Challenging the tax man
Posted Tuesday 3 November 2009
Money worries can be a major trigger for mental distress. For some people, mental health problems can make it harder to manage money. When Mind undertook to tackle the cycle between financial difficulties and mental health, banks and other creditors were our obvious target. But as our recent research shows, the problem is not just with the financial sector - the tax man needs to take note too.
In January of this year, Mind was commissioned by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to look into how well its service allows for flexibility when supporting people with experience of mental distress to deal with tax issues. We heard from around 125 people about their tax affairs, and contact with HMRC.
The results highlighted that there is much to do to make the tax system accessible to people with mental health problems. Many people said they find calling HMRC difficult during periods of distress, and often there is no alternative to telephone contact. Deadlines are not flexible, so people experiencing distress who are unable to file their tax return can be penalised for their illness. Some correspondence fails the plain English test and can create unnecessary anxiety.
Perhaps more worrying was anecdotal evidence from respondents to our survey that when someone reports a mental health problem to HMRC they feel they are not believed.
HMRC staff involved in the research also commented that that staff sometimes think people who are in trouble for not fulfilling their tax obligations are using their mental health problem as a “get out of jail free card”.
One man we spoke to had been accused of lying about his financial circumstances over and over until he doubted himself – creating significant distress and eventually family breakdown as he struggled to make his case heard.
Mind submitted a report of our findings to HMRC in September 2009 and made a number of recommendations. We are now working with the Department to ensure that changes are made.
It is crucial that all government departments meet their requirements under equality law, to provide reasonable adjustments and a service flexible enough to meet the needs of disabled people, including people with mental health problems.
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