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Translating HMRC jargon

A couple of years late, I noticed that HMRC received a Golden Bull award from the Plain English Campaign for this gem, oft seen by advisers:

I will treat your Tax Return for all purposes as though you sent it in response to a notice from us which required you to deliver it to us by the day we received it.

Far be it from me to defend HMRC, who regularly send out poorly addressed, non-proofread or unintelligible letters, but I thought I might just put on record why this particular tortured phrase appears so often. I will stop short, however, of suggesting a suitable alternative phrase…

Once a taxpayer has a self-assessment record set up on HMRC’s systems, the next step in the tax return cycle is the issue of a notice to complete a tax return for a specific tax year. The vast majority of these are issued on 6 April, and take the form either as a one page notice (SA316) or the front page of the standard tax return (SA100). (Usually, if you filed online the previous year, you’ll get the SA316 version.)

The rest of the notices are issued as and when HMRC become aware of taxpayers who require tax returns, either through their own systems or by a taxpayer contacting them. Strictly speaking, the onus is on the taxpayer to report chargeability to HMRC by 5 October each year, on pain of a penalty of the amount of tax due and outstanding at 31 January.

The next stage is submission, the deadline for which is 31 October for paper returns and 31 January for online returns, but three months after the notice issue date if this turns out to be later. Again, penalties apply for late submission: but you know this story.

So, back to the phrase. This relates to what HMRC term an unsolicited return, in that a taxpayer has submitted a return (either online or by printing off a tax return form) without having been issued with a notice to file. Usually this is because the taxpayer couldn’t see the point of hanging around on hold for half an hour to check with HMRC what to do, or else their letter to the tax office explaining their change in circumstances has been routed via HMRC’s new sorting office in Ankh Morpork and lost to human knowledge.

To fill in the missed steps earlier in the process, the HMRC officer either creates or reactivates the SA record, and retroactively invents the notice to file. The deadline day is set to activate HMRC’s obvious errors and enquiry checking windows.

In conclusion, this is the equivalent of something many of us are guilty of: making a shopping list, then going round Ascoburyson’s picking up non-listed goodies, writing them on the list and then crossing them out. HMRC’s picked up your chocolate-coated tax return and needs to absolve itself of the guilt by writing to you about it.

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