An 83 year-old who "ticked the wrong box" on a self-assessment tax return received a letter from HMRC requesting immediate payment of £5,541 for unpaid National Insurance contributions from the Seventies and Eighties. The claim went back to a period between 1978 and 1994.
The case emerged in the wake of disclosure by Telegraph Money that 1.7 million pensioners continue to face the arduous task of filling in a tax return every year - with 275,000 of those above the age of 80. Campaigners say it highlights the complexities and difficulties in Britain's tax system, and the need for more elderly - often lower-income - taxpayers to be exempt from filing returns.
Anne Funnell, 83, has been completing a tax return for many years. But an accidental slip on her latest submission resulted in the unexpected request for payment.
The retired artist, who lives near Norwich, described the letter as threatening. “It requested more than £5,000 and it says: ‘this is due immediately. If you pay late or don’t pay you may lose your right to a state pension and benefits, and a private debt collecting agency may come to your home’.
“I regard that as threatening and menacing. It’s as near to blackmail as you can get.”
Mrs Funnell said HMRC had contacted her to say she had made a mistake on her return - which she accepts - and it has apologised to her for sending the letter, which it admitted was erroneous.
Telegraph Money has contacted HMRC for further clarification, but a spokesman is yet to respond.
Former pensions minister Steve Webb, now a policy director at mutual insurer Royal London, is among those highlighting the issue of pensioners being required to take on the complicated and confusing task of a tax return far into their later years.
Additionally, due to the size of most pensioners’ incomes, the amounts collected are likely to be very small. Mr Webb said HMRC needs to question whether the time, money and effort which goes into making the elderly fill in tax returns was worth it.
“In very many cases we are talking about very small amounts of money,” he said. “You are putting people later in life through huge amounts of hassle and stress and at the end of the day you could be taking pounds or pence.
“Yes if someone is a millionnaire we should be getting tax from them, but if it’s a case of a very small amount, you have to think is this proportionate?”
He also said it was important not to abandon those who are less comfortable with a digital taxation system. He explained: “In my experience, the more they assume that everyone is online, the worse the service will be for those who are not.
“There are an awful lot of people being forced to jump through hoops for very little real benefit to the taxpayer.”
Speaking a fortnight ago, the HMRC spokesman said: “The vast majority of pensioners do not need to fill in tax returns, and we are taking thousands of them out of self assessment every year.
“We offer a wide range of support for those who need to complete a tax return through our website, helplines and home visits.”