Last year, in the midst of wedding planning and moving abroad, I received a letter from HMRC. ‘You are required to fill in a tax return,’ it said. I’m not going to lie. Like most of the population, I’m very naïve when it comes to tax matters. I pay my taxes and moan about it as loudly as the next person, but I don’t pretend to know how the system works and I’ve never been especially interested in finding out. Which is why, in a moment of utter stupidity, I filed the letter away with the thought ‘this must be a mistake, I’ve never had to do this before.’ And that was my only thought on the matter of tax for some months.
Around six weeks ago I got another letter from HMRC. ‘You have to pay a penalty for not filing your tax return on time.’ The writing was in bold red letters. HMRC meant business. A penalty? They wanted yet more of my cash, and I’m not even living in the country anymore? Surely they were mistaken? After doing some digging, I found out that I did indeed have to file the return and I did have to pay the £100 penalty. I accept that personal stupidity sometimes has a price, so I paid it with only a small amount of grumbling on my part. But now I found myself in a desperate race against time; if I don’t file by the end of April, I will have to pay a further penalty EVERY DAY. Gulp. I am spurred into action.
Government offices are basically a metaphor for life: nothing is straightforward and things can be unpredictable. The issues really began when I tried to access the extremely mysterious, built-in-1998 Government Gateway to do my online tax return. I set up an account, which in itself was complex, only to receive an ambiguous message saying I had to wait for an activation code to be sent. BY POST. Who sends things in the post?! It’s 2017! Doesn’t HMRC know how email works? Even worse was the footnote: ‘Your activation code will arrive within 7 days, 21 days if you are abroad.’ Excuse me? 21 effing days? Are they sending letters to the continent by pigeon? I decide to call up HMRC. I wasn’t about to let that mofo code arrive late and pay daily penalties. The initial conversation between me and HMRC went as follows:
Automated voice: Hello, you’re through to HMRC. I’m going to waste 2 minutes talking about a survey you won’t want to answer even though you’re calling from abroad because you know, anything to make more money from you. Then I’m going to ask you 150 questions. You’ll probably get some of them wrong and because I’m an automated voice, I can’t help you. Ready? What’s your UTR number?
Me: What the F is a UTR number?
Automated voice: Sorry, I didn’t catch that. What’s your UTR number? This is a 10 digit number.
(I realise after three attempts that by UTR number, they mean the ‘TAX REFERENCE’ number on all the correspondence. I mean come on – don’t call it one thing in one place, and another thing somewhere else!)
Automated voice: Thank you. Please state your full name.
[This charade continues through 150 questions, and then I’m eventually transferred to a queue to speak with an actual person. Hurrah! I endure this queue for 15 mins listening to terrible, too-loud hold music:]
Real HMRC Person: Hi, I’m John. I’m not especially friendly or helpful. I need you to answer the same 150 security questions that you already answered with the Automated Voice, because that was really just a pointless exercise designed to frustrate you, and then I’m going to tell you that I can’t help you anyway and you just have to wait 21 days for your activation code to arrive.
Fine. So I wait. Finally, the letter arrives, the activation code is in my hand, and I am a few clicks away from avoiding the daily fines. I gather my copious documents, all with titles that include strange number/letter combinations, and sit down to fill in the Tax Return of Doom. If you’ve ever had the absolute misfortune to use the Government Gateway site, you’ll know exactly how the next part pans out (and please know you have my sympathy). Government Gateway asks for your User ID and password. Hmmm, I thought. What the heck is my User ID? Did it give me one of those when I signed up for the activation code? I don’t have it on the registration email or the letter with the magic code on. I try the usual suspects. Email address doesn’t work. First name-surname with a dot in between doesn’t work. I click the link ‘Forgot your user ID?’ A page with far too much text on tells me that it should be a number and that I *may* have received it in the post, but not necessarily (I didn’t.) However I can retrieve it using my Tax Reference number and password. So I do that and it only gives me the first part of the ID. The second part will be sent to me by email, and of course I eventually find it cosily languishing in my Junk folder amongst the ‘Talk to Hot Girls’ spam and the e-mails from African relatives telling me I’m a millionaire. I copy and paste it in. I hold my breath. And it doesn’t work. After two attempts I realise that they’ve put a random space between the numbers, and the holy Gateway doesn’t like spaces between the numbers, even when the system spits them out that way.
By this point I feel like I’m either in the Truman Show, or one of those Escape the Room puzzle games. I’m slightly sweating and I have said ‘for fuck’s sake’ a few times. But it’s ok. I crack the clue, enter the Gateway, input my Activation Code, it’s accepted….. and then the Gateway routes me to another log-in page. Luckily, I saved the ID number (minus space.) This time, it tells me that an Access code will be texted to me. Jesus Christ, I swear that even Broadmoor doesn’t have the security measures of the Government Gateway site! The Access Code, inevitably, doesn’t arrive, and sadly mobile phones do not have junk text folders. It is officially M.I.A. I try two, three times more, wait ‘patiently’ for 45 minutes (whilst draining my phone battery checking every 2 minutes to see if it’s there), and yet nothing arrives on my phone. I have no choice but to call HMRC, again. This time I speak with a friendly Scottish lass who asks me the same 150 questions as before, plus a couple of bonus rounds. Such as, ‘How do you receive your correspondence from HMRC?’ – why, via pigeon, of course. Finally she wipes my number off the system and I can start over. After yet another attempt, I’m in! But wait: there is one final challenge. I need to verify my identity using my P60 or Passport. I go the P60 route. ‘Please input your total earnings’. I put in the number and of course, it doesn’t like what I input and rejects me. I have two attempts left and zero patience. I go passport route. I’m not hopeful for this either as I’ve changed the name in my passport very recently, but finally, it verifies that I am, in fact, me. What a surprise. I’ve been trying to tell them that all along.
Luckily my actual tax situation for 2015/16 was not that complicated, so filling in the form is a breeze compared to the hours painfully invested in accessing the damn thing in the first place. I’m feeling triumphant, ready to crack open a bottle of wine and congratulate myself on winning against the Daily Fine Deadline, when….. ‘we have calculated that you owe £1,100 in outstanding tax.’ What. The. Actual.
So that, in a nutshell, is the story about how a Tax Return drove me to alcoholism. If you need me I’ll be in the corner with a bottle of Sav. Thought for the day: get a tax advisor!