One small technical explanation may help to clarify an aspect of this story. These days a single government department (HMRC) manages all of the UK’s tax systems, but this story is set some years ago when VAT and other indirect taxes were controlled and collected by HM Customs and Excise while income tax and other direct taxes were dealt with by the Inland Revenue; exchange of information between the two departments was limited and exceptional.
I imagine that Barry Parker must have been one of those boys who don’t shine at school, not because they lack intelligence or application but because they can’t see any point in pursuing knowledge for its own sake and they want to escape as soon as possible into the real world outside. After making that escape, Barry probably tried his hand at a variety of jobs while gradually working out how best to earn his living. He would soon have realised that prematurely gatecrashing the adult world was not a short cut to success, but he may have convinced himself that hard work really was better than exam qualifications, and regular overtime better than making do with an income limited to parental pocket money or a student grant.
Somewhere along the way Barry found his true calling. He was good at recognising the needs of others before they did so themselves, and he had a talent for persuasion; in short, he was a born salesman. By the time he was in his late thirties he had become a successful self-employed sales agent in the rapidly expanding double-glazing business; in addition to the commission he was earning from his own efforts he had also recruited a small team of part-time and less experienced sub-agents, and he was taking a cut from their commission too. He had achieved both the standard of living and the independence that he craved. He drove a powerful, up-market car, and the semi-detached house he shared with his wife and two or three children, was equipped with all the latest electronic appliances (and double-glazing, of course). The downside to all of this was that, thanks to the pressures of having to pay a mortgage and support a growing family, Barry’s determination to succeed by his own efforts had turned him into something of a workaholic.
I can only imagine this background to Barry’s circumstances because I never actually met him. In fact, I very nearly avoided dealing with his case at all after a preliminary phone call to his accountant. Barry’s file landed on my desk in the VAT Office because he had neither submitted his last three quarterly returns nor paid the subsequent assessments issued by the VAT Central Unit. It appeared likely that Barry’s accountant prepared the returns for his client so I decided to phone him first before trying to contact Barry himself. I would not necessarily have done this, but Rick Feather, the accountant, was a good-natured fellow and the most honest and reliable accountant that I knew.
In those days our local accountancy firms were mostly either partnerships of several qualified professionals supported by a number of articled clerks and clerical staff or they were one-man businesses where a single, overstretched professional operated with just one or two unqualified assistants. The larger firms were generally more reliable but they were also more expensive, so many small businesses preferred not to make use of them. Choosing between the one man bands was a somewhat hazardous undertaking. Accountants who worked alone almost inevitably took on more clients than they could reasonably cope with and, as the pressure on them built up, often compromised their standards one way or another. Some gave in to financial temptation and became dishonest in handling their own or their clients’ affairs, some declined into alcohol induced incompetence, many just fell further and further behind with their work as the piles of paper accumulated around them.
Rick was a refreshing exception to the general rule. He operated from a small, sparsely furnished first-floor office in a former Regency town house, with a loyal staff of three clerks located in an adjacent room. During the winter he sat at his desk wearing an overcoat and a very long woollen scarf which was wound round his neck several times and trailed on the floor when he stood up. Unlike any other accountant I ever met, he seemed to do the job simply because he enjoyed it, and it says something for his style and reputation that when he retired his clerks were able to continue in business for many years by forming a partnership to provide a book-keeping service to his former clients (although I think that they soon moved to rather less spartan premises).
I explained why I was phoning him.
“I’m afraid he won’t be sending you any more returns” said Rick. “He had a heart attack; I’ve been told that he’s given up work altogether. Sorry, I thought your office had been told.”
“I’ll start the ball rolling to get him deregistered” I responded.
I didn’t doubt Rick’s word for a moment but when I looked through Barry’s file again I realised that, because he had always been prompt and reliable in the past and had paid us a large amount of tax every quarter, he had never had a visit to check that his returns were actually complete and correct.
“Perhaps” I thought to myself, “it would be sensible to make sure that his records are checked just once before we cancel the registration.”
I was reluctant to pester the man himself and subject him to a potentially stressful and probably unnecessary intrusion at a time when he must have had other concerns on his mind. Happily, it occurred to me that the way a commission salesman’s business worked provided the possible means to carry out a check without needing to deal with him directly. All I had to do was arrange a visit to the double-glazing supplier he worked for and ask to see their record of Barry’s commission payments. They probably wouldn’t know about his expenses, but the tax he reclaimed on these was insignificant and, in the circumstances, I was confident that I could ignore that side of Barry’s accounts.
I phoned the double-glazing company and asked to speak to their accounts department.
“I’m not calling about your own VAT returns” I explained “but I’ve been asked to look at Mister Parker’s. I believe he was one of your salesmen but I understand that he’s no longer working following a heart attack. Rather than disturb him at home, I wonder if I could have a look at your record of the commission he’s been paid over the last two or three years.”
“Oh yes, of course. We’ve been very sorry to hear about his health problems. When would you like to come?”
If only all appointments had been that easy to arrange. A brief session at the double glazing company would help me to achieve my visiting targets even if, as I suspected, there was no additional revenue to be assessed.
* * *
The double glazing company operated from a unit on one of our local trading estates; the journey there only took me about ten minutes by car. The company’s front office was a typically featureless open plan space which someone had attempted to brighten up with a few, rather scanty Christmas decorations. Three desks were arranged somewhat randomly around the floor but only two of them were occupied. I approached the nearer one which was manned by a girl who looked as if she might be the receptionist.
“From the VAT Office” I said. “I’ve got an appointment with Mister Shaw; here’s my ID.”
“Oh yes, he’s expecting you” she replied. “I think he’s out the back. If you’d like to wait here I’ll find him for you.”
She disappeared through a door marked ‘Staff Only’ and returned a few moments later, accompanied by a tall man with greying hair and a slightly military bearing who reached out a hand and greeted me with a smile. He was wearing an open-necked shirt beneath his tweed jacket and radiated an informal but business-like manner.
“Come this way, Mister Stanley” he said “I’ve put the ledger you need in the Director’s office; he’s not here today so you won’t be disturbed.” He led me back through the door from which he had just emerged and pointed the way into a small but quite comfortably furnished office on one side of the short corridor we had entered. A bound red ledger was waiting for me on the Director’s desk; it was already open at the pages detailing Barry Parker’s commission payments.
“I’ll leave you to it but I won’t be far away if you have any questions. Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee, with milk but no sugar, please” I replied. As he left, I sat down and started to retrieve papers from my briefcase; all I really needed was the print-out of Barry Parker’s VAT returns. As I spread the print-out on the desk in front of me I glanced at the open ledger. Regular fortnightly payment dates were listed… and they ran right up to the first week of the current month, although the last entry recorded a significantly smaller amount of commission than for any of the previous payments noted on the page.
“Here’s your coffee.” The receptionist had slipped noiselessly into the room. She gave me a brief smile and placed one of those disposable plastic cups in a slightly sturdier plastic holder on a corner of the desk.
“Oh, thank you” I responded. “That was quick!” She smiled again and was gone. I sipped the bland, machine-made coffee and savoured the unexpected sense of astonishment that her intrusion had interrupted.
What was going on here? There would probably be a time lag between a sale being arranged and a commission payment being authorised, but weeks or months… it seemed unlikely. Perhaps Barry Parker’s loyal team of canvassers had kept going more or less independently and the fruit of their efforts was still being attributed to his account… There was little point in speculating, I would have to ask the accounts manager later. Meanwhile, I obviously needed to jot down the figures from the ledger in my notebook and compare them with the amounts shown on my computer print-out.
It was clear that the output tax declared on the VAT returns prepared by Rick Feather exactly reflected the amounts I could see in the ledger in front of me. The commission Barry Parker had been earning had increased continuously right up to the period covered by the last of those returns; he must have been working very hard. When the flow of returns stopped, our computer centre had started to issue assessments based on those previous returns. The estimated assessments were for reasonable sums but in fact the commission payments Barry Parker had been receiving had continued to increase, so I would have to issue a manual assessment of my own which, I was surprised to see, would run to a four figure sum. This demand would be in addition to the automatic assessments that he had already failed to pay, of course, and an unwelcome Christmas gift for him and his family.
I had just about finished when the accounts manager returned.
“How are you getting on?” he asked.
“Nearly done” I replied. “By the way, do you know exactly when Mister Parker was taken ill?”
“Let me see… It was a Wednesday; it must have been three weeks ago today. It was quite a shock to everyone here.” He paused for a moment before asking: “Have you found the details you need?”
“Yes, thank you” I said “I think I can get out of your way now; you’ve been most helpful.”
* * *
It didn’t take me long to complete the necessary paperwork but I spent a few minutes trying to word the official letter accompanying my assessment as gently as possible, littering it with phrases such as ‘It appears that…’ and ‘I am sorry to say…’ I also thought I should make sure that Rick Feather knew about his client’s situation. When I was passing his office a few days later I decided to ask if I could see him for a few minutes.
It was cold; the accountant was wearing his winter coat and his long scarf. A small electric fire was plugged in at the side of the room but it was failing to make much difference to the temperature.
“It’s about Mister Parker” I began “I think you should know what I’ve discovered since we spoke on the phone.”
“What’s that?” he asked. He did not show any signs of concern.
“He has had a heart attack” I paused “but it wasn’t until just over three weeks ago. Up until then his business was running as usual, rather well in fact.”
Rick looked quite stunned; he stared at me in disbelief.
“That… I don’t… No…” He struggled for words for a few moments before pulling himself together. “I persuaded the Inland Revenue to withdraw their last assessment, it wasn’t easy” he said acidly. It was the only time I ever saw Rick expressing something like real anger: “Now I’ll have to write them a grovelling letter of apology; they’ll never take my word for anything again.” He hesitated for a moment and then added: “That’s the last time I’ll be doing any work for that toerag..!”
I apologised for being the bearer of bad news and walked back out into the frosty town. It was only mid-afternoon but it was already getting dark. The Christmas lights had come on above the streets, the shop windows were bright and colourfully decorated and somewhere in the distance I could hear a brass band playing carols to collect money for charity and entertain the passers-by.