I tend to read the financial and personal finance pages quite closely. Not necessarily because I have lots of money, because I don't, but because the information is occasionally useful in my work. I've not always been impressed with financial journalists, however, especially when they talk about tax.
So I was a mite wary when I read the 'Troubleshooter' section in today's Times, written by Rebecca O'Connor, and noted a complaint by a taxpayer who had suffered from delays in receiving a repayment. Said taxpayer was annoyed because they had not received interest on their repayment, something which HM Revenue & Customs are obliged to do by statute.
Rebecca was suitably outraged, and has suggested that we should pay a commercial rate of interest on amounts held by us in excess of liabilities. Apparently, the commercial rate of interest is approximately 0.66%. So, in the instance that her taxpaying correspondent raised, interest of approximately £6 would have been paid.
Unfortunately or, were I to be more cynical, with malice aforethought, she fails to see the other side of the equation. The statutory rates of interest paid and charged were linked to the Bank of England base rate but, as the base rate fell, it became apparent that, if nothing was done, we would be in the ludicrous position of charging taxpayers for owing them money. Hardly fair and, aaccordingly, the interest rate on overpaid tax was given a floor of 0%. Harsh, and providing little incentive to HMRC to make repayments, but at least modestly equitable.
The flip side is that HMRC doesn't charge a commercial rate of interest to its debtors. If you owe HMRC income tax, interest is levied at the astonishingly reasonable rate of 2.5%. Yes, you read correctly, 2.5%. Given that the best buy rates for personal loans are around the 8% mark, and that credit card debts are at 16%, HMRC are charging one of the best rates to be found anywhere, except possibly the 'Bank of Mum and Dad'.
You'd think that a financial journalist would think through the implications of her demands but, on this occasion, Rebecca O'Connor is effectively calling for those struggling with their tax bills to be severely punished. Not necessarily what her readers might wish for, were they to think about it...