Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Taxing Affair

'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...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ready for bed...

Since we came back from France, The Boy, all six foot four of him, has been squashed into a single bed, his lovely antique French bed having met an untimely end during our move back to the UK. So he was delighted when I was contacted on behalf of Furniture Choice, an online furniture retailer, to ask if I was interested in reviewing a bed with a double mattress for them.  They gave me a budget of £400 for a bed of my choice. 'Me, Me', he shouted,  followed rapidly by 'Kingsize please' and as the only member of the family really in need of a new bed it seemed a no-brainer.

It has been a while since I bought a new bed so I wasn't sure what I could buy for £400, and the answer was quite a lot. The range of beds on Furniture Choice's website was surprisingly good, even for a kingsize one and for the money we could even get a memory foam mattress. We eventually settled on the Supreme Vasco King Size Memory Foam Divan which came in a shade over £50 under budget.

Ordering was painless and the manufacturer phoned me direct to arrange delivery. I was given a day that suited me and a morning delivery slot, with the promise that the delivery driver would call when he was half an hour away to confirm a more exact time. Well within the time slot, the phone call arrived and the delivery time was firmed up.

Delivery, thankfully, was not kerbside, as so many companies do these days, and when the drivers arrived, they went through the house, tracing the route to the boy's bedroom and took down any paintings or mirrors that were hanging on the walls to avoid any damage then carried the bed and base upstairs and put it where we wanted it.

The Boy was spurred into action in a way that is rare these days and started to unpack it before the pictures were back up and the back door shut.  The construction of the bed was pretty solid and the mattress looked really comfortable. The base came in two parts which were easy to fit together and we had the bed set up with the castors in within  ten minutes.

The Boy has now been sleeping in his new bed for a few weeks. It is incredibly comfortable and he loves it. As far as value for money goes, it is excellent.  The only tiny complaint I would make is that the base that came was not the one I was expecting. I had ordered one with drawers but the base that was delivered didn't have any. The company did offer to change it though but by that time, The Boy had managed to cut his foot and bleed on it so it wasn't really returnable. On the plus side though, the blood stain sponged out well.

The health benefits of a good night's sleep are well documented and the most recent research, from the University of Berkeley, claims that couples who sleep well are less selfish and more appreciative of their partner. Now that can't be bad thing! Furniture Choice has a huge range of beds in all sizes, from single to super kingsize and from budget to luxury. They even offer free delivery. They stock the big brands there as well as some lesser known ones, and a great range of mattresses from coil spring to memory foam. If you need a new bed try checking out their website first. If you aren't ready to buy yet, sign up to their newsletter and you'll be the first to hear about any new offers. You never know, you might suddenly decide you do need a new bed after all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2012 - The Big Picture

Oh my goodness, I've been away for a long time. Who thought that writing a book would take up so much time?  I'm not going to go on to much about it here as you can read all the updates on my author blog Instead I'm just going to do a brief resumé of 2012 in pictures.

At the beginning of the 2012, I got the first hints that I might have actually written something worth reading when La Vie en Rosé briefly hit the top spot on Authonomy.

(see, I can't help myself!) It was certainly much more readable than the poem I wrote when I was 8 about a potato being made into a chip. I probably deserved some sort of low level psychiatric treatment for that one.

Spring in Stockton was beautiful....

And on the May Bank Holiday we had the amazing Vintage Nostagia Show

We walked home in the dark under a starry night (we have no street lights here) feeling the heat coming off the lane. If only we had realised that that was our summer!

But we often joke that the sun always shines in Stockton and it certainly did when we had our Jubilee weekend village rounders match...

...and our fantabulous street party...


And Fun Dog Show

We bought some piglets...

...which grew big and fat... (vegetarians look away now) we ate them...

Summer was spent on various riverbanks, watching The Boy rowing. This particular one was on Lord Margadale's estate in Fonthill Bishop. And the sun shone again.

The Boy had his Prom and was voted Prom King.

We had our very own village music festival, Stockfest...

and rounded the summer off with a weekend of live music at our village pub ...

...with the obligatory air guitar and imaginary saxophone!

It was a year for meeting up with old friends

And learning to play the ukulele

We expanded the menagerie with a puppy who is one part dog and three parts kangaroo...

And grew to be the size of a small carthorse with some very unpleasant habits..

... and is definitely not a 'handbag' dog, unless you have a very big handbag.

In the autumn I got a book deal...

And Stockton was just as beautiful...

We kickstarted the holiday season with our fantastic Supper and Auction, Stockfestive (do you see a pattern here?)

Christmas was spent with friends, old...

... and new

And we saw in the New Year in 1970s style...

So that was 2012. I'll be back soon with lots of exciting product reviews, book reviews and anything else that takes my fancy. Happy New Year to you all xx