Sunday, July 18, 2010

Faceless bureaucracies, part II

Flash forward to 2010. This time: international tax horror! Greg got creative and authored this account of our tale to HM Revenue and Customs. Since I am not sure anyone at HM Revenue and Customs will ever read it, I thought I'd post it here as both an amusing diversion and a warning to all:

13 July, 2010
HM Revenue and Customs
Saxon House
Causway Lane
Leicester LE1 4AA UK

Dear HM Revenue and Customs:

Enclosed please find copies of my tax returns for 2009-10 as well as 2008-09, with my sincere apologies for being late with the latter.

No doubt you are quite busy, and probably not interested in hearing yet another tale of why someone’s tax return is being filed late. But, in case I am wrong, and at the very least perhaps to provide a bit of amusement, I will tell the sad tale of my 2008-09 return. First, you will notice of course that my UK taxes are not especially complicated. I live in the United States, and I am a United States citizen. I am neither resident nor domiciled in the UK, and have not lived in the UK since 2003. I happen to still have a bank account in the UK, however, and every year it earns a few pounds of interest, so I need to file a return. Each year, taxes are withheld, and, after a certain amount of mail and effort on all sides, around a pound is refunded.

Now, in the US, the big tax deadline every year is April 15. So, around January, I begin collecting various bits of paperwork for filing taxes. In fact, it was in January that I realized that the deadline for UK filing online was the end of the month. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I will simply enroll and file online. How hard can it be?’ I was proud that this was the environmentally responsible approach as well. However, for some reason I couldn’t log in. I called the helpline (finding a helpline number that is accessible from abroad was actually something of a feat in itself), and learned that (1) I had previously tried to sign up several years before and, because I’d forgotten my password, I would have to have my account re-set, and (2) this would require sending something in the post that would inevitably arrive after the deadline. So, I resigned myself to being a week or two late, and waited for something to arrive in the post. At least, the gentleman on the telephone assured me, it was unlikely that any fees would be assessed, as I don’t owe any taxes. (Did I mention that my UK income in 2008-09 was 10 pounds of bank interest?)

Weeks went by, and nothing materialized. By the end of March, I was beginning to suspect that something had gone horribly wrong. I looked back again at the website, and discovered that, apparently, the sending of a user ID and activation PIN required me to actually sign up again. That detail somehow hadn’t gotten communicated effectively in my conversation with the helpline agent back in January. So, I tried registering again, and was presented with a message announcing that a newly issued user ID and PIN were en route to me. They would need to be used within 28 days or they would expire and have to be re-issued. Surely that would be plenty of time for a letter to cross the Atlantic.

I won’t even attempt to spell the name of that notorious Icelandic volcano, but suffice it to say that April was not the most ideal month for air traffic across the north Atlantic. Whether this was the cause of my next set of woes or not, I cannot say for certain. But some time in the third week in April, I received a friendly letter – dated March 31 – from the UK Government Gateway, providing me with a brand new User ID. I tried to use it to sign up, but it required a PIN, which I did NOT have. Obviously there must be a second letter, but where was it?

Then, on April 28, the postman brought the second letter from Government Gateway. The letter landed in my hands after I returned home from my day’s activities, a little after 4pm: 28 days to the day from the date of the letter. Converting from Mountain Time to GMT, I realized I had a little under an hour before midnight GMT. Just in the nick of time! I immediately logged in to the Government Gateway. Here’s what I saw:

Now, I promise you I am not making this up. I’m not sure I could make this up.

Of course, I tried again after the site was back up, and of course my PIN had stopped working. With a very deep sigh – and after a few weeks of trying in vain to find someone on the other end of a phone or email who could re-awaken my deactivated PIN – I finally succumbed to the inevitable, and re-registered for Self Assessment Online. Whether by grace of clear northern skies or some other mystery, this time my User ID and PIN arrived well in time. With an enormous sense of relief, I finally succeeded in registering online for Self Assessment. It was with that little sense of accomplishment that I set off on summer travels.

When I returned in July, I sat down to carry out the task of filing my UK taxes online. Guess what helpful little message popped up when I ultimately navigated to the key page?

As it happens, I am not a Minister of Religion, and I am certainly not a Lloyds Underwriter. However, as I believe I mentioned earlier, I am indeed both non-resident and non-domiciled in the UK.

Could it really be that all those cheery notices touting the many virtues of filing online had been leading me down the garden path all along? And why did those friendly and reassuring helpline agents, way back in January, fail to mention this inconvenient little fact? Filing online from overseas: it sounds so simple! So economical! So sparing of the international postal system! And, alas, so impossible.

Ah, well. I give up. I will go back to the annual ritual of sending paper forms in thick envelopes across the Atlantic, to officially acknowledge my earning of a few pounds of interest in a bank account. I don’t suppose it would do any good if I were to offer to let the UK government keep all future withheld tax as long as I can be spared the burden of posting these tax returns from afar? Please?? No, I thought not.

In view of these circumstances, and that fact that I don’t actually owe any taxes, please remove the 100-pound overdue penalty. Believe me, I have well and truly learned my lesson!

Repentantly yours,

Gregory E. Tucker

1 comment:

Dais said...

That is utterly unbelievably frustrating and hysterical all at once! Laughing!! It's like dealing with the insurance company sometimes. Are there actual people somewhere who can help, or is it all just paper being mailed back and forth? Incredible. I'd love to read an update sometime!