If I had to name the next big institution that has tried to ruin my life, it would have to be the Inland Revenue. The Tax Man. In particular, his dubious attempts to give me money. It sounded fine in theory. The leaflet said, 'If you're working but not earning much, you can claim Working Families Tax Credit'. Okay, I said to the missus. We are a Working Family, and we're not earning a lot – just like they say – so let's fill in the form and get some cash out of the government. Who could possibly argue with that? In a matter of weeks there started a steady drip of credits into our bank account. Wow, it was like winning the Lottery. Suddenly we were in the money.
After six months we had to fill in a new form, but this didn't seem threatening at the time. They were just trying to find out if our circumstances had changed, they said. We form filled, we complied, we posted off, and the blessed donations kept arriving. What could possible go wrong? Well, it wasn't as if we imagined the happy situation could go on for ever. After all, they were paying us because our income was low. If it ever went up, well, we knew the tap would be turned off. What we didn't know is that we have to start making contributions to them.
It works this way. If your income is below a certain level, then the UK government gives you money to make it up to that point, (wherever it is they've decided is good for you). But if you earn over that amount, then you are no longer entitled. Fair enough. But, they say, and this is where it gets nasty, if you've got so much money now, then maybe you could afford to give some of the stuff we gave you – back to us! Hey, hold on. What happened to us is that I was working part-time and I was self-employed. My income went up and down from month to month. For almost a year I was below the level decided by the Tax Man and he was willing to send me cheques. The following year things picked up and got better in my world. I worked myself over the hurdle and I didn't qualify for help. But what I'm saying is that I had a bit more cash – I didn't have so much that I could afford it give it away! But that's what they wanted. They said, 'We decide how much you need to live on. If you're getting less than that, we'll give you more. If you're getting more, why then, we can take it away from you and you won't suffer'. But we did! We weren't earning so much that we could afford to send cheques to the Tax Man. We were only just paying the rent. He might think that meant we were swimming in champagne, but we didn't notice that. All we saw was a demand for repayment, and we couldn't afford it, (even if the man in a grey suit said we could).
Nobody told us that Tax Credit was a loan! But that's the way it works out. If somebody had said that, then we could have gone to the local Credit Union, or even taken advantage of our friendly neighbourhood Loan Shark. The British Tax Man is worse than a Loan Shark, because he tells you one thing – when your income is low, low – then hits you with a demand when your income is simply low, (but not very, very low). And it works like this. Five days before Christmas, when I was seriously wondering whether I had enough money to buy anyone any presents at all, let alone invest in a turkey, an envelope dropped through the door. No, it wasn't a Christmas card. It was a threatening letter from the Tax office telling me that I owed them a thousand pounds, and 'would have to pay'. Some Christmas present!
Well, credit me with some intelligence. I phoned them up and they said sorry, it was a 'clerical error'. No, they didn't know where the thing had come from. Yes, we had owed them some money in the past, but we 'repaid' that by them not giving us a bit of credit that we were owed, so that was fine, then. We were all up to date. 'Sorry to ruin your Christmas'. Yeah, right. Thanks, Tax man. The irony is, of course, that they keep insisting on sending us letters inviting us to apply again. No way! Maybe we are entitled, maybe they will give us some cash if we're short and it will tide us over the bad patches, but with the prospect of being harassed, hassled and threatened for repayments when we get out of the hole and are a bit better off, no thanks. I'd rather stay poor.