Home Money HMRC will not stop sending penalty notices to my brain-damaged son who communicates by blinking and has no income. TONY HETHERINGTON investigates

HMRC will not stop sending penalty notices to my brain-damaged son who communicates by blinking and has no income. TONY HETHERINGTON investigates

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Héctor the Treasury Inspector, who represented the Treasury from 1995 to 2001.

Tony Hetherington is the Financial Mail on Sunday’s star investigator, battling readers’ corners, revealing the truth behind closed doors and winning victories for those left penniless. Find out how to contact him below.

Mrs. JE writes: My son Christopher went into cardiac arrest in 2021. He was without oxygen for a while, which caused a brain injury. HM Revenue & Customs is pursuing you over your self-assessment tax returns. In desperation, I wrote to them twice in 2022, informing them of his brain injury and his inability to complete a tax return. He was not living with me in 2021 and I believe he had been claiming benefits.

Tony Hetherington replies: This is tragic, sad, distressing and immensely frustrating for you. It is also a consequence of HMRC’s policy of relying on poorly paid and poorly trained staff to deal with situations that leave them beyond their means. He wrote to the taxman in 2022, explaining his son Chris’s brain damage and his inability to complete a tax return. The Treasury simply returned the letter, insisting that his tax matters could only be discussed with him. Since then, HMRC has demanded increasing penalty payments from Chris for failing to file a tax return.

Héctor the Treasury Inspector, who represented the Treasury from 1995 to 2001.

By the time I was contacted the fines required had increased to £300. She told the Treasury that her son resides full time in a nursing home. Her response was to start sending demands to his address.

You told me, ‘Chris can’t speak, he’s blind and he has a physical disability.’ He can use his eyes to answer simple questions, but he can’t answer anything complex. He cannot write or sign his name.

He has repeatedly tried to explain this to the taxman, without success. Clearly annoyed, you told me: ‘When I try to make a phone call, I can’t talk to a person and eventually they cut you off because they redirect you to do everything online. I’m going around in circles. Life is stressful enough since your brain injury without this added stress.

I contacted the people I deal with at the central Revenue office. In times like this, I really appreciate that they know what they’re doing, but I also realize that other people who are struggling can’t access them or their experience.

I explained his son’s situation to him. Less than 48 hours later, an official asked me for his phone number. A couple more days passed and, by chance, you were called while visiting Chris at his residence.

At first, the conversation was awkward. Mark, the IRS man, figured he could get Chris to sign a power of attorney, which would allow him to act on his behalf.

You had to explain the extent to which Chris had a brain injury. You asked what would happen if things remained the same and Mark responded that eventually debt collectors would be sent to the residence.

When you pointed out that Chris couldn’t even talk, there was finally a breakthrough and Mark suggested an online meeting.

And this is what has happened now. Mark had gathered all the information he could about Chris’s income. He read this and Chris was able to nod. Mark himself then completed a self-assessment form on his behalf and sent it to you. You put a marker in Chris’s hand and he pressed it against the paper, which Mark had agreed to accept in lieu of a signature.

Incredibly, it turns out that instead of facing penalties, Chris is owed a tax refund of £396. He has told me: ‘I want to say a huge thank you as there is absolutely no way he would have got to this point with HMRC on my own, without his involvement.’

And let me add my own thanks to the staff at Revenue head office, and especially to your colleague Mark, whose help has enabled you and Chris to put an end to all of this.

This is how you can make HMRC listen

Once upon a time, anyone with a tax problem could go to a local tax office. Now, however, local offices are gone and we have to rely on phone calls that go largely unanswered while we are told that the answers to our questions can be found online, as if we hadn’t already looked for them there.

When Treasury bosses announced a plan to turn off their phones, Chris’s mother asked me: ‘How are people in a situation like Chris and I supposed to communicate with them without the ability to speak to a person?’ Fortunately, the closure did not occur. And there is a real answer to the most important question of how to get the taxman’s help. HMRC has a little-known department called the Additional Support Team, which can be contacted online for a telephone or video appointment. Why hasn’t anyone suggested this at any point in the last two years? Well, that’s down to cuts and poor organization by Treasury bosses, along with inadequate training for low-paid call handlers.

If you believe you are a victim of financial irregularity, please write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 9 Derry Street, London W8 5HY or email tony.hetherington@mailonsunday.co.uk. Due to the large volume of inquiries, it is not possible to provide personal responses. Please only send copies of the original documents, which we regret cannot be returned.

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