In the middle ages, the legal system was a profitable source of income for the kings and barons who controlled it. Fines paid by the peasantry went straight into the purses of the very people who imposed them. Predictably, the number of pretexts for fining the peasants kept increasing.
It seems that Britain is now reverting to the feudal system, and a committee of MPs agrees. There has been a considerable growth in the number of pretexts for separating us poor serfs from the few groats left to us after the tax man has had his regular cut. The latest example is the aggressive levying of “late payment fees” for overdue paperwork. It might be argued that it is legitimate to discourage undue delay in submitting necessary returns, but the fact that it is being made harder than ever to do all the form-filling in the prescribed manner suggests that is not the real purpose.
Registering tax returns online ought to make the process easier – in theory – but HM Revenue and Customs have succeeded in making it as difficult as a medieval quest.
The first challenge is making sense of a poorly designed website. Then you must register – which inevitably took several attempts. Only when you have registered are you told that you have to wait seven days for an “activation code” – this while on a deadline of the Revenue’s making. Predictably it did not turn up. This initiated the next challenge, a spectacularly unhelpful “help desk”. This took the form of Ordeal By Call Centre – the usual ten minutes of multiple choice on a telephone keypad and queuing before being granted the right to speak to an ignorant apprentice on a temporary contract.
In accordance with the traditional format of quest literature, your knight errant had to go through the Ordeal three times before finding the truth – that the request made ten days before had never been processed.
When the code turned up only a week late, it seemed like a miracle – but several failed attempts to download the required software necessitated a return to the dreaded “help desk”. This time, however, a genuine human being had accidentally been employed. He gave some useful tips on their unusual downloading procedures and admitted cheerfully, “Everyone has to come here sooner or later – you could never work it out on your own.” True.
Finally filling in the long-winded electronic form took two hours – where ticking the boxes on the old paper forms would take only minutes, so long as you had the necessary figures ready.
Alternatively you can always buy commercial software – all for the privilege of helping the Revenue tax us.