A working life: The tax inspector
Even in the Bible, as far as I can remember, the bad guys were tax inspectors: vindictive hoarders, on the whole, who viewed inflicting misery as a perk of the job. It was a stereotype as silly then, no doubt, as it is now. Yet even among the least villainous officials of biblical Judea, I find it hard to imagine that many were as warm and cheery as Mick Allcock at Bolton tax office.
“We’re literally in the middle of moving. Normally, this is packed with staff,” he chirps, as we flit briskly towards his desk across the faded red and grey carpet. And certainly the hundreds of nondescript booths around us do look strangely empty of people and their clutter – apart from the numerous hatches full of files, and Allcock’s own Bolton Wanderers fixture list, its results faithfully completed in felt tip.
“Unbeaten in September,” he points to it optimistically. “Megson’s sure to get Manager of the Month.” As I consider my response, he leads me into a meeting room where a large tea urn and a tin of government-issue chocolate biscuits await. If Allcock’s colleagues are always this hospitable in receiving a suspected wrongdoer, I can’t help wondering, then it might be worth slipping a few deliberate errors into your next tax return.
And yet in a real case, of course, all friendliness must have its limits. To do their job properly, tax inspectors do need to develop, if not a hard heart, exactly, then certainly a pretty solid head, to stay on top of a mass of information while deflecting the objections of a disgruntled interviewee and their massed accountants.
“You get that butterflies in your belly feeling, absolutely,” Allcock explains, undunking the bag from his tea, then sipping it. “You’ve got to be able to deal with the stress and confrontation and go home at night and not worry about it. You get people in around a table like this … And they come in and you think, crikey, this is a big bloke! I’m not going to look forward to this. But it’s their finances you’re asking them about … They’re more frightened of you than you are of them – and I’m 5ft 9in and I weigh nowt!”
He chuckles in a Bolton accent, and takes another sip of tea. “As long as you treat them with a bit of respect,” he says. “They know they’ve been fiddling the books. They know that. They’re a bit peeved, because they’ve been caught, but they know it’s a fair cop. Sometimes they’ve just got to shake your hand and say, ‘Yeah, fair enough’. And a lot of them do.”
And so they should. Because, as most sensible people would accept, Allcock and his ilk do an important and a difficult job. Though few people like paying taxes, fewer still would want to live in a world without them – like playing football without a referee. Though, as with that other unpopular profession, tax inspectors have to have very sharp eyes indeed.
“You can end up in a room like this,” Allcock explains, “with three or four boxes full of pieces of paper, invoice books, all sorts of stuff, and you go through them.” To many people, of course, this would be a kind of torture, but to him it’s fun. “It’s finding what they’ve done and how’s they’ve done it,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s so obvious it just …