Tax from the trenches: “You do a lot of stuff don’t you…..”

Tax from the Trenches

I was having a chat with one of my non-tax friends the other day, telling him about a trip I’d made earlier in the month to see a client in the wilds of Essex. I had got hopelessly lost. Even the Sat-Nav seemed to be laughing as it inexplicably took me into the middle of a newly built housing estate and told me I had arrived. Sat-Navs aren’t meant to lie are they? Anyway I ended up having to ring the client and admit defeat, only to be told by the affable client that “No-one ever finds us first time”. I felt a little better.

“You do a lot of stuff don’t you” said my friend. “I thought all you tax people just sat in a room and did tax stuff”. He had a point. A lot of tax stuff is just sitting in a room doing letters and schedules, but sometimes you get to go and meet people and things become interesting, like my visit to see the client in Essex. They had mentioned to one of the partners at my firm about some possible Research & Development activity and I had agreed to pop out and see them on my way home from work. When I finally got there I was met with the customary tea and biscuits followed by an interesting chat about what they were doing. This particular story has a happy ending so I’ll return to this later.

But the discussions with my friend got me thinking a bit deeper about my job, the people I see, and the different aspects of tax and investigation work that I get involved in. So with the help of our marketing department, I am going to start pulling together a monthly blog about what tax can be like when viewed from the trenches each day.

So what is there to talk about? Well if was all marketing driven success stories then this would be even more of a dull article than it might end up being! In the search for what to write about I was brought down to earth with a bit of a bump, all to do with one of my presentations. Lauren from our marketing department mentioned that a recent seminar I’d presented was now on you tube. I smiled weakly and groaned inwardly. Those of you crave the spotlight and look good in front of a camera might well love to see yourself on You-Tube. I don’t, mainly because without meaning to, I tend to pull faces so I look like Stan Laurel. Also in my head, I’m not really overweight, maybe just a bit chunky for a middle aged guy. All I can say is that You-Tube is an unforgiving mistress and all I could see were clear reminders that I should ease back from the Doritos. But anyway I sent the link to some other non-tax friends and made the joke about Stan Laurel before they could. “What do you think” I said. “Blimey” said a very longstanding mate, “You’re the spitting image of Steve Davis”!

The seminar itself was actually a lot of fun, up at our WeWork offices near Liverpool Street. We had a professional film crew and a full house of attendees that were genuinely interested about the subject matter (Research & Development), but just as important, there were some seriously classy nibbles laid on for after. Mini steaks in rolls, beef with rice in individual pots, little curry dishes and beer on tap. Anyone who knows me will appreciate this always put me in a predicament. Naturally people want to come up and chat after you’ve finished speaking and that’s great of course, but I do love a bit of free food. In the end it probably worked out for the best in that most of the food had been eaten  by the time I got there but I made sure whatever was left wasn’t going to be thrown away.

Another meeting of note took place last week with some HMRC Inspectors who flew down all the way from Scotland to meet with a client. I picked them up from South Woodford tube station for the last leg of the journey as it’s a 20 minute walk from the tube to the office and no-one wants HMRC arriving hot and irritable for a meeting! The Inspectors were genuinely nice guys, both middle aged, grey haired, highly sociable and just a little bit portly. Pretty much a mirror image of me! We chatted about HMRC and how different it is to when I worked there between 1981 and 2004. It’s nice to speak to HMRC on the drive to the office to get a feel of who you’re dealing with and, most of the time, HMRC guys and girls are just the same as everyone else. They have a job to do.

The reason behind the meeting was a common scenario for lots of accountants. An unrepresented taxpayer gets an enquiry letter, panics, and supplies everything that HMRC has asked for, gets into a mess and then ignores everything HMRC send to him. He finally contacts an accountant when things start looking ugly, in this case tax assessments for over £100,000 and deliberate penalties of £20,000. I won’t go into the circumstances of the case in too much detail here, but just to say things were not even 1% as bad as HMRC first believed and the assessments and penalty determinations are well on the way to being cancelled, but I was quite taken by how scared the client was with the whole process. It’s so easy to be glib and take the whole HMRC enquiry process for granted when you deal with day in day out. It’s good to see people face to face and to appreciate just how terrifying an enquiry letter or an information notice can be. People don’t just need a tax professional to speak to HMRC, sometimes they need reassurance and a bit of a hug.

So finally, back to the meeting in the wilds of Essex and the client who is carrying out R&D. Well two weeks later we have a claim being sent to HMRC which if successful (which it will be) will generate a tax credit repayment of just over £25,000 for the client. We spoke on the phone before everything was submitted and the client was ecstatic. “You’ll have to come down and have tea with us again”. Hmm, only if I can remember how to get there………

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