Blog DOB: 22 Aug, 2006
Name: Mark O'Connor
Me in the Antarctic
Really Annoying Sh##
This is my blog where I can dump all the sh## that really annoys me. It stays here, I can get on and enjoy myself. It's like therapy, and you can join too for free. Just add yourself as a blogger and get rid of all your sh##.
If you purchased something on the internet you needed to return, would you be reassured by a customer service policy which stated "You should not contact .... [the returns] office... to see how your....[return].... is progressing. As you can appreciate, dealing with constant phone calls can further delay the processing time"?
This service policy would suggest a number of things. (1) customer care is not valued (2) the number of returns is high (3) the company doesn't have an effective system.
In fact, I think this policy [authored by HMRC] is a swing too far for the plain English campaign. This policy quite simply translates as "f### off".
Speaking in 2003, John Healy, the Treasury Minister for Customs, stated "Customs is also an ancient service, with legal roots stretching back to the 11th Century". To the cynical, tracing the history of HMRC back to the dark ages might confirm their suspicions about the role and function of the organisation. Indeed, when you look at the very narrow definition of it's objectives you might be forgiven for assuming they've never been altered. They simply state: "We are here to ensure that the correct tax is paid at the right time". The powers HMRC use and apply are based on this one simple objective.
Defined in this way, this Government Department, is able to detach itself from both circumstance and consequence. Rules can be blindly applied as they are not limited by any economic context. This may also go some way in explaining why there does not exist a Taxpayers charter. There is no downward pressure from the organisations goals to have one. Although it's been discussed at the Consultative Committee Meetings it seems to have been reduced to a carry forward meeting minute. It needs further thought.
Suppose we added one more aim to their objectives, and this was "To not inhibit or impede economic growth." This goal might accomplish a number of things, including a need by HMRC to understand the wider economic impact of applying it's powers.
Let's look at an example. In it's current form it is perfectly permissible for a company to have to wait over four months to be VAT registered. If the registration process were governed by an objective to not impede economic growth this timeframe would be unacceptable. I can almost hear Donald Trump exclaim, "It's a disaster". The organisational structure and practices would have to change so that the process be completed in an acceptable period, a period to which the organisation is accountable.
At the moment there is none. Guidance booklets from HMRC suggest the registration process to be three weeks, however, owing to their single objective, and the lack of a tax payers charter, they can legitimately take as long as they like. There will be some reason or power they can apply which supersedes any prior commitment. At the moment, this reason is Missing Trader Intra-Community (MTIC) VAT fraud estimated to cost the Exchequer 0.6% of total Government revenue, almost the same still being lost through tobacco smuggling, or estimated to be lost in identity fraud. The spin put on MTIC fraud is that it diverts vital funding intended for public services, like hospitals and schools, on which we all rely.
I say "spin" as we should not forget these losses are less than the £3.3billion in unpaid taxes avoided by over half a million illegal workers, and less than the amount the Government has spend on the Iraq war. It's a spin, should it be used to lower standards of public service? Long, undue delays in VAT registration are explained away as part of Customs strategy to combat MTIC fraud. This, for some reason, seems to make it okay.
Lets look at another example. HMRC have redeployed an additional six hundred staff to help with validating the VAT repayment returns of companies trading in industries tainted with MTIC fraud. When we look at the numbers it just doesn't seem to stack up. The Department processes approximately 170,000 repayment returns per annum. Of these, only a small minority relate to returns submitted by companies trading in tainted markets. If this small minority were 5% then there would be some 8,500 returns per year to apply increased validation to.
With these numbers, each repayment return would have one Customs Officer working full time on it for four weeks. You would be forgiven for concluding , with this level of resource, returns would be validated quickly. This is not the case. In a letter leaked to me, from a reader, a senior Customs Officer writes, "HMRC is under no statutory obligation to complete these verifications within any fixed timeframe" and further "the case officer will normally provide at least monthly updates", which would suggest the process is going to be a siege.
Cashflows of legitimate businesses are squeezed as Customs retain their VAT repayments as part of their strategy to combat MTIC fraud. This makes it okay. Where the single objective of the organisation is "to ensure the correct tax is paid at the right time", it becomes acceptable to implement a strategy to "disrupt.... all points in the supply chains". The collateral damage is not considered.
Are these the "legal roots stretching back to the 11th Century"?
Ok, so where were we?
To recap, I was registering a start-up business for VAT. The application was submitted online on the 4th of July. The application prompted a request for further information, the majority of which just does not apply to a home business. I replied to the answers and posted my blog on the subject towards the end of August.
The next contact I have with Customs & Excise consists of a business card put through my letterbox. A meeting hadn't been arranged with me. They had seemingly "given it a whirl" on the off chance I might be in.
I held the card in my hand thinking whether this was indeed a good use of tax payers money. It must have taken two staff a round trip of three hours to make the visit. That makes six hours or almost a day, which could have been avoided with a simple call beforehand.
My eyes linger on the card before I turn it over. There is a note on the reverse asking me to call. I do. A meeting is arranged for Tuesday, the following week, the 27th of September, at "morning".
I listen to James O'Brien on LBC while I wait. Occasionally, I look through the front window to see if anyone is there. Then I see a convertible pull up, park outside next doors, raise the roof, and two Customs Officers get out.
They explain that HMRC need to apply more detailed verification to businesses registering for VAT owing to abuse of the system, an abuse that has led to substantial losses for the UK exchequer. They are well mannered. I show them samples of some products I am looking to import from the Far East. One of them is a redesign of a popular Asian product I am planning to manufacture. They seem satisfied and exclaim, "you're obviously not the type of company we're looking for". All in all they stay about twenty minutes.
The application is referred back to the Registration Unit at Deansgate. I feel assured the VAT number will be issued, finally, after three months. Three weeks later, on the 23rd October, an HMRC brown envelope arrives through the letter box.
Instead of the expected VAT certificate there is an "Advice of Non-Registration". The letter says "for the time being you will not be registered". The letter contains a table of reasons an application cannot be processed.
There is an X against "Your application form has failed pre-registration checks, please contact the office for further information".
My first thought was of customer service. Wouldn't it have been helpful to include the "further information" with the letter? Instead, I have to write to them and request it, they will send it, then I have to respond to it and ask them to reconsider the application. Was this the most efficient or effective way to do this? If there had been other questions couldn't the visiting officers have asked them? I can foresee another six to eight weeks delay.
Interestingly this is the first letter, which doesn't give advice about invoicing. Previously you are reminded to add VAT to the sales price and tell the customer you will sort him out with a tax invoice later. Having done so, and being advised of non-registration, what do you now tell the customer? If you are appealing the decision do you still need to follow this process? My first thought was of customer service, but the letter offers no help.
To say I am baffled as to how a VAT application can take four months is an understatement. What can possibly take so long? Whatever it is, it can't be good news for UK entrepreneurs.
The unwieldly tool HMRC applies to combat fraud partly creates the problem they try to solve. In order to VAT register a company, businesses are being encouraged, or should I say being cornered into, buying already registered companies, which are dormant, or being liquidated or are worth nothing. Or they register companies with different trade classifications, such as a plumber, and then change the classification after being registered.
Where the alternative is to wait over four months for an application to be processed I can understand why business owners do this. Is it wrong? You know, I don't think it is anymore. Why should new, legitimate businesses in the UK be choked with red tape and be criminalized?
Was it really Tony Blair who said we ".. should receive, high quality service from the Government"?
Ken Livingston wins his high court appeal against a finding he brought his office (him being mayor of London) into disrepute after likening Evening Standard journalist, Oliver Finegold (him being Jewish), to a Nazi camp guard.
Mr Justice Collins (him being educated) says "the right of freedom of speech does extend to abuse". So it seems Ken can continue to be "unnecessarily offensive".
Great news as we fall out of the pubs at closing time and take an irrational dislike for someone. As we hurl abuse we can be confident in the precedent set by Mr Justice Collins (him being educated) and Ken Kivingston (him being our Mayor).
It's ok to be abusive to someone. We're just exercising our freedom of speech.
.... and hang the consequences. How exactly does this relate to our growing culture of yobbish behaviour, stabbings, and the vast sums of money squandered in the NHS as A&E respond to late night brawlers? Eh.....Look, the important thing is my right to insult and abuse someone be protected by our legal system!
What's next? Perhaps it's time for Ken (him being Mayor of London) to walk to work in a football shirt and a can of tennants.
The good news is when you uninstall IE7 you revert back to IE6 with it's familiar navigation.....
There is an article on the Microsoft website by Mark Walker entitled "Windows Internet Explorer 7 Toolbar: It's your option". It was penned in June and claims IE7 "has a monitor full of choices....to customise the browser.....to suit your personal tastes". The article includes screen shots where it looks as if a user can toggle back to the classic view, the one we're familiar with in using Microsoft products; with the file menu on top etc. But things seem to have moved on since June.
Now the final version of IE7 is due to be released this quarter, distributed as a high-priority update via Automatic updates and the Windows Update and Microsoft Update sites, but on the copy I downloaded today some of the reported options have been clipped back. It wasn't, for example, possible to revert back to the clean, classic view. When I was first presented with the screen I was immediately frustrated with some of the changes, but in particular in not being able to customise the layout. In fact, I must admit, having used Internet Explorer for over ten years, today is the first day I downloaded alternative browsers. I was so annoyed I figured, "well, if I must learn to use it again, I may as well look at alternatives". Browsers of course are free, so there is no reason why you can't download and run alternatives. I picked Netscape and Firefox.
Netscape for some reason drew an association with IE and ended up presenting me back with exactly the same IE7 screen, only it said Netscape. "losers" was all I could mumble as I immediately uninstalled it. Firefox, on the other hand, which you can download from here, has a superior user interface to IE7. In fact, in a very short time, I almost had it configured back to looking like classic IE, only better.
What's the problem with IE7? Well for me the main thing is you can't customise the appearance. The address bar stays on top, presumably the developers having read Joel Spolsky's book "User Interface Design for Programmers" or his blog liked the idea of being able to bounce your mouse off the top of the screen and end up in the address bar. However, they seem to have missed all points on user familiarity and navigation.
Two icons for "favorites" now, irritatingly, appear in the far left, where the more frequently used home button would be better placed. All the other icons are right aligned until you turn off the tab browsing feature in internet options, which you have to do to get them back on the left. And of course, they've added in search - No Thanks - I have a clean google homepage. Some added security features are bundled in but these should be handled by your virus protection software or you end up getting conflict errors instead.
I genuinely believed the browser wars had ended long ago. Microsoft were the clear winner with a superior product. However, if IE7 is released with the rigid user interface it has today I would bet the wars start over. There seems to be some strategic effort with IE7 to more seriously engage the search market and I think the browser feels diluted as a consequence, in any case, I it would seem to be surpassed by the Firefox browser.
The good news about IE7 is you can uninstall it and revert back to IE6 with it's familiar navigation, or you can download the Firefox browser for free.
With parking spaces not getting any wider and more and more people driving the equivalent of armoured personnel carriers is it any wonder our cars are being scratched to bits when there isn't even enough room to open your door to get in.
I had taken to parking in the remotest corners of any car park and, if it was a multi story, going straight to the top floor, thereby minimising the risk of damage to the car, including all the hit and run bumper scrapes you find, each one, as if adding to your disillusion about humanity.
Parking further away I would get more exercise. This seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind when looking for a parking space. The objective is to park as close as possible to the destination, even if, for some, it means parking in a disabled spot. When challenged, can you believe someone would shrug "sure, there'll be none of them around this time of the night".
Parking at a distance brings a new wonder. How is it I can park remotely, yet, when I return to my car, I find a cluster of other cars parked around it, as if to form an island? Yet again, on a visit to Tesco, i park in the remote corner, plenty of empty spaces beside me, and lots between me and the entrance.
Why then would someone pull up, so close, that I can't properly open my door?
I look at the space between our cars, I look around at all the empty spaces......
The first line of my renewal notice from the AA says "We've checked to make sure that your renewal quote is the very lowest we can offer."
This should be reassuring coming from a company like the AA. You can almost picture the dilligent, suited executives making calls, negotiating for you, well in advance. You can imagine, aided by their TV advertising campaign, perhaps a month before the renewal date, at one of their Monday morning meetings the Boss quips "Oh, by the way, Mark's insurance is up for renewal, go out there and get him a good deal, the best deal. That's what we're here for."
Even as you visit the AA website you're greeted with and reassured by statements like "We'll shop around to find the best car quote for you" and "..our recent survey (July '06) showed we could save up to 40% on your car insurance."
This all sounds very positive. How is it then, with another year added to my no claims bonus and my car depreciated further in value, that my premium should increase by 17%? Last year I paid £350.25, this year I am being quoted at £409.43.
What happened to the "outstanding deals" being negotiated for me, by the AA, as "the UK's biggest car and home insurance broker, dealing with over 20 leading insurers"?
How is it I visit one other website, moneysupermarket.com, and obtain 21 better quotes? One of the quotes is from AXA, my current insurer through the AA? The best quote was over £100 cheaper. I settled with Direct Line in the end, paying less than the premium I paid in the previous year for an identical policy, saving about £60 when compared with the AA quote
Another insurer, another story, but I guess they all do this..... Direct line offer to "securely store your payment details so that we may automatically renew your policy for subsequent years. Select NO if you do not agree to this."
Having a healthy disdain for direct debits and recurring payments I select no. Recurring payments rely on your complacency, you're unlikely to ever get a good deal if you agree to them. I have a feeling a few percent is bunged on top of what you paid the prior year, right or wrong, I certainly feel that way about my AA quote
A note to the wise: always say No to Direct Debits. Always get a second opinion, always get a second quote.