In the end, I got to spend so long waiting around on their 0845 service, I’ve effectively given them the money back.
“Tax. We don’t have to advertise that it’s taxing, it just is.”