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Archive for January, 2009

Self-assessment tax returns: a rant

Monday, January 19th, 2009

I have just finished filing my tax return for the 2007-08 year, using the online “service” provided by HMRC. This is the third year I have done it online and I cannot remember it being this difficult before.

I’ll preface this by saying that I have over 40 years’ experience in designing computer systems. The self-assessment system has these design and usability faults which delayed my successful completion of the form:

  • The self-employment section asks for your turnover, and in the next box for ‘any other business income’. I had none, so I entered £0.00 — how was I to know that I should have left it blank?
  • Having learned that lesson, there were several boxes which weren’t relevant to me so I left them blank. There was a supplementary question about these irrelevant boxes which wanted the answer Yes or No but I skipped them … mistake number two! I had to answer a rather pointless No.
  • In the unlikely event that the Revenue owe me money, they ask for my bank account details. Now my bank statements and cheque book both say my sort code is 30-95-76 so that’s what I entered. Another error, they wanted 309576.
  • Next, the gift aid section. As far as I can work out there’s no point in filling this in unless you earn enough to get into the 40% tax band, (which I don’t) when you can claim some extra tax relief. Remember all those places you visited 18 months ago run by charities, who ask you to pay a small premium so they can claim back the gift aid? Did you make a note of it? No, so you have to estimate it.
  • Almost finished. I noticed that the response time is dire, no doubt because everybody else is trying to do this on a Sunday evening. I dread to think what the response time will be as the deadline gets hours rather than weeks away.
  • Last thing: the box for extra information. I wanted to tell them about the gift aid estimate. I also wanted to tell them about the two directorships I hold, neither remunerated, in case a smart official cross-references tax returns with information on file at Companies House. So I tell them all this, which takes up about half the space in the input box, and press next. And get a tax return update failure which lists the three possible reasons. None of which applies to me. So I log off and leave it to the morning.
  • Logging on this morning the same thing happens. When I finally get through to the technical helpdesk, a very helpful Glaswegian suggests, almost immediately, that the reason was that my extra information exceeded 256 characters. Which it turns out was the problem. Not that there was anything about a limit on the form that I could see. Or a countdown of characters left.

Most of these are considerable annoyances but the last one is a showstopper. Anybody hitting this one as the deadline approaches could well go past it and incur the automatic £100 penalty. Don’t they test these things?

A virtual trip to Shetland

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

The southern tip of Shetland

Roger and I had a wonderful holiday last spring, when we travelled to Shetland for the launch of White Nights, the second book in Ann Cleeves‘ Shetland Quartet. The book launch was just an excuse – the Northern Isles are beautiful, and I’d recommend anyone to make the trip.

And now Ann is offering everyone a chance to take a virtual trip to Fair Isle, not just by reading her books, but by being in them! She is conducting a charity auction, and the highest bidder will have their name (or that of a friend or relation nominated by them) used for a character in the last book of the quartet (set on Fair Isle, and currently entitled Homecoming Blues).

If you are interested, you can learn more about the auction on Ann’s web site. It is being held to raise money for Vaila’s Fund, set up to commemorate Vaila Harvey, who died of cancer last year, at the age of sixteen. Vaila and her sisters made an appearance in Raven Black, the first of Ann’s Shetland books, when one of the lead characters goes to their party. "Appropriate, I thought," says Ann, "because whenever we visited Liz and Paul and their daughters were home the house was full of people and laughter."

Shetland is beautiful, and more accessible than you would think. But for people who live on the islands, there’s still an extra hurdle to be crossed between you and the rest of the world – which makes travel more complicated and expensive. Vaila’s Fund will be used to help young Shetlanders of Vaila’s age to do what their contemporaries in the rest of Britain do, and to explore the world away from the islands.

Poetry at the year’s turning

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

One of the things I love about my job is that it brings me a regular supply of poems. Once a month, Ellen Phethean of Diamond Twig sends me her selection for the Poem of the Month. So my first task of the year was to "publish" a fresh new poem, aptly titled One morning…

There was good news on the poetry front at the end of the year, too: Flambard poet Peter Bennet appeared in two consecutive editions of the Guardian Review, whose very positive review was followed a week later by inclusion in the year-end roundup of reader recommendations.

I hope the coming year brings more good things to all our clients, and to all our readers, too!

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