The taxman is getting more aggressive – so what should you do?

Merryn Somerset Webb explains what steps you should take to avoid giving yourself an unexpected tax-related headache.

Tax: the price we pay for living in a civilised society? Or, as Peter Hitchens puts it in The Mail on Sunday, the "price we pay for handing over too many of our responsibilities to the state"? The answer is that it should be mostly the first, but that in much of the West, it is fast becoming the second.

It is also hard to argue with Hitchens' insistence that the "current frenzy against tax avoidance is churned up by a government that cannot control its borrowing and so is frantic to grab all the money it can get".

Like it or not, tax rates are high and set to stay that way. The state is set to spend even more time and resources on making sure everyone pays up. That's why the likes of Gary Barlow find themselves in trouble.

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But it isn't just the super-rich who are feeling the long arms of tax investigations. The number of inquiries HMRC makes of those it believes are not paying enough has doubled in the last two years (to 237,000 last year), says The Daily Telegraph. The revenue raised from this is a "huge £20.7bn".

Special task forces target groups such as buy-to-let landlords and freelancers who have set up as companies. The use of bailiffs and debt collectors has doubled. HMRC is now demanding the right to withdraw money directly from the bank accounts or individual savings accounts of those it thinks owe the state money (without a court order).

It is also putting in place "more aggressive levels of penalty", to bully individuals into paying up fast rather than challenging bills.

Reducing the risk of being affected should be straightforward. File your tax return on time and accurately. Pay money owed on time. Keep good records of the numbers you entered into your returns and why. Avoid aggressive tax-avoidance schemes (no film investment vehicles). Don't set up a personal services firm and channel your income through it if you are effectively an employee (HMRC is cracking down on this). Finally, employ an accountant to make sure all this happens as it should.

But what if you do get challenged? If you get a demand you don't agree with, says Kyle Caldwell in The Daily Telegraph, write to HMRC immediately to say so. They will ask for various documents as proof. Send those (but no more).

If HMRC doesn't give in and you don't want to either, you can book a tribunal date (it won't happen for a while there were 27,000 waiting in 2012-13) or go to the independent Adjudicator's Office (0300-057 1111). Then hope the whole thing doesn't go on for too long.

While you wait, write a letter to your MP demanding a simple low but unavoidable flat tax across the UK. As a letter to The Times this week noted, tax complexity and unfairness is an obvious driver of avoidance and evasion.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.