Tax experts offer free of charge advice to subpostmastersby
Outraged by the ongoing plight of victims of the Horizon scandal, a team of philanthropic accountants is offering free advice and support to affected subpostmasters to help them get their tax affairs in order.
Last week I reported on tax concerns for recipients of the Historical Shortfall Scheme (HSS) element of the compensation paid to wrongly accused subpostmasters. Top-up payments promised by the Post Office to cover excessive tax liabilities are still outstanding leaving 1,100, mostly pensioners, with a hefty tax bill they may struggle to pay.
In addition to the top-ups, victims were promised up to £300 to put towards independent advice to help them with their tax position. As we hurtle towards the 31 January self assessment deadline, this much needed support is yet to materialise.
Step forward a team of generous experts, mobilised by chartered accountant, tax writer and lecturer Rebecca Benneyworth, offering free-of-charge practical help and advice to subpostmasters who have received compensation from the Post Office and are worried about their tax position.
Benneyworth was deeply affected by the depiction of the scandal in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office starring Toby Jones as the heroic Alan Bates, as well as other recent media coverage.
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, she shared her personal connection to the story, that her mother was a subpostmaster from 1958 to 1980. "Thank God she retired before [Horizon came long], but I kept thinking ‘It could have been her'," she wrote.
Channelling her fury into positive action, Benneyworth quickly announced that she would provide accountancy services free-of-charge to any subpostmasters struggling to settle their tax affairs.
On 20 December she put out a call to action on X, formerly Twitter: "I’m pushed with tax returns for clients but if any affected subpostmasters need help I will help [free of charge]. Please will others with the appropriate skills also volunteer. Better still if one of our larger ICAEW firms would open their doors to affected SPM’s that would be wonderful."
The response from fellow experts was swift and generous, with former CIOT president Ray McCann leading the charge, replying: "I am not pushed with any tax returns but likewise happy to help. We need to get some organisation to platform such help as is required. DMs are open."
Speaking to AccountingWEB, McCann said: “The Post Office should have given more thought to how any compensation payments were structured or the government should have exempted all compensation payments relating to Horizon this avoiding the need for complex grossing up or for HMRC to get involved.
“That some of the amounts paid are subject to tax has just added to the issues faced by the victims of this scandal and the sense of public outrage. As it stands, the government will take up to 45% of some of the payments.”
Website now live
A domain created by Benneyworth, with input from Tax Policy Associates founder Dan Neidle, titled Postmasters' Tax is now live at subpostmasterstax.org.uk. On the website's homepage there is a contact form for subpostmasters to connect with advisers and obtain support, advice and reassurance. Volunteers can use the same form to offer their services to the team.
There is also a general advice page with helpful, digestible information about how compensation payments to subpostmasters are taxed. This covers payments received under the two compensation schemes – the Group Litigation Order (GLO) compensation scheme and the HSS – as well as advice on what to do about the looming self assessment deadline.
HMRC has today released its own guidance to help affected subpostmasters navigate the 31 January self assessment filing deadline, writing that "a dedicated team stand ready to provide postmasters with any support required".
Spread the word
It is vital that affected subpostmasters are aware of this invaluable resource on offer to them, as Neidle commented on X, formely Twitter: "The problem will be reaching postmasters."
The miscarriage of justice spanned a sixteen-year period from the rollout of Horizon in 1999 until the last prosecution in 2015. Many of the affected individuals will now be pensioners and may not have access to social media channels.
Speaking to AccountingWEB, Benneyworth said: "If anyone can point subpostmasters in need of help to us, I would be most grateful, and offers of help are very welcome. I can provide some software for personal tax returns if any volunteers don’t have access to software themselves."
Tragically, several of the victims of the Horizon scandal did not live to see their names cleared. For those that did survive, many are facing an ongoing nightmare as they grapple with the tax implications of compensation payments.
Sharing the information and link to the website is key to ensuring as many people as possible receive access to the help they need and don't have to continue suffering alone.
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Consulting Tax Editor for AccountingWEB.
I have spent the last 10 years teaching the accountants of the future, mainly ICAEW advanced level corporate reporting. I also cover tax news and write and edit tax updates for other publishers including PTP Limited.