Educational Visits

During the first twelve months following the introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) on 1 April 1973 the visiting staff of the local VAT offices of HM Customs and Excise spent their time carrying out ‘educational visits’. The main purpose of these visits was to ensure that the many thousands of newly registered taxpayers understood what was expected of them in respect of their business records and legal obligations; the visits also provided an opportunity for the Department to check that the basic information it held about them on the (yes,there was just one) VAT computer in Southend was correct.

As no detailed checking of traders’ records was required, it was a more relaxed time for the visiting staff than in later years. However, there were a few pressures; in particular, it was assumed that it should be possible for a visiting officer to carry out at least two educational visits in a day. This does not sound unreasonable and was probably an unremarkable requirement in urban environments where an officer could work his way (there were no ‘hers’ then in the executive grades) along a busy High Street, moving from one well-run business to the next without even needing to catch a bus. It was a different matter in rural areas where the traditional method of bookkeeping was to pass a large pile of unsorted pieces of paper to your accountant no more than once a year, and an officer might have to drive on unfamiliar roads in his unreliable second-hand car between appointments. Even so, you may think that the following fictionalised account exaggerates the experience of a typical day in the life of one of those officers: well, believe it or not…

The village of Hardestone lies just outside the boundaries of my local town. The property developers will inevitably arrive there sooner or later but, even now, its extensive fields and copses remain largely untouched by the encroaching residential developments and small industrial estates that have marked the arrival of the modern world in many of the other parishes at the fringes of the built-up area. The village centre, no more than a few old houses and a parish church, is on a back lane and quite invisible from the main road. Around it, somewhat detached from the village itself, are a number of scattered farms, one or two of them a fair size but not conspicuously prosperous, others no more than struggling smallholdings. Being located several miles away from the more attractive landscape of the county’s limestone hills, Hardestone is by-passed by lovers of the photogenic English country scene and ignored by wealthy potential incomers of the kind that has helped to maintain the fabric of so many other villages while destroying their communities.

I was looking for Pear Trees, and I had an idea that I had seen that name on a low, rather dirty board at the side of the road on some previous occasion. Fortunately, I was right; the sign was there at the entrance to a muddy track, not far from where the lane met the main road. The track turned a right angle and brought me into a small yard in front of a bungalow that was surprisingly well hidden by the trees at the side of the lane. The bungalow could not have been very old, but it looked poorly constructed and badly maintained; no attempt seemed to have ever been made to create any sort of garden around it. There were no other vehicles in the yard, the place looked abandoned.

The front door was made from a plain sheet of hardboard. There was no bell or knocker, so I rapped on it with my knuckles. Faint sounds of movement came to my ears and eventually the door was opened by a short man wearing baggy grey trousers, an old, dirty open-necked shirt and an even older waistcoat. He had grey hair and had obviously not shaved that morning, but he didn’t appear to need spectacles. I guessed he was in his late fifties, or maybe a little older.

“Mister Hawkins? I’m Mister Stanley from the VAT Office” I said, introducing myself.
He grunted and turned away from me, leaving the door open. I took this as an invitation to enter. He turned to my right immediately inside the door, which opened into one side of a short hallway. As I closed the door behind myself, I glanced down the passage in the opposite direction and saw that it led to a scullery with plain, plastered walls and an old-fashioned earthenware sink under the window. A woman wearing a long, plain skirt and with her hair perched in a bun on top of her head was stood with her back to me bending over the sink; she might have been doing some washing-up or she might have been peeling potatoes, I couldn’t tell. Memory plays tricks, but when I thought about it later I could have sworn that she was standing on top of an upturned tin bath to reach the sink more easily.

I followed Mr. Hawkins into a room that was no more decorated than either the hallway or the scullery, but which did have a rough wooden table and several wooden chairs. I noticed that there was a cable for an electric light hanging above the table but, like the similar fitting in the hallway, it lacked a bulb. There were a few ashes in the grate, but otherwise no sign of any kind of heating. I left my coat on and sat down at the table. Mr. Hawkins seemed to prefer to remain standing. A small pile of documentation lay on the table in front of me. I could see one or two invoices from a large local agricultural merchant, something that looked like a typical statement from Gloucester Market and a conspicuously new, green accounts book of the kind currently selling successfully to many of the newly VAT-registered small business community, particularly those who had never tried to keep their own business records previously.

“Is your registration certificate there?” I asked. Mr. Hawkins grunted; he picked up the accounts book and opened it to reveal the certificate inside the front cover. “Thanks” I said; I placed it on the table next to the file copy I had taken out of the folder from my briefcase. “George Hawkins,” I said “is that your full name?” Mr. Hawkins grunted again. “We don’t have any bank details” I continued. “Do you have an account? It might be more convenient for you if we could make repayments directly into an account rather than you having to cash payable orders all the time.” Mr. Hawkins grunted yet again; something about his body language told me that this was a dissenting, negative grunt. “Well” I said “it’s your choice.” I took my pen out of my jacket pocket and signed the file copy of the certificate to confirm that it agreed with Mr. Hawkins’ copy and was, as far as I could tell, correct. I paused for a moment and realised that I was certifying Mr. Hawkins’ business as that of ‘Mixed Farming’ with an annual turnover of only £1000, the minimum amount allowed for by our official forms.

I picked up the green accounts book. The complicated layout of its pages had surely been designed by a knowledgeable, experienced bookkeeper. The book was intended to cover just one full year’s business, with provision for quarterly VAT account summaries and with pages sub-divided to cover every conceivable accountancy complication: daily gross takings, self-supplies, non-deductible inputs, retail scheme calculations, non-business transactions, exempt outputs, partial exemption calculations… Very occasionally I came across remarkably well-organised bookkeepers who knew how to make successful and efficient use of all this complexity, but most users just had to ignore all the headings and fit their own records and calculations into the pages as best they could. The publisher that produced these books presumably looked forward to making a killing each year by the sale of pristine replacements when all four quarters’ records had been completed, but whether this was how things actually turned out I have my doubts.

When I looked at Mr. Hawkins’ book, I was not surprised to see that so far he had only used the first page, entering a few lines in spidery, smudged writing; there was a column of expenses and, in a separate section of the page, a single item of income. I picked the market statement out of the papers in front of me; it confirmed the sale that Mr. Hawkins had recorded, just £300 for water cress. “Is that all you’ve sold so far this year?” I asked. Mr. Hawkins grunted yet again. I turned my attention to the purchases; there were bills for a few fence posts and wire, and some small purchases of diesel fuel from the nearest garage. I wondered where the vehicle (I imagined an ancient, battered Land-Rover) might be parked, but I decided that it wasn’t worth asking the question.

“Well…” I began. I went through my established routine of advice, or as much of it as seemed even remotely relevant (which was very little) while Mr. Hawkins listened in silence. Eventually I ran out of things to say and, being satisfied in my own mind that I had told Mr. Hawkins everything he needed to know to comply faultlessly with the VAT Act 1972, I thanked him for his time, returned my folder of papers to my briefcase and got up to leave. Mr. Hawkins saw me to the door and grunted, politely I thought, as I stepped outside.

* * *

“Not even the offer of a cup of tea!” I said to myself as I drove away. “Still, it won’t take long to write the report.”

It was then that I realised I had forgotten to pick up a map before setting out from home that morning. However, I knew that the other visit I had booked for the day was down a dead-end side turning off the back lane I had already driven down on my way to find Pear Trees. If I spotted the junction I should have no problem finding the farm that was my second destination. After I had travelled some distance back along the lane I saw a turning ahead. I hesitated before taking it as there was no helpful signpost in sight but although the road was narrow it was properly surfaced and headed off between the fields in a straight line that reminded me of the route I had picked out on the map the previous day.

It occurred to me that if, in fact, this was not the right way, I was going to be in some difficulty finding a suitable place to turn around. Not only was the surfaced road very narrow but also deep ditches ran alongside it, on both sides, and there were none of those slightly wider ‘passing places’ that are usually a feature of English country lanes. My anxiety increased when I noticed grass growing down the middle of the track, and the extent and vigour of the grass seemed to be increasing as I drove on.

I could not see any farm buildings ahead of me as I drove along the lane and I was taken by surprise when I came across an isolated house, with one or two small outbuildings, behind a privet hedge at the side of the road. I was expecting Green Farm to be a rather bigger establishment but, as there was nothing else in sight, it seemed that this had to be the place I was looking for. The ditch on that side of the road disappeared into a culvert in front of the buildings, but there was not enough room for me to park properly off the road as a car was blocking the way immediately inside the narrow entrance to the parking spaces at the side of the house. I pulled off the lane as best I could, still wondering how I would manage a three, or more likely ten point turn when it was time to leave.

A small garden gate a few feet further on gave access to a short path that led straight to the front door. The place looked more like a displaced late Victorian town house than a farm. I rang the doorbell. After a few moments the door was opened by a man wearing glasses and dressed in an unpretentious suit and tie. He looked rather surprised.

“I’m Mister Stanley, from the VAT Office” I said, pulling my ID card from my pocket. He blinked at the card but continued to look surprised. “You should have received an appointment letter from me.”

“Oh, good; you’d better come in” he said. “Do you want to see my books?”

“Please” I replied. He led me into a room with a dining table ringed by cushioned chairs. “Make yourself comfortable” he said. “Would you like a drink? Tea, coffee? I’ll put the kettle on.”

“Coffee, please” I said, “milk but no sugar.” He nodded and disappeared. After a few moments he returned carrying a box file that he put down on the table. “You might as well start looking at these” he said before disappearing again for several minutes. I opened the box file and found that it contained an old school exercise book, adapted to serve as a simple accounts book, and several folders of invoices and other documents.

I had a well-established routine for educational visits. I usually began by asking to see the VAT registration certificate of the business, followed by a chat to ensure that I knew exactly what I was dealing with before taking a look at the records to satisfy myself that they were being kept properly. However, in contrast to my previous, difficult session this visit looked as if it was going raise no problems, so I decided that I could afford to be more relaxed and informal. I could tell from even a brief scrutiny of the records that this man was a competent bookkeeper and knew what he was doing.

“Have you been here long?” I asked, when he had returned with coffee and biscuits; the coffee was in rather nice china cups, with saucers.

“About three years” he said. “I was a company director before that.” He named one of the many engineering firms that brought continuing prosperity to the nearby town. “I didn’t enjoy the pressure and I couldn’t keep up with the technology; it was time to give somebody younger a chance. I persuaded them to make me redundant… and I’d always fancied being a farmer. We used our savings and my redundancy money to buy this place.”

“How’s it going?” I asked.

He laughed. “We’re not making a profit, yet” he replied. “We just keep a few sheep and cattle and rent out a bit of grass keep, but we love it here.” He paused. “We’re not dependent on the farming business. We still have some savings left, and my wife works in town; she’s a staff nurse at the General.”

Well, that explained a few things that had been puzzling me, and it all tied in with the neat, orderly paperwork I could see in the box file. I asked a few more questions about some of the sales and purchases recorded there and checked that he understood the boundary between business and private transactions. He seemed to have a sound grasp of all the possible pitfalls that could affect his VAT account, and he had obviously read the appropriate public notices with real understanding, which was unusual. Eventually I felt that I had covered all the relevant ground and that it was time to call it a day.

“I don’t think there’s anything else…” I said, standing up; but then I remembered what I hadn’t done. “Oh, I just need to check your VAT registration certificate; have you got it handy?” He disappeared for a last time and returned with the certificate. “Sorry” he said. “It should have been in the file with everything else.”

I glanced at the certificate. It had been issued to Richard William Simpson, address: Hardestone Villa… I hastily retrieved my notebook, which I had already put into my briefcase, so that I could jot down the details. “Er…” I said. “So, this isn’t Green Farm?”

“No, Green Farm is further on, at the end of the lane” said Mr. Simpson; he was looking slightly surprised again.

“Ah, right. Thank you” I said. “I won’t take up any more of your time.” I prepared to leave, trying not to appear too hurried.

* * *

I returned to my car, fastened the seat belt and resumed my drive along the lane, hoping that I would not have to negotiate complicated apologies for lateness when I arrived at Green Farm. The road surface neither improved nor deteriorated further as I made my way towards the end of the lane. Green Farm proved to have quite a large group of buildings, as I had expected, but they were largely hidden behind a hedgerow lined by the full-grown elm trees that typically concealed all the settlements in the Vale from each other in those days. Dutch Elm Disease would destroy those trees and permanently open up the landscape within a year or two.

I parked in the farmyard, a roughly surfaced area ringed by unremarkable outbuildings of grey breeze blocks and black corrugated iron. The farmhouse itself had been constructed in an older red brick style of a kind commonly seen in the lowland parts of the county.

I used the heavy, old iron knocker on the farmhouse door. It was opened by a portly man wearing an open-necked check shirt, tweed jacket and mud-spattered, corduroy trousers. I didn’t want to make any mistake about who I was dealing with: “Mister Woodcock?” I asked. “I’m Mister Stanley from the VAT Office.”

“I’ve been expecting you” he said. “Come in, my daughter will look after you.” I stepped inside and found that I was in a large hall with a flagstone floor. “Rosie!” he called out and a slender girl wearing horse-riding kit appeared through a door on the far side of the room. She looked about fifteen, although she may have been a year or two older. I turned to speak again to Mr. Woodcock, but he had vanished; it was clear that he had made a speedy exit into the yard.

I looked at the girl and she looked back at me. “This way” she said and turned to go back through the door she had just used to enter the hall. I followed her into a more comfortable sitting room and then along a short passage to a door that seemed to be in the back wall of the house, but opened into quite a large room with a high ceiling and a worn linoleum floor covering, lit by a row of windows high up on the far side. It occurred to me later that it may once have been an indoor games room, but now it seemed to have no particular purpose. There was a large, empty space in the centre of the room, but there were tables against all the walls, except at the doorway, and the tables were piled high with paperwork of all kinds. A few of the piles were relatively neat, as if someone had started sorting them through, but they were mostly chaotic and it appeared that magazines, letters, directories, invoices and newspapers had simply been thrown onto one or another of the heaps without any attempt at orderliness. “This is it” said the girl, and then she stood quietly waiting for my reaction.

“Rosie, is it?” I asked. She nodded. “So, is this your job?” She nodded again. There were no chairs in the room so I chose the least cluttered table, pushed some of the papers on it to one side and sat myself down. I didn’t know where to start.

“I haven’t really done anything yet” said Rosie. “My sister was supposed to look after all of this. She was studying bookkeeping at college.”

“So, where is she now?” I asked.

“Australia” said Rosie. “She emigrated, three weeks ago.”

“Had she started an accounts book?” I asked. Rosie inclined her head and gave a small shrug. “What about the VAT registration certificate?” I asked.

“Oh, I know where that is” said Rosie. She retrieved it from among some market invoices. “I looked for it when your letter arrived the other day.”

Thankful that I could tick off at least one of the items on my mental checklist, I scrutinised the certificate carefully and confirmed all the detail on it with Rosie’s help. While doing this, I was thinking frantically about how to conduct the rest of the visit. I decided that the most important thing was to ensure that Rosie had some understanding of the Department’s bookkeeping requirements. I followed this up with the usual warnings about such things as private expenses and sales of assets. In the absence of proper records, there seemed very little point in trying to pick out and examine the invoices scattered around on the tables.

It would have been helpful to speak again, properly, to Mr. Woodcock himself; it was, after all, his business and handling the VAT records correctly was his own responsibility. However, there was no sign of him in the house or the farmyard when I left.

* * *

Hardestone was only a few miles from the office so, although I felt as if I had been to the far side of the universe that day, I decided to call in there rather than go straight home. On my arrival I dumped my briefcase on my desk and then went straight to the kitchen, to make use of the kettle (we didn’t have coffee machines in those days). Terry, one of the office local lads, was slumped in a chair there, a mug in his hand.

“Ah, hello!” he said. “You look as if you’ve had a hard day. Where have you been?”

“Hardestone” I said.

“Oh, yes” he said. “Did I see old Hawkins on your schedule?”

“In a shabby little hutch called Pear Trees?” I responded. “Do you know him?”

“Not had the pleasure” said Terry “but the family’s quite well known. Did you see the son, by any chance?”

“Son?” I queried. “I only saw the man himself, and his wife, I think.”

“Ah, ignorance is bliss then. He attacked his father with an axe some time last year and had to spend time in the mental hospital. I heard they were letting him out last month.”

“I didn’t know about that” I said.

I took my coffee back to my desk, but suddenly I just wanted to go home and write up my reports in comfort, and then enjoy a good night’s sleep in readiness for the next day’s educational visits.

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