17 Jan 2009
My Ministerial career had a few moments of excitement, one of which was the privatisation of the country’s railways. (Despite offers of clemency, I have refused to plead guilty to any offence.) But I was also the Minister who introduced self-assessment for the nation’s taxpayers.
My partner in the mission to sell self-assessment was Hector the Inspector. Older readers may remember seeing on their screens in 1996 a portly, bowler-hatted cartoon figure, whose trousers were held up by braces. This was Hector.
When I first heard about the campaign, I asked to see the advertisements. I was extremely worried. The Government of which I was a member had already managed to upset important sections of the electorate (as the 1997 election was shortly to show) and I was reluctant to add to this list the employees of Inland Revenue by publicly lampooning them. I had never seen any of the men wear a bowler hat; it would have been an impertinence to enquire as to what held up their trousers; and, while some had a Body Mass Index that would have raised a doctor’s eyebrow, they were not generically obese.
I asked my office to summon the shop steward of the nation’s tax collectors to the Treasury to get his reaction to the TV commercial. He was delighted by it. It portrayed the tax inspector as a jovial character, not averse to a pint in the local after dishing out tax rebates all day. Neither he nor his members would object.
So we launched Hector. After the Silence of the Lambs, and as the Revenue got tougher, I gather Hector became commonly known as Lecter.
Hector was pensioned off in 2001, having been described by the Chairman of the Inland Revenue as having “got out of control”
Before I finally decided to inflict self-assessment on the nation, I decided to have a go at the forms myself. They arrived on my desk in the Treasury, and I took into the office the data I had used for my last tax return. I asked to be left undisturbed until I either gave up, had to phone a friend or ask the audience. In 40 minutes the tax was completed. Hector had a look at my work and pronounced it fit for purpose. And so, in 1997, self-assessment was launched, along with the ability to file on line.
Which is what most people now do. But this facility is denied to its author. The security of the online computer system, used by more than three million people to file tax returns, is in doubt after HM Revenue and Customs admitted it was not properly secure. So along with those deemed by the Revenue to be “celebrities” and the Royal Family, Members of Parliament still have to send their return by post.