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Plain English won't solve this one, but plain common sense is a start

Despite the current tax-code fiasco, and the ensuing media backlash, in the last 15 years Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have made some surprising and impressive improvements to their communications with taxpayers.

When Plain English Campaign started, we were involved with reviewing hundreds of thousands of government documents. Some of these documents included tax information and we were proud to welcome HMRC on board as one of our earliest corporate members. We eventually worked on a major document
- 'How to fill in your tax return' - in 1996 and have trained many HMRC employees since then.

This gives us all the more reason to feel extremely disappointed by recent public communications from HMRC, as those early years of investment and effort appear to have been forgotten.

Chrissie Maher, founder of Plain English Campaign, says, 'This isn't the first time that the campaign has had to give the tax system a good shaking.
Only a couple of years ago we provided a plain English explanation of the 10p tax band after we were overwhelmed with complaints from the public.

Years before, we encouraged taxpayers to stick a halfpenny piece to their jargon-filled tax returns to help fund a plain English rewrite as the Inland Revenue said they had no funds available to make things clearer.'

Plain English Campaign went on to edit the Tax Returns notes. The reaction was disappointing: clear suggestions, initially welcomed by HMRC, had to be ignored because of the complex changes to the tax system brought in by Gordon Brown in his first budget.

Today, HMRC is under fire for threatening to land millions of us with extra tax demands. But this is just a fraction of the problems within the HMRC tax system. By their own admission, HMRC leaves tens of thousands of complaints unresolved everyday.

We believe the immediate problems arise from:

  • increasingly complex tax and benefits systems;
  • public confusion about tax calculations;
  • HMRC employees with insufficient tax knowledge;
  • tax-office staff working in very specific areas that have limited overall understanding; and
  • a computer system that is being fed inaccurate information leading to havoc.

Until relatively recently, the majority of tax issues have centred around the man as the main wage earner, with one job and little else to account for in tax terms. Nowadays, things are somewhat different.

At first glance the HMRC website seems clear. However, beneath the surface lie countless documents full of jargon and gobbledygook.

This one comes from a P800 tax calculation to a tax payer in Bridgwater (exactly as it appears on the paper):

"The reason for the underpayment to much personal allowance was used in this year."

And from page 2 of the P161 Pension enquiry form:

"Other pensions include triviality and wind-up lump sum pension payments but exclude lump sums paid or payable under commutation (when you give up some of your pension to get a lump sum when you retire)."

With the onus of responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the public, whether for tax or benefits matters, the link between HMRC and DWP systems have suffered from increasing complexity over the past ten years.

So what can the taxpayer do about this? Plain English Campaign are supporting the action by the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (, who have prepared draft letters to help the public question their tax fiasco letters.

Paddy Millard of the LITRG says, 'Clear communications are especially important when dealing with a complex technical subject such as tax. Even well-educated members of the public have little knowledge of tax and are easily baffled by jargon.'

To add insult to injury, tax payers are now being contacted by claims-handling companies to help fight tax claims and fill in the numerous pages of tax forms. Unsurprisingly, there is a considerable fee involved for this service that the average tax payer can ill-afford, while profiteering tax dodgers, continue to take advantage of the complex tax system by employing highly-paid tax specialists and lawyers.

Plain English Campaign calls for clearer information first time round from HMRC to make sure that it provides a fair service for all tax payers, particularly the most disadvantaged and brings an end to opportunist practices.

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