To portray the same agony, a modern sculptor would depict Laocoön wrapped in the coils of the tax man. There is no escape. HMRC does not do email. Letters go unanswered for months and one has to wait 45 minutes on the phone before being cut off. The harassed foot soldiers who deal with us are not to blame: their generals creating these labyrinthine coils are. In a May 2010 speech to the CBI, the Chancellor promised radical tax simplification, saying “The tax system has become hugely complex over the last thirteen years. Since 1997, the tax legislation handbook has more than doubled in length. It is now over 11,000 pages long.”
One can question whether the length of the handbook, or the size of annual Finance Acts, accurately depicts tax complexity but there is no question that both have grown hugely since the 1980s and the Chancellors are mostly to blame. Tolley’s Annual Tax Guide, at nearly 900 pages, has grown rather than shrunk under this Chancellor’s regime. Up to 1992, Finance Acts averaged below 200 pages. They then doubled in length. But rather than exercise any restraint, Osborne’s record is even worse: 668 pages in 2014. 2015 was curtailed for the election but he still produced 352 in March and a further 210 pages in July.
The Office for Tax Simplification was set up in 2010 and is now being made permanent. It has published over 30 reports and made 402 recommendations, starting with abolishing 43 tax reliefs – nice for the Treasury, not so nice for those losing out. But these are tinkering round the edges.
Rather like the government seeking to engage in more wars with fewer soldiers, the Chancellor has simultaneously cut personnel numbers in HMRC – hence the lousy taxpayer service.
To give, briefly, a worm’s eye view, the forms they sent were completed and returned in early August. Just before the 31st October cut-off, they were sent back on the grounds of being the wrong forms. No mention of what the right forms might be. Several hours of holding my phone next to my ear later, I was informed as to the correct forms. The file note on that had not been passed on.
Apparently, if the 31st October deadline was now missed, I would be fined as the original submission “did not count”. Not to worry: I would win my appeal but I had to be fined first in order to appeal.
The new forms, far more complex than the old, appear to have arisen from HMRC’s new but heavy-handed anti-anti-avoidance rituals. They have no sense of proportion: my few quid does not need pages and pages of questions. I can prove my income, where it came from and that one piece of paper would have all the information needed to compute my tax. The point of the 31st October deadline is that the computation is their job, not mine. If we were talking large sums, it might another matter.
The same civil service mentality applies money laundering legislation to this village church’s flower fund. Coils within coils.
Please, George Osborne, give us the radical tax simplification you promised.