Kafka was right

It’s only when you step into the mire that is tax bureaucracy in Ireland (or, I suppose, anywhere) that you realise just how right Kafka was.

I know someone going through the hoops now to reclaim some overpaid tax on a redundancy payment. It’s a simple case (or should be) of one inept company mistakenly taxing a lump sum payment. It is in clear breach of the law regarding such payments, which is made clear after a cursory trip to the Revenue’s website. But finding out the rules yourself is one thing. Actually getting others to understand the situation is quite another.

First, our intrepid employee rang their own company. They flatly denied all incorrectness in their taxing the lump sum. This is despite being presented with the relevant quotes from the Revenue website. They had simply mis-read it the first time and weren’t too bothered to re-read it. Ignorance personified.

Then, our tax enquirer rang the local tax office for some impartial advice. Their website states: “Revenue Commissioners Central Telephone Enquiry Office (for telephone enquiries on taxation implications of extra statutory/ex-gratia redundancy payments – statutory redundancy payments themselves being tax-free)”. That would appear to be an open and shut case then. They have a trained and eager staff who fully understand the simple rules concerning “taxation implications of…redundancy payments”, or so one would think. 

They knew nothing whatsoever about tax rules concerning redundancies. Nothing. Nada. Like the proverbial stone dropped into a deep, dark well, there was nothing forthcoming. Jaws were slack and the sound of drooling civil servant could be heard over the phone line. “Can you find out?” was the next question? “Oh, duh, dunno” was the basic reply (I am exaggerating, but only slightly). They told her to go to the Central Revenue Information Office in town.

Appearing at the front window of the said “Central Revenue Information Office”, our enquirer was greeted to quizzical expressions when she tried explaining their own tax laws to them. Two of them, both equally ignorant of their own rules that they purported to proffer advice on. One reply: “You must be right if you read it on our website”! Huh? This is a case of the information, ahem, office relying on Joe Public to inform them about their own laws. I suppose it is mislabelled: it should have read “Central Revenue Clueless Office”.

Digging further, I realised that this is just the tip of the iceberg of slack-jawed idiocy, and jobs-worth civil servants. There are numerous Orwellian-sounding organisations all purporting to offer advice to the bewildered. There is the National Employment Rights Organisation. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment handles rebates of statutory redundancies to employers. There is the Employment Appeals Tribunal, the Equality Authority, the Rights Commissioners, the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission, and various sub-departments and sections of the department and revenue commissioners.

This reminds me of the time, many years ago, when I was a student, and I was applying for unemployment benefit during the summer holidays. I was entitled to it and knew it because they had recently published a leaflet about it (this was before the days of the Internet). I approached the dark interior of the smelly unemployment exchange only to be informed by one of these shifty bureaucrats that, in fact, I was not entitled to benefit. “Yes I am”, I said. “No, you’re not” was the reply. “Yes I am”, “No you’re not”, “Yes I am”, “No, you’re not”. On and on it went. I eventually persuaded them to ask a senior member of staff. “No, you’re not” came the definitive reply. Exasperated, I remember asking them to read their own leaflet about it. “I have never seen this leaflet” they said, after a quick glance. “But, it has New Rules for Students and Unemployment Benefit in big black letters across the top”, I said. “Never seen it” they said, blinking. Uncomprehending. Like asking the winner of the Derby to explain general relativity. It would be outside their expertise.

To cut a long story short, I told them that I was coming back the next day to talk to their manager. The next day, with fulsome apologies, I was informed that I was, indeed, right. But why was I subjected to the idiocy from the day before? I guess that civil servants don’t like being told that they’re wrong by members of the great unwashed public. How could they possibly appreciate the immense reams of paper work involved in being a civil servant.

There must, somewhere, deep in the bowels of the Irish civil service, be an RP90450-04 form, termed the “Application for a Brain” form. And none of the people in the tax office have filled it out yet.

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