'Tax shouldn't be taxing,' crowed HMRC when they launched their new Self-Assessment Scheme.It's so simple, you won't need an accountant. Newsflash: It's a nightmare and while you may not need an accountant, you will need a degree in understanding 'revenue-speak' and the patience of a whole heavenly host of saints.
Tomorrow is the deadline for submitting your self-assessment return online. It's a universal truth that somewhere around three o'clock, the HMRC website will crash as everyone scrambles to get them in before midnight in order to avoid the £100 fine.
In the pre-financial crisis days, we had an accountant, even though we apparently didn't need one but in these straitened times, his £2000 fee was a saving we could make by taking HMRC at it's word and doing it ourselves. Whether that £2000 fee was worth my sanity is another matter.
Last year was possibly the worst experience we have had trying to file our return. For those who are fortunate enough not to have to file a return, you have to register with the Government Gateway which generates a random number which is your User ID. It's twelve digits long and impossible to remember so they send you a nice little card with your User ID on so you can keep it for future reference. I've never had the time or inclination to read the small print so I don't actually know if it's an aide-memoire or whether you need to eat it so no-one can steal your ID. That takes around 7 days to arrive. Once you have that you then have to apply for an activation code. That takes another 7 days and once you get it, you can only use it during a gibbous moon, on a day beginning with M, in a month that only has 30 days and, of course, only in a leap year. If you don't use it when specified, it is invalidated and you have to start the same process all over again. Once you've done that you have to register for the services you want to use. No wonder so many people have problems with it. Compare that to any other time when you have to set up a user ID and password. It's all done and dusted within about 10 minutes all online and not a letter through the post in sight.
So I treat our Government Gateway ID in a similar fashion as I would a winning lottery ticket. Last year, I dutifully went to submit our return a week before the deadline and found myself locked out of our account because the password was wrong. I was absolutely convinced that I was using the right password because I had written it down. I phoned the helpdesk. No problem, we can e-mail you your password, they told me. Easy peasy! Except that the e-mail address that they had on file was an old one that we no longer had access to. 'Okay,' says I, 'I'll give you the new one.' 'Ah, says the helpdesk, 'we can only send it to the e-mail address we have registered. 'Why?' 'Because that's the rules.' 'But why? It's not as if anyone is going to want to hack into your tax return and pay your bill for you is it?'
But the Government Gateway remained firmly closed. 'So what do we do?' 'Well, you'll have to register again.' 'But that takes around 14 days. I'll miss the deadline.' 'Oh dear.' 'But what about the £100 fine?' 'You'll have to appeal.' Thanks for nothing.
So I did what anyone faced with the intransigence of HMRC would do. I hung up and phoned in again, hoping to speak to someone more helpful. And I did. It wasn't easy and bearing in mind that calls to HMRC are on a premium rate number it wasn't particularly cheap either but I managed to get a new Government Gateway ID and password over the phone. I wrote it all down faithfully including who I spoke to and the date I spoke to them. The tax return was submitted on time and all was well with the Western world.
So this year, it was with great confidence that I went to knock on the Government Gateway again. It opened up and and positively welcomed me in. I had a warm, fluffy feeling. At least until I tried to do anything. It told me I wasn't registered for any services. How could that be? I have everything written down, it even told me that I had last logged in on 18th January 2012, which was the date I had submitted our last return. I logged out and in again but to no avail. The Husband suggested trying the old ID as we still had it written down. I guessed at the password but after three wrong attempts it locked me out. Bastard!
Time to call HMRC. I spoke to a single-cell organism that was no help at all but did manage to tell me that I needed to speak to the Online Helpdesk. She gave me a number and I thanked her, before realising it was the same number I'd rung her on. An interminable trek through the automated service finally got me to the right people and a nasty case of déja vu. I seemed to be having the same conversation I had had almost a year earlier. The revenue drone, let's call him Angus (because that was his name) spoke to me as if I was a slightly thick child and informed me I was locked out my account. Au contraire, I told him, the account that is locked is my old one. I am in my account but it says I am not registered for any services. 'That's not your account'. 'Aha! It's got my name on it.' 'Well people can set up lots of accounts if they want to,' he said, as if that answered my question. 'Yes, but why would I? Why would I go through the hell of setting up another account that I couldn't even use?' 'I can e-mail you your password,' he said, reeling off the old e-mail address. Got you! I thought. 'We haven't had that address for nearly two years now, so that proves that you are looking at the wrong account. We updated it to a new one last year, we even set it up while we were on the phone to HMRC.' 'Well that's the only e-mail address I have attached to your account.' 'But the e-mail address on the account I'm looking at is the right one.' 'You're locked out of your account.' 'No, I'm in it.' and so it went. Angus talked to me in ever slower and more deliberate sentences as is I was a recalcitrant child. In the end I gave up and handed the phone to The Husband to finish the call before I was forced to hot-foot it up to HMRC and shove the paper copy of my tax return sideways up his rear end. The Governmeng Gateway remained as firmly shut as the gates of Downing Street when a certain cycling minister tried to go through.
In the end, Angus said he would send us a reminder of the User ID which we would definitely have by Tuesdays at the latest (it's now Wednesday and it still hasn't arrived) and then we could order a new password. He did, though, agree to extend the deadline to 15th February so we won't get fined. When I looked back over our returns, in the five years since we started doing them ourselves, we have had the same problem filing them in 2009, 2010 and 2012. I know I'm not alone. HMRC receives a staggering 80 million calls a year which must surely indicate that our system of taxation is fundementally too complex. It is estimated that taxpayers waste an equally staggering £130 million waiting for their calls to be answered by a human being - well, revenue drone at least. But never fear, HMRC is now in the 'capable' hands of Lin Homer, former head of the The UK Border Agency, and we all know just how efficient they are!
And if you run a small business you need to gird your loins for the next bit of HMRC-inspired unfettered joy to come your way, the Real Time Initiative. Apparently our PAYE records are getting too complicated, probably because half the country has a second or third job to pay their electricity bills, and to avoid an embarrasing situation such as happened a few years ago when thousands of people got incorrect PAYE deducations, employers will now have to declare payments to their staff in real time. If you get paid monthly, your employer will now have to make monthly returns to HMRC, if you are paid weekly, they need to be submitted on a weekly basis, and God forbid that you are a pub or restaurant who pays staff at the end of each shift, because now you'll have to get on your new bit of HMRC software and declare your staff salaries every day. Like you have the time! It is small businesses that will drive economic recovery but the most likely result of this new ill-conceived idea is that employers will all move onto monthly payments, causing untold problems to shift or weekly paid staff who rely on the money quickly, or a huge rise in the black economy because it it simply too time consuming and complicated to employ people legally. Amazingly, although the RTI is imminent, hundreds, maybe thousands of small businesses have no idea that it is about to happen. Rather like the people who HMRC neglected to inform were losing their child benefit, they've forgotten to tell them. But never mind, they are going to send out another letter...