Tax Returns and Crimewatch

People in my business have been wrestling with a problem outside our control for the last couple of months, and that relates to Tax Returns. For a few years, now, HM Revenue & Customs (as it now is) has been encouraging everyone who files tax returns to “do it on-line”, and especially tax agents such as my firm. This will be the fourth year we have filed clients’ tax returns on-line, and by last “tax season” nearly all the problems had been ironed out. Most agents use third party software to file on-line, as the Revenue’s own system is very cumbersome and involves everything being entered whilst connected to the internet, and with an irritatingly short time of inactivity before one has to re-log in. Those agents involved in the last mad rush on 31st January 2008 had little difficulty in filing on-line as their data transmissions went through even though the server for the Revenue’s own filing software crashed on the vital day. So of course, we agents were reasonably happy, though we could not at that time access details such as what our clients had paid on account.

However, HMRC had commissioned a report from Lord Carter (see here) as to how things should be done in the future. There have been changes because of representations mainly by the professions involved, but as a result of this, paper personal tax returns have to be done by October this year though the last filing day for on line returns is still 31st January next.

One curious recommendation which has stuck is that all facsimile returns have to be in the Revenue’s own PDF format so that paper ones can be scanned in using OCR. One can see the point if we are posting paper returns, but actually we are supposed to transmit the details electronically, so the logic defeats me. Anyway, what has happened is that the returns have been completely redesigned to fit the paper PDF format so that the facsimile returns we agents used to send to clients for approval are no longer acceptable to HMRC (even though we used to PDF them anyway). Consequently this has meant a complete rewrite of the software by the third part providers. Well, that’s their job of course, but who ends up paying for this?

Anyway, the software people have done pretty well, but guess what? HMRC’s software for processing the on-line transmissions has all sorts of problems, tax returns are getting rejected for no sensible reason and time is wasted by agents on the telephone to their software support people who are swamped. One of the most stupid errors is that the tax return says that if sole traders have a turnover of less than £30,000 then they do not have to detail their expenses but just lump them in one box. However, HMRC will reject a return done on-line on this basis even though one is following the instruction to the letter.

It all seems to be change for the sake of change, or a result of that other bugbear of corporate and government-speak “modernisation”.

This bring us to Crimewatch, the June episode of which was shown on BBC1 this week. For years it was presented from a studio by experienced broadcasters and whilst a little formulaic it held interest because of the material but also because of the attention to continuity and minimal distraction. So, some bright spark at the BBC obviously decided to “modernise” it, get rid of Nick Ross probably because he was “old”, and change the compelling and considerable journalist Fiona Bruce for Kirsty Young. Not content with that they have scrapped the studio and present the programme from some sort of warehouse with scaffolding and gantries as furniture, they cut between various non-professional broadcasters who are or were police officers but don’t know how to talk to a camera, and keep having different segments by these people in different parts of the warehouse. Poor Kirsty Young, an experienced broadcaster herself stumbles round this dark edifice and at times seems as bemused as many of we viewers at home. The programme could be interesting if the content were well presented, but its earnest production is not entertainment and some of us are going to switch off.

My lesson for the BBC and for HM Revenue & Customs? If it ain’t broke……….

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