Part One showed how difficult it is for a victim of corporate injustice to challenge the offending company without funds or legal representation. This next true tale ups the ante, for I had the sheer temerity to challenge Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs itself. And that’s a government department whose self-regulation rules and regs are so inviolate there isn’t even a designated government minister to oversee it. A law unto itself.
The collection of civil servants running HMRC, making large and small decisions, allegedly impartial and on behalf of the people, not only are completely unaccountable, but are at odds with themselves.
By which I mean some of those with appointed power have been proven to be incompetent, corrupt, and in league with successive governments of the day, while a unionised work force often carries the can for truly serious errors at a higher level.
Before we get to my own tangles with these deceivers, you need to understand the enormity of this department and the unacknowledged power they wield. Their tentacles curl into every corner of British life. At one stage, nearly at the end of my tether and having uncovered evidence of some very dodgy HMRC dealings, I tried to ask the Serious Fraud Office to investigate; then I discovered that HMRC actually sits on the Board of the SFO!
Over many years they’ve taken to calling themselves The Ministry – with all its Orwellian overtones. Its public face resides in Westminster premises, hovering on the doorstep of Parliament. But the engine room, as it were, is based in north Newcastle, the main site covering some 30 acres, with both local and national associated venues. Some were storage depots, either owned outright by the Treasury or bought as lease-backs from commercial companies.
The old site, known variously as Benton Park View and Longbenton, was served by its own bus-stops and railway station, bringing tens of thousands of people to work. Cars were permitted but hardly anyone drove.
This Geordie HQ has at various times employed over 100,000 people, the biggest reduction down to about 35-45,000 occurred in the 10-year run up to a complete reorganisation of the site. That era of the mid-to-late 1990s onward saw the wholesale demolition of the old, largely run-down and too easily accessed buildings. They were arranged as individual complexes in the shape of H-blocks. Like the Northern Ireland prisons.
For many decades the Newcastle cluster has focused on the preparation and processing of the entire country’s state pension arrangements. One of the most bruising kicks up the bum for this realm of establishment power was the dawn of the digital. Policy makers from all parties gradually understood the binary benefits waiting in the wings which they could exploit, as well as the threats to an overblown work-force. Which they could also exploit.
Hansard is chock full of debates, often by ill-informed and arrogant members of Parliament, about the function and remit of HMRC [in all its permutations], as well as the vested interests of constituencies in job creation. Such debates had both direct and less obvious repercussions for those people seeking state social benefits of various kinds, such as sickness compensation, maternity leave, and most of all the state retirement pension.
That process marks the start of my story, though I was completely unaware of it at the time.
Da Law’s As Tricky As A Ten-foot Snake.
When noted Cornish poet Charles Causeley wrote that line about impoverished schoolboy Timothy Winters, it was a heartfelt indictment of a welfare system which knowingly betrays him. We needn’t look further than recent headlines to witness how little has changed – Baby P, Victoria ClimbiÃ©, endless judicial reviews from which we’re supposed to learn lessons.
Seems more shocking, somehow when kids are involved. Blood boils at lower temperatures, bile spills more freely onto FaceBook posts. Injustice against the elderly – equally as vulnerable – seems more readily dismissed. Lots of tsk-tsk, and even more platitudes of having had a “good innings.” But not so much sheer outrage. And precious few calls for political action. Unless, that is, the tabloids can run a juicy story with vid about staff abuse of the elderly at a care home.
No, before you ask, I was never physically abused. But what the state did, as the state often does, is to deprive me of my rights by hiding behind the slithering snake of Da Law, by keeping information from me and others who might use it. What makes that snake even trickier is the sheer volume of inter-related documents, many often released only at the whim of government ministers or civil servants. And then, you have to know exactly what you’re asking for.
In a tiny nutshell, by the time I discovered I qualified for a state pension, I was categorically told I could only have about half of it. Not only was that information false, it was justified by a complete lie, though I didn’t know it at the time.
My own case took more than fourteen years to get from first being aware there was a problem to finally getting to present it in the appropriate court, known as the First Tier Tax Tribunal. There’s no space to detail all the bumps and diversions along the way, but I’d never have been able to get as far as I did without the help and support of some wonderful pals and acquaintances, one of whom was instrumental in getting one of the top legal firms in the land to represent me.
But that was quite late in the day, and well after I’d morphed into a version of the deerstalker detective and discovered the mountain of deceit and cover-up at every stage. At first all I did, all I dared to do, was ask some questions. I’d just turned 60 and had been told that my show business career was the sole reason I could only receive about half the normal state pension.
If you’re like me, and most of us I suspect, if someone who purports to be a government employee tells you something, you tend to accept it. You’re no expert, they must know what they’re talking about. And anyway, I was getting ready to re-locate from Bristol to Sussex and had lots on my mind.
But after about a year, prompted by friends appalled at my paltry pension, I re-contacted the so-called experts. That’s when I could find them! The Bristol office had been closed down and I was passed from proverbial pillar to proverbial post. At just about every stage I was spun a different yarn.
When some of those contradictory replies became too suspicious to ignore, I began to do some research of my own. My acquired skills as a professional media journo came in handy, transferable to some degree to this bizarre world of Da Law, Sub-Section State Pension. I also began contacting many of my media friends to ask their advice. And, when I heard an MP on the Treasury Select Committee speak freely and compassionately about HMRC naughtiness, I contacted him as well.
Not only he [and I wasn’t his constituent], but the MP who was my representative both played an invaluable role in guiding me through some of the pitfalls along the way. Sadly, neither was entirely au fait with the nuances of HMRC procedure, and it became far too easy for the Ministry to use its favourite tactics of diversion, obfuscation, and downright deception in leading us all down fruitless paths and away from the truth.
It became so obvious that so many HMRC operatives were being obstructive, that the ICO agreed to investigate. For those who don’t know, that’s the Information Commissioners Office, not part of the government but which reports directly to Parliament.
It took many months for an investigation to conclude that I’d been treated so badly that I was to receive an award of £500.
If that was meant to shut me up, though, it didn’t. First of all, I wasn’t told until nearly the end of the investigation that the ICO remit could only deal with how I was treated, and not in any way with the actual substance of my challenge. And no one told me how I might do that.
The Daily Mail, of all papers, ran a piece about me – very sympathetic, albeit getting the facts slightly muddled. As per protocol, they had to ask HMRC for a reaction. Can you guess? That’s right’ no comment, they said.
So I re-doubled my efforts and began the convoluted process of challenging the HMRC decision to award me only a partial payment. All without legal representation. I know, I know – what an idiot! But I was so convinced that once anyone in an informed legal position took account of the boxes and boxes of evidence I’d gathered – surely they had to decide in my favour. Didn’t they?
At that point I was still scrabbling around trying to get some free advice. A well-known pal of mine brokered an intro to a partner in an internationally known law firm with specific expertise in all this
arcane stuff. He agreed to represent me pro bono! And he instructed a barrister colleague with equally wonderful qualifications to present the case in the First Tier Tax Tribunal.
The case could only be considered against the background of the complete chaos and loss and destruction of pension records during the ten years of demolition and rebuilding of the Newcastle premises.
Included was a fire in one of the storage depots, as well as a leaky sewage pipe in the basement of another storage room. No proof could be found that positively indicated whether my records were affected. My own records were variously mislaid and some actually destroyed – though it took years before HMRC would admit that.
Factored into all that were reams of police statements and newspaper reports about thefts and drug dealings at the Newcastle premises. And, equally worrying, the political game-playing by successive governments concerning under-staffing as the entire operation was being digitised. Having laid off so many workers, agency staff was brought in, and some extremely sensitive records were being processed by cheap workers in Asia.
The unions were furious and there’s lots of evidence of strikes and go-slows further affecting the proper processing of records, including mine.
So the case was scheduled, I trusted the legal team implicitly, and we all felt extremely prepared for the ordeal. And then I suffered that mild stroke. Which delayed the case for nearly a year. During which time the court, as you’ll remember, announced it was closing. So there was a bit of a race to get the case heard before then.
The legal team – already so brilliantly prepared and so graciously having carved out this time for me – went on to other things. By the time we were given an alternate date, of course, they’d forgotten so much of the intricate relationship between the case and the evidence. But they were brilliant.
The case lasted an entire day. So far as I’m concerned, it might have gone on all week, there was that much corroborative evidence to consider. Inevitably whole chunks of it weren’t presented before the judge and her associate. About a month later, we were told that none of the barrister’s arguments was successful and there would be no change in my state pension. That’s that. Yes, I could appeal, but not on a pro bono basis’ and in any case, any appeal could only be allowed if new evidence came to light. In other words, I’m fucked.
I honestly can’t say had I known at the start that it would take me fourteen years to get in front of a Tribunal, whether I’d have sacrificed so much time and put my deteriorating health in further danger.
Probably. I was – and remain – so convinced HMRC had a serious case to answer.
And even though the decision went against me, it’s quite clear Da Law is indeed trickier than a snake, and can slip under obstacles and slither away into the undergrowth. It leaves in its wake tattered truth and battered justice. And that’s a scandal.
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This post was written by outRageous!