'Proponents of ‘small government’ take note: a failing system is pitching people into a Kafkaesque nightmare'

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By Anne Southern

AS I write, a week ahead of my deadline – as I am having a holiday – there are a lot of worried people in Jersey. It is not just the rocketing cost of living and fear of rent rises causing the anxiety, but a failing bureaucratic system that is pitching people into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Last week we received a letter from the tax office with an assessment of tax due, and a fine of £350 for not submitting the form on time. I found this extremely upsetting, not just because of the unfair fine, but because I try to be a model citizen and our form was submitted by hand before the end of March. I am not as helpless as most, however. Given that most of our income comes from the public purse, the figures are probably correct, though I fear the small amounts of bank interest we receive will have been overestimated.

Being married to a States Deputy has its advantages, as my husband knew who to contact and received a speedy reply. But still all was not well. Our form could not be found, there were further questions requiring the exact date and location of the delivery of the form, and, unfortunately, though I’d photocopied the figures that we submitted, I hadn’t recorded the page with the date. I just have to assume that we will be believed and everything will be sorted out in due course.

I did wonder how common our problem was, only to be quite shocked by my Facebook feed the following day, which contained a post with an outpouring of anguish from people whose forms had been lost and could ill afford the surcharge.

Someone helpfully suggested taking a selfie when you post the form – a good suggestion, I thought, until someone else said that it was not accepted as proof.

Another person had fruitlessly suggested that officers could check their security cameras to see people posting their form. But then others were accused of handing in empty envelopes. I know filling in the form online is the preferred method, but it is not only older people who find this difficult. One responder said they thought they had submitted the form only to be told that it hadn’t gone through.

The frustration of doing the right thing but being totally unable to prove it, and having the onus of proof put upon you is distressing in the extreme. And, of course, with all these genuine people complaining that their forms have been lost, what’s to stop a few scammers from trying it on? That all-important trust has broken down.

Then today I read of university students starting the new term without any confirmation that they would receive their grants. I’m sure after the problems they have endured in the past few years, this is a worry that they could well do without. And again, the story is not just one of delay, but of forms duly filled in and submitted but then lost.

I do wonder whether those in receipt of social security payments are receiving the amount they are entitled to. I know of many cases where people have received overpayments and have then been crippled financially by having to pay them back some time later. It is high time that overpayments to blameless recipients were written off.

Just what is going on? Surely this can only be due to a shortage of well-trained staff. It is not helped by the public’s lack of access to government offices, so you can no longer hand your form over in person and get it stamped and receipted as you do so.

When civil service cuts are announced, they tend to be applauded by those who appreciate savings in government spending. People tend to value only those on the public payroll who are delivering frontline services: teachers, police officers, medical staff and firefighters. Without the unpopular ‘pen-pushers’, however, these services can’t be delivered efficiently.

Fundamental to all our services is the collection of the taxes that will pay for them, and there are clearly insufficient staff to deal with the pressure points in the tax year. Missing forms can be chased from previous taxpayers, but what of new taxpayers? Are some being let off the hook while others pay more than their due?

I have previously advocated Clement Attlee’s maxim of ‘pay[ing] your taxes gladly’, but if the experience leaves people with an overwhelming sense of unfairness and anxiety, this is not going to happen.

So proponents of ‘small government’ take heed, and be careful what you wish for. We underestimate the importance of those faceless bureaucrats at our peril. I can only hope that when I return from my holiday, I will find that a pile of forms, including ours, has turned up in a long-forgotten filing cabinet and all will be well. A girl can dream.

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