Is "progress" disenfranchising the non-technical population?

A couple of incidents recently highlighted have highlighted how easily “progress” can isolate people and prevent them from getting help, and those people are often the neediest.

As a tax professional I am used to the bureaucracy of HM Revenue & Customs, though even for me it can be extremely frustrating. I received a form from HMRC concerning a pensions coding (Form P161 for the initiated). It was addressed to my firm, but did not have the taxpayer-client’s name on it, only the National Insurance number. I could not trace the number in my tax software and telephoned HMRC to find out whose form it was. However, having given the number to the call centre person, she told me I could not discuss the client unless I knew his / her name, but that was what I was calling to ask. She recommended that I sent the form back with an explanation and waited for them to respond by post. However, I knew that the Tax Office in question was months behind with paper correspondence, but even so, there was nothing to be done but to ring off.

Such an intransigent attitude and inability to take the initiative and work around to solve the problem quickly would deter any individual taxpayer trying to understand a confusing form. I can well imagine it would be intimidating. In the good old days…..etc.

The second incident started when one of my very elderly clients telephoned to say she had received a form she had to fill in to get the refund I had recently applied for on her behalf for 2008-09. I was puzzled, but asked her to send me the form to look at. It turned out that the form was actually for next year’s claim – a Form R40 for 2009-10 for the initiated. These elderly people, often on very low incomes and who are on low fees – my few “charity cases”- have no idea how to obtain even the most basis information or understand their entitlements. Just dishing out a form, which would have been best sent to me as agent anyway, is no form of proper communication. I have tried hard to get as much of these people’s investment income paid without deduction of tax so they do not have to get me to reclaim tax, but to no avail. Life would also be simpler if HMRC were to have the option to deduct PAYE from the State Pension, as they have in respect of most pension annuities these days, because fewer elderly people would need to complete tax returns and claims. The only thing is that they like their hands held over all sorts of financial matters even if it is helping them to find a good IFA, so to a degree I am a sort of financial social worker and some would rather pay me a little something so that I am available at the end of a telephone. I would do some stuff for free for a few if I thought I would be insured for it.

Still, I am in business in order to make a living. I do charge realistic and suitable fees to a majority of clients for the excellent service they get. The good news is that having searched my archived records on a whim I found the former client to whom the pension coding form related. I telephoned to ask if he wanted me to send it on and it turns out he would like me to act for him again due to a change of circumstances. All in all that was good news, but I just wish that the workings of government bureaucracy were simpler for the more senior citizens and for those who are not comfortable sitting at a keyboard and monitor.

© Jon Stow 2009

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