Dr Mary Brown: Even as an academic, I find HMRC taxing

Some years ago I was part of a university research team and was paid for my contribution to the project without any deduction of tax.

Filling in a tax return can be a chore for many of the self-employed

Being relatively honest (or maybe more scared of what the neighbours would think if I were found guilty of tax avoidance) I ­contacted HMRC to pay the tax.

But as many self-employed people know, it’s not that simple. Even if you only earn pocket money, or worse, nothing at all, the dreaded HMRC self-assessment form now appears every year, with its attendant threats of dire punishments if it’s not ­completed correctly or on time.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Now, I have several ­academic qualifications but, ­clearly, that sort of ­intelligence is not required to complete the tax form, as I can never ­understand any of it.

I suspect that, as with many efforts of officialdom, it was designed by people who like filling in forms – for like-minded form-filling types. What fun they must have ­trying to find details of the 75p interest they received on their building society account!

For me, the whole business is so depressing that I now consult a nice accountant, even if his fee is more than anything I can earn by my efforts.

I used to think that tradespeople who insisted on being paid in cash were ­dishonest – now I sympathise with their struggles with the ­taxman. What I saw as ­dishonesty may be more about ­confusion with the complicated information they need to provide.

As with many aspects of life, contact with a real-life ­person at HMRC is increasingly replaced by communication with a computer, as staff are ‘downsized’ and those who are left are herded into huge offices.

As it happens, many years ago I had a temporary job with the then Tax Inspectorate, in a local office ­working out the tax liability of small business people in the ­Cumbrian Lake District.

It was before the days of computerisation and we had bulky paper files, but we also had an open-door ­policy whereby a self-employed ­taxpayer, such as a farmer or B &B proprietor, could call into the office and ask to have their tax form explained to them.

Usually they went away, if not exactly happy, ­content that they knew what they had to pay and why. If they couldn’t get into the office they could telephone and speak to the individual ­dealing with their tax affairs, who would be known by name.

These days it is rare even to get a tax official to answer the phone, a situation which apparently frustrates them as much as it frustrates the public.

This distancing from the taxpayer in the street not only impedes good manners but might also be instrumental in encouraging people to be ­evasive about their ­financial situation.

Knowing the person responsible for dealing with their tax affairs as an ­individual rather than a machine may well encourage dialogue and greater honesty from taxpayers.

Dr Mary Brow is a freelance educational consultant. She lives in Banchory, Deeside.