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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Nothing is more certain than death and taxes...with taxes having a slight edge

As some of you will know, those of you who bother to read my hugely informative and entertaining posts, I complete the tax returns for my wife's business, her own return and that of her business partner. It's always a fairly hairy process and usually completed towards the end of January.

I had congratulated myself on completing and submitting the aforementioned returns and managing to secure a tax rebate for my wife and her business partner. It was all done and dusted by 21st January.

Then earlier this week I received a chilling e-mail from the business partner. She'd received a letter from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) informing her that as she hadn't submitted her tax return by the deadline of 31st January she had a £100 penalty to pay. She could appeal and a further charge of £10 a day would be levied until the appeal had been dealt with.

I don't know about you, but when I hear something like that I regress. All my cockiness dissipates and I'm full of doubt and guilt. I'm once again that little schoolboy who's been found out cheating at arithmetic.

Did I submit her tax return? I recalled I e-mailed her when I'd done it and attached a copy of the return. I went to my sent box. Sure enough there was the e-mail, with the attached pdf of her tax return (for some reason she hadn't been able to open it). When I opened it my blood ran was completely blank! This was a disaster!!!

But wait, I printed off a hard copy. I opened up the box file where I keep all the tax returns. There was my wife's and the business's....and her business partner's and there was the message confirming that it had been received by HMRC. I took a picture of message and e-mailed it immediately to the partner.

Collective phews all round I can tell you. I slept easy that night - although I recall a dream which centred around my old office and my unsuccessful attempts to try to compete an important return for my boss.

In the morning, however, I had this nagging doubt which I couldn't shift. Something was not quite right. I went back to the box file and brought out the business partner's return. There was something missing which I'd seen the previous day but hadn't consciously registered.

When electronically filing a tax return each page is stamped with a unique reference code. Printing out the return should, I thought, include that code at the bottom of each printed page. That hadn't happened with the return on the desk in front of me. Maybe, despite the evidence of the message from the Revenue confirming receipt of the return that hadn't happened. What if my wife's business partner's return hadn't been received and that was why she was being clobbered with a £100 penalty and £10 a day until it was sorted. Oh gosh, that could take an age, she could have a bill running into hundreds of pounds and it was all my fault.

I was back in my short trousers standing outside the class room waiting for the deputy head to come by and ask why I wasn't in class.

And then in struck me. Of course, since I'd filed the return electronically all I had to do was to go to the log in page on the HMRC website, log in and I could see whether or not the return had been received. After rummaging around another box file I found the piece of paper with the log in details. I can tell you I was almost shaking with fear and anticipation. Logging on would prove positively one way or the other whether I had successfully submitted the tax return.

I had three attempts at keying in the id and personal code, such was my state of high anxiety. I was greeted not by the page I'd expected but by one asking me if I wanted to switch over to the new system  being introduced later in the year for all on line taxpayer. No, I did not, and I clicked through. The first thing I registered was the refund figure of £95, a figure I recognised from the tax return calculation. Then I saw those blessed words "return received on 21st of January." I was vindicated!  The final, there in black and white, proof, on the HMRC's own website...the tax return had been received well in advance of the deadline. I immediately took a screen print of the web page and e-mailed to the business partner. She will attach it to her appeal form.

What a trauma. Typical of the Revenue, not worrying about their customers - torture victims more like. Well, of course, if they can get something wrong they will. I've always said they reduced their staff numbers by far too many,  a false economy. And who suffers, not the mandarins in Whitehall; oh no! The poor downtrodden taxpayers that's who. It's a total disgrace. I've a mind to write to my local MP, except she's too busy trying not to be deselected.

Maybe I'll submit a paper based return next time - less hassle. But, of course, HMRC will do away with that....You just can't win.

Friday, 5 February 2016

A Flying Jatt

The other day I suddenly was worried I'd lost £9,000. It really caused me some concern and a restless night or two.

I blame it all on quantitative easing and 5 years of "bugger all" interest rates.It happened like this.

Over the last few months one or two of my saving accounts have matured and renewal rates offered were pretty slim. So I had the money transferred to my on line instant access savings account. At the time I was playing with the idea of becoming a landlord.

As it happened, I quickly decided that a "buy to let" landlord's life wasn't for me, Which meant I had £9000 in an extremely low interest rate account doing nothing. I looked around for a suitable place to put this money, but there was nothing that caught my fancy. My experience with stocks and shares hasn't been the happiest so I stick with cash. The funds languished in this low earning account.

After a while I started to get worried and also annoyed at this lack of earning power of the nine grand and started to look around for a safe haven....and hit upon the State Bank of India (SBI). There they were sitting atop of loads of comparison websites offering eye watering rates - and they were Financial Services Compensation Scheme protected.

I clicked through to their website and impatiently filled out an ISA form. In no time at all I had one set up and received an e-mail confirming that and telling me I could bank transfer my deposit within 15 days. I couldn't wait and I immediately transferred £9k to the sort code and account details provided.

Brilliant I thought, when I chanced upon an article about the horrors that can result from spamming. Wonderfully authentic dummy websites that were indistinguishable from the real thing. How many people have been conned into parting with their money....Oh dear!

I went straight back to the SBI web site. It looked real enough, as did the e-mail I received from them. I checked the sort code - it was theirs. That was good, but maybe the account was a dummy - rather like I was.

I dialled the help line number on the e-mail I'd received. The voice at the other end sounded Indian enough (usually a sign to immediately put down the phone - nuisance call); I was given a number of options to choose from and chose general enquiries. The phone rang and rang and rang. Nothing, not a poppadom, not an Indian pie. I redialled and this time chose a different option. Nothing. And again I redial and chose another option. the phone kept ringing.

I imagined in a boiler room in darkest where-ever some smooth criminal was laughing his head off as he counted out my nine grand...I was at a state of near panic. £9,000 lost, gone for ever. I pictured myself being featured on MoneyBox and in the local paper. "Walthamstow pensioner hands over life savings to con man: a salutatory tale."

In desperation I e-mailed the bank. Silence; no customary acknowledgement of receiving it. That was it. I'd have to tell the wife that I'd lost quite a bit of money.

It so happened that the following Wednesday I had to go into town. One of the bank's offices was near Liverpool Street station which is on the line from Walthamstow. I found the bank with no trouble and went in.

It looked like and had the air of one of those private banks. Just one or two customers and smart Indian men and women in grey suits talking earnestly to clients. I was in a queue. We were all in our later years. Two looked suspiciously English. One had a handful of application forms which he was clutching to his chest. "Here to open a cash ISA?" I enquired. "Yes" he replied. He'd tried to do it on line but it didn't work. He had a narrow escape I thought. The other English looking elderly man had fallen asleep.

I was just about to ask how long they'd been waiting when a very nice man asked me what I wanted. On explaining my concern he immediately showed me into the office of some senior manager or other, who rose from his desk and shook my hand!

I went through my experience, my concern that my money was irretrievably etc., etc. All the time I was talking he was keying my details into his desktop. Yes, I'd opened an account with them - at their Golders Green branch. That threw me. But apparently they automatically open an account in the branch nearest you: except I thought that the City of London was closer than Golders Green (ten long stations from Finchley Central on the Northern Line).

They'd only received the money that morning: all £9k of it, and it was sitting in a saving account not the ISA account I'd asked for. No worries: he set it up and there it was now sitting happily glowing in the warmth of 2.3% for 3 years. I signed a few pieces of paper and he assured me the office was not a pop up shop front for some Indian Thuggee gang.

As I left he pointed to his in tray. "600 applications to open an ISA account this morning". I suggested that might be why no one answered my call. We shock hands and I left a happy man.

A few days later I received my ISA certificate and I've now an on line bank account with those very nice people at the State Bank of India .

Monday, 25 January 2016

Dark Star

If I'd been born before the 1930's the Solar System would have ended at Neptune. Then some bright spark discovered Pluto. At that time the size of the Universe would have been restricted to the Milky Way. Then Hubble and others extended our vision by some billions of light years.

New Horizons has stunned us with the news from Pluto. A piece of planetary debris a long way away from our sun's emanations is not as we thought dead but surprisngly active. Closer to home, Saturn's moon Enceladus has water shooting out of its surface. It has an ocean underneath its icy core. Titan, another of Saturn's off springs has a chemistry that  produces complex molecules and the precursor to life.

All this is taking place a long, long way from the Goldilocks zone at temperatures where water freezes into metal.

Jupiter is no less exciting. Its moon Europa, deeply ice covered, would appear to have an ocean that is abysmal. Its waters, heated by tidal forces that act on the moon, interact with its core to produce complex chemical reactions - and life? It would appear that Arthur C Clarke was not far wrong.

It wasn't that long ago that the Kuiper Belt was unknown, or the Oort Cloud the imaginings of a fertile Estonian mind. Now we're planning deep space missions to plunge the mysteries of Saturn's moons and Europa's watery core. Mind you we've Lake Vostok and her sisters to plumb here on Mother Earth with the prospect of life forms as yet undiscovered and eons off our evolutionary path.

Speculation about a Neptune sized planet in the Kuiper Belt shouldn't be so surprising. Why, it would appear that space may be littered with planets zillions of miles away from any star. Earths expelled from paradise and forced to wonder in the void. Some may be captured by passing stars to join an existing planetary system. Just imagine a few billion interstellar migrants turning up on our door step. Others to wander lonely as a cloud 'til all the stars dim and the cosmos falls silent.

Our ancestors were unconcerned that we might be the sole inhabitants of our Universe. In fact our uniqueness was celebrated. God's specific creation, and any thought of other life anywhere else was frowned upon. Just ask Giordano Bruno.

Now the prospect of our solitude is worrying. We crave for evidence that we are not unique, that we are not an infinitesimally small accident, that we are not alone in a dark, unreasoning cosmos.

The Gods may have been unreasonable, cruel and fickle, but they had a relationship with us. we could talk to them. They may not always listen but sometimes they did. Science just explains: actually it doesn't even do that. It gives us plausible fictions but they are deeply unsatisfactory.

"Interstellar", "Contact", "Star Trek" and "Star Wars", they all serve our deep need to be be more than just a small dot in a silent universe, full of billions upon billions of firing synapses conjuring up the  mirage of consciousness and meaning.