Why follow fair practice when you can let things ride for a bit and then chase up your victims demanding penalties? And the two prime examples springing to mind at the moment are not some backstreet shysters, but government - both local and central.

Steve Dyer, who runs Thornfalcon Garage at Taunton, Somerset, always sends in his PAYE returns within two weeks of the end of the tax year. Years 2004-5 were no exception, except he thought he would bite the bullet and file online for the first time, responding to government incentives (and knowing that one day he won’t get the option to file any other way).

No computer expert, Steve was a bit uncomfortable with the whole affair and so followed up his online filing with a call to the helpline to see if everything had gone through okay but was told that due to the high level of people filing in this fashion they could not tell him whether it had been received or not although they went through it step-by-step with him and said all should be well.

"So I was feeling quite pleased with myself that the task had been completed," said Steve. "And bear in mind that all monies due to the Inland Revenue are paid as they fall due so there are no outstanding monies involved."

Right, no money owed, just a bit of paperwork that he assumed, and had been reassured, would be okay. Then on January 18 this year he got a letter from IR telling him they had not received his returns due by May 19, 2005 and therefore penalties would apply. Accruing at £100 a month, he now owed £800 for the missing bit of paperwork.

He wants to know a) why it took them 10 months to tell him this? And b) if it was due on May 19 why didn’t the computer spit out a reminder on May 20?

IR told him that, if his return online had been successful, he would have received an email telling him what a good boy he was. "What use is that?" asks Steve. "If I don’t receive it, then how do I know I was supposed to receive it and yet haven’t received it?"

The plot thickens. IR told him that he needed to do the paperwork all over again so Steve got onto his accountant who had all his end-of-year stuff in his keeping and, lo and behold, the accountant found the email from Inland Revenue telling him that the accounts had been successfully filed online.

Steve now says: "So I look forward to a £250 credit for filing online which is well overdue plus an additional £100 a month for the credit being in arrears. Well, I think we all know what I’ll really get."

Yes, not even an apology, I don’t suppose.

As a PS to this I would add that, in August last year, I ran a little piece in Forecourt Trader’s sister paper, Convenience Store, based on feedback from a c-store retailer who had rung up her tax office chasing her rebate for filing online only to be told by an embarrassed tax man that their new computer system had gone down big time. At the time I recommended that anyone getting an email confirming end-of-year returns on-ine should print it and hang onto it as proof. Turns out to be better advice than I realised.

Anyone else in this boat but without email proof should look into appealing. If IR’s computers were down they have no right demanding penalties.

And the other government penalty scam? Have you ever had an undeserved parking ticket? If not, you’re lucky. Statistics show that in 2004-5, London boroughs alone issued nearly six million penalty charge notices. Outside London, English and Welsh councils handed out almost three million more. There are some 10,000 appeals each year in Westminster alone and nationally, two-thirds of appeals are successful which is a fair indication that local authorities are deliberately bending the rules to rake in more money.


Valentine’s Day has come and gone and not everyone has converted to Chip & PIN (or Chin & PIP as my keyboard keeps insisting on typing it). Harjinder Singh, who runs two petrol stations in Birmingham, has certainly got the pip over his swipe machine. He has an old Barclays Merchant Services F75 terminal, owned by Barclays. He had been told by the bank on several occasions that he would be getting an upgraded machine before the deadline but now he has been told that the new machine would not accept fuel cards. Not taking this on the chin, he turned to ARVAL but didn’t like the idea of a three-year contract. He wanted to know whether he could still put transactions through his F75 after February 14 including fuel cards.

According to Mark Bradshaw, CEO and founder of Garage Watch, Harjinder can still take transactions on his old machine but he will be penalised through even higher transaction fees. "The banks really haven’t bothered to do anything about fuel cards," says Mark. "They see it as a shrinking market. It took us two years to develop something workable and with better margins. With fuel margins what they are, retailers can’t afford to be penalised any further."

You can call Garage Watch on 0870 794 3455 if you are interested in its Chip and PIN solution.