Retired couple suffer blunder by taxman – then harassment

A RETIRED Yorkshire couple pursued by the taxman for £15,000 they did not owe have received an offer of compensation for their "frightening" experience – just £25.

Robert and Christine Wailes say they have endured seven months of "harassment" and at one point a debt collector called at their home in Mirfield, near Dewsbury.

Last year they endured sleepless nights when they received a bill from the Revenue for 7,000.

Their accountant reassured them that they did not owe anything, but three weeks later they received another letter saying they owed 11,000.

Despite their accountant ringing and writing to the Revenue many times the letters kept coming with the interest mounting.

Soon a debt collection agency was knocking on the door and further letters demanded 15,000.

Mr Wailes, 63, a retired shoe salesman, said he and his wife, aged 64, suffered sleepless nights and at one point his wife had urged him to just pay the money.

Finally, late last year, the taxman admitted that mistakes had been made and they actually owed him 800.

He complained about the treatment and after three months got a reply, saying they had lost the paperwork, and a cheque for his trouble of just 25. He called the offer "absolutely disgusting".

Mr Wailes is also seeking to recover 205 in legal fees that he incurred fighting the taxman but so far has only been offered 80.

To add insult to injury a letter of explanation from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) included a sentence with the word "sorry" accidentally missing, he says.

"They don't know how to use the word 'sorry'. They told us they had lost our paperwork twice. They wrote 'we are (blank) for this; the word sorry had been missed out."

The couple's case features on ITV1's Tonight programme this evening which examines HMRC blunders and quotes a whistleblower saying the tax inquiry system is in a "massive mess". The tax office insider claims that mistakes are now endemic.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, tells the programme: "Staff have actually been told that when someone rings in with a tax inquiry and you spot a mistake on a person's record you have to ignore it unless they have actually asked you to look at that mistake.

"It's all about the Government target of answering so many calls in a day. And if you write in, the post often goes missing. It just disappears, just gets binned... Some letters simply aren't seen by anyone. In the call centres you've often got hundreds of calls waiting, then it can suddenly change in seconds to just say 15 waiting. People have simply given up, or been cut off.

"We've got little time to read up on any new tax guidance. And last week we had a situation where half a million payment reminder letters were sent out late, meaning people were being threatened with surcharges and penalties they might not even owe."

David Harnett, head of tax for HMRC, told the programme: "Are our contact centres under pressure? Yes they are. There's more demand from people wanting to contact us than we've ever seen before and we are determined to improve our performance – it's not good enough at the minute."

Mr Harnett has promised to look into the case of the Waileses if the couple contact him.

HMRC's staff has been reduced by 17,000 in the past three years and more than 100 tax offices closed, while tax complaints to the independent Adjudicator's Office have doubled.

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Philip Hammond said: "Once again, the target culture is driving unacceptable behaviour – and if this whistleblower's story is true taxpayers are being systematically cheated."

A spokeswoman for HMRC said it "provides a very good service to its millions of customers", adding: "We constantly monitor our performance across the board and where it falls below standard we move resources to improve."

She said any staff member caught throwing away mail would face disciplinary proceedings and that a new contact centre had been opened in Cumbria.

Taking on the Taxman is at 8pm today on ITV1.