Who ya gonna call?

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‘Taxman tries to spook children into paying up in the future with bizarre ‘pay your bills’ video depicting inspectors as ‘ghostbusters’’ (Daily Mail headline, 8 November 2014)

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with the Daily Mail but, if what is being said in the press about this HMRC video is accurate, it certainly is bizarre.

According to Accounting Web, the video, aimed at 14 to 17-year-olds, is intended to teach the importance of paying the correct amount of tax.  The video will be shown as part of compulsory citizenship lessons and, in it, actors taking the part of HMRC chase tax evaders disguised as ghosts. The ghosts, representing those who operate in the shadow economy, are captured and jailed.  All very realistic so far then.  A spokesperson for HMRC said:

“HMRC wants to help students to understand how tax is collected, so that they know what to expect when they start work.”

Understand how tax is collected indeed.  Will the students be any wiser after this?  They’re going to think starting work means evading (or should it be avoiding?) HMRC spooks lurking behind every lamp-post as they make their way home with their first pay-slip.

The video was supposed to be released before Christmas but I can’t find any trace of it yet so perhaps HMRC have come to their senses and filed it under B-1-N.

HMRC has recently ramped up its use of social media.  Taxpayers can now tweet general tax enquiries to @HMRCcustomers.  HMRC say that the Twitter account is intended to act as an addition to existing phone and online help.  By the way, the HMRC phone helpline had an average waiting time of over ten minutes in September 2014 and more than a third of calls were cut off before they were answered.

HMRC explains its social media strategy on the GOV.UK website:

‘HMRC uses social media to share useful information, and engage with people, where we believe this helps our customers and helps us to deliver our objectives.

Information on social media, including information provided by HMRC, may be incorrect, out of context, out of date, or may not apply in all circumstances. Always check the official HMRC guidance.

Information provided by HMRC via social media is provided ‘as is’ and on the same basis as material on the HMRC website. See our Terms and Conditions’.

In a recent Which? survey of people who had filed an online return in the last two years, 38% said they found jargon on the HMRC website confusing.  Around a third found the online tax return difficult to complete and almost four in ten said that they needed guidance and information from sources other than HMRC to do it.  Examples of confusing language that Which? found among the HMRC help notes for completing the tax return included:

‘When you sell an item on which you have claimed capital allowances, deduct the amount you received for it (the sale proceeds) up to the cost of the item from the pool value brought forward or cost. Likewise, if you give away or no longer use an item for business purposes, deduct the current market value of the item (up to its original cost) from the pool value or cost. If the sale proceeds or the market value of the item is more than the unrelieved balance in the pool value, the difference is called a “balancing charge” and is taxable. Enter the total of any balancing charges.’

Running this help note through the Gunning fog index gives a score of 13.39, putting it in the ‘difficult to read’ category.  So, if HMRC don’t pick up the phone and their guidance is unintelligible what are taxpayers expected to do, tweet?

Margaret Hodge MP (Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and Hammer of the Tax Avoider) criticised as ‘laughable’ the idea of taxpayers being able to contact HMRC with their tax queries via social media.  Mark Garnier MP, a member of the Treasury Select Committee, said:

“Only a small proportion of the country uses Twitter. I cannot think of even a simple tax problem that can be summed up in 140 characters. It is just rubbish, naive, stupid and facile comment.”

He may have a point – certainly none of the tax queries I get asked would fit in a tweet.  Some don’t even fit in a ring-binder.

There was one interesting discussion on @HMRCcustomers when I looked.  It was in relation to #VATMOSS and concerned the question of how a file could be ‘manually attached’ to an email as required by HMRC.  Use of an e-stapler was suggested.

Now you know my obsession with gadgets.  I’ve just got to have one.

*** UPDATE – July 2015***

The Guardian Teacher Network has materials designed to help students ‘understand taxes and why we have to pay them.’

Also HMRC have launched a new resource for teachers to help their students learn the ‘facts’ of tax. According to a Press Release of 13 July 2015:

‘‘Tax Facts’ is a comprehensive teachers’ pack, designed to provide an introduction to the tax system for 14–17 year olds studying citizenship, business enterprise, personal finance and other aspects of the curriculum that prepare them for life beyond school.

As well as detailed lesson plans and guidance, there are four short, animated videos to inform students about some of the key tax issues they will face as they begin their working lives.

The videos present key information in an informal, ‘light-hearted’ way and complement material in the lesson plans. The four videos are:

  • About HMRC’ – the background to HMRC’s work and the basics of the tax system.
  • Starting Your First Job’ – what to expect when you enter the world of work, such as tax deductions and National Insurance contributions
  • ‘Working For Yourself’ – what to do if you’re planning to become self-employed.
  • The Hidden Economy’ – how people try to get out of paying their taxes and what HMRC is doing to tackle this’.

The HMRC videos are here.  Have a look for yourselves.  Fact or fiction, you decide.

Tax lawyer specialising in business tax, SDLT and VAT

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