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An Inspector Calls

Even as a child, I sensed an oppressive gloom settling on the shop at this time of year. It coincided with my dad piling up dog-eared petrol receipts (3s.6d. a gallon) on the office desk and shuffling through a lot of brown envelopes.

The years may have passed, and now I’m doing exactly what my dad used to do as the end of our tax year comes round.

My wife Doreen says that I look even more depressed when doing the accounts than he did – and with good reason, I might say. After all, I was actually done over by the Revenue and Customs last year and – like getting married and riding a horse and eating sushi – it’s not an experience I want to repeat.

Of course, investigation of tax returns is the stuff of business folklore. Friends queued up to recount such stories as HMRC heavies putting a sweetshop owner into an armlock until he confessed to eating a packet of jelly babies without deducting VAT.

There were tales of brave souls who had paid Revenue fines in 2p coins delivered to the tax office in lorries, and of broken marriages and suicide bids after hours of waterboarding in spotlit cellars by men who drove a Ford Ka and lived in Harlow New Town.

“Don’t wear your new watch,”advised my friend Harbottle, who once ran off with a tax inspector’s wife and was stung for a whopping tax bill the following month. His main grievance was that he didn’t get a rebate when the wife returned to her husband.

By now I had completely forgotten that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. But then, you don’t need to. A computer in a shed in Norfolk picks out your name and the Revenue’s hard-eyed special compliance boys oil their thumbscrews and stack your files into their Ford Ka.

Nor was my accountant particularly reassuring. “Statistically it’s long overdue,” he said hardly able to hide his excitement. “You’ve been lucky.” Oh yes?

“The last time I had a client investigated it took five years and cost him £50,000. I did advise you to take out insurance, if you remember. There were some very good deals around at the time.” Thanks, mate.

They say that 90 per cent of tax inspectors give the rest a bad name, but as it happened, the chap who came to see me seemed quite a decent bloke. He was small and middle-aged with a paunch and an unhealthy complexion who explained that there was nothing personal in the visit.

It seemed that self-employed sports retailers were their most tiresome customers. Over 40 per cent had mistakes in their returns, and 35 per cent were late and the rest had disappeared, changed their names and were last heard of in Monrovia.

“If you were a dentist or a taxidermist, for instance, we probably wouldn’t be here now,”he said. “The problem is that the computer works on the random probability theory.”

I said it was a bit late to make a career change that afternoon but I’d try to do it by next year, and offered him a cup of tea and a jaffa cake. When he left an hour later after eating most of the jaffa cakes, it was with a cheque for £1.20, half the price of a box of pencils that I admitted to also using for pleasure – doing the Daily Mail crossword.

The rest of the accounts , he had to admit, were fine. Actually they were excruciatingly deadly dull. That was always my dad’s secret of getting a tax return accepted and thank goodness he passed it on.

So present your expenses, down to the last 50p car parking ticket and packet of elastic bands, in such meticulous detail that the tax inspector will be bleeding from the eyes and ears by the time he’s finished with the file.

Have no pity when it comes to documenting the depreciation on the stapling machine and wear and tear on the stockroom lino. Don’t forget the 40p for the sponge you use to moisten stamps. Keep it up and you should have them begging for mercy.

But don’t overdo it. Take warning from the experience of a friend, an importer of Taiwan cricket bats, Icelandic skateboards and trainers made from recycled motorbike tyres.

My pal was called at short notice into the local tax inspector’s office on a wet Wednesday and asked:”Have you ever considered applying to the Charity Commissioners for a flag day?”

When he cautiously said that he hadn’t, the inspector replied:”It’s worth thinking about. You obviously run a non-profit-making charity.”Having had his bit of fun, he then seized the books and found £10,000 of non-declared income in a building society in the name of my friend’s Auntie Florence (deceased).

I suspect my accountant, sensing a nice little earner, was sorry to hear I’d escaped the Revenue’s clutches and is expecting better luck this time, but I reckon I should be OK. To be honest, dentistry is a bit outside my comfort zone, but there’s a very reasonable online course on taxidermy.

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