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Tax Returns: Postal Strike

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to take account of people filing paper tax returns who are affected by difficulties in the postal service and the proposed strike.

HMRC will treat as delivered on time any paper tax return for 2008-09 delivered by hand to an HMRC office by Monday 2 November. HMRC will also accept the proposed postal strike as a reasonable excuse for failing to file by the 31 October deadline but customers will need to be able to show that they posted their returns in good time. If they can do this, they will not have to pay a filing penalty.

My Lords, I declare an interest as one of the many thousands who will be filing a paper return. From what the Minister has said, if the counter services are not on strike, it will be possible to get a certificate of posting, which is a free service, and that that will be accepted as proof of posting in time. What about those people who have already posted their returns and are simply not getting anywhere? When they phone up, they are told that their return has not been received. I am still waiting for post dating from early September which I have not received.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is certainly right in her first contention that returns can be accepted in the offices, as I have indicated, up to Monday 2 November. On the other point about postal services I have indicated that, where an individual is able to establish that the return was posted in good time, the Inland Revenue will certainly take account of that fact and the individual will not be subject to any penalty. However, the House will recognise that the issue is governed by statute and therefore the degree of flexibility for the Inland Revenue is limited.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the problem raised by the noble Baroness does not apply only to income tax returns? For example, people paying credit card bills by post could well find that their payment arrives late and that they are stung for a huge penalty by being even a day or two late through no fault of their own. Will the Government speak to the principal credit card companies and ask them to draw up guidelines which individual customers might be expected to follow? If he is telling us that we should register the delivery of such items at a post office to prove they have been posted by a certain time, customers would find that extremely useful advice.

My Lords, I always assume that these exchanges in the House are communicated to the whole of the population, so the advice has already been tendered. The noble Lord will recognise the obvious point that, so far as HMRC is concerned, the Government have the most direct responsibility; we have indicated how we expect HMRC to discharge that responsibility. As regards credit cards, those are private transactions. We will look at advice but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that that is a matter between the private citizen and the private company concerned.

My Lords, the Minister replied in terms of individuals filing paper tax returns. Can he also comment in the context of VAT returns, as many small businesses still submit their VAT returns on paper?

My Lords, this Question is about matters relating to individual taxpayers, but the Inland Revenue is always reasonable with regard to such issues.

Well, that is against a background of Parliament making it absolutely clear that taxpayers have an obligation to make their returns on time. That is statute; that is the law which this House and the other place have established. The Inland Revenue is obliged to work against that background.

My Lords, as we have time on our side, will the Minister accept that my late noble kinsman and my late noble relative on their mutual honeymoon found a sub-post office in rural Wales where a notice in the window said: “Letters for the 5.30 post must be posted by six o'clock at the very latest”?

My Lords, the House is always very grateful for sufficient time at Questions to enable the noble Lord to produce his anecdotes.

My Lords, further to my supplementary question, in answer to which the Minister said that people would be able to hand-deliver these items, what publicity will he give so people know where the local centres for hand-delivery are? Many people doing paper returns are not computer-literate and do not have access to a computer to check those records.

My Lords, certainly that will be communicated online for the benefit of those who are computer-literate. As far as the rest of the population is concerned, I took steps to identify how difficult it was for citizens to comply with this opportunity, although at this stage we are talking about tax returns that are coming right up to the margin. From the extensive list of Inland Revenue offices, I can see that every town with a population of about 60,000, or even smaller, has an office where this obligation can be complied with.

My Lords, will it be in order for the noble Baroness who asked the Question and other Members of this House who still adhere to paper tax returns to deliver their returns to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in Whitehall?

My Lords, when I asked about the prevalence of offices, Her Majesty’s Treasury had not struck me as the most obvious point of call. I would be loath to suggest that the noble Lord is seeking an additional privilege for Members of this House over the ordinary taxpayer. Probably he would have to move a little further up the road than Whitehall to comply with this request.