Last year, I signed up to file self assessment. I wanted to claim tax relief on charitable donations and VCT investments. The website is tells you what to do in those cases: for charitable donations, either file self assessment or ask HMRC directly, and for VCTs, file self assessment. I knew a few people who filed self-assessment already, so I was expecting the process to be straightfoward. I registered as someone who isn’t self-employed, filled in form SA1 mentioning VCTs and charity in the “other reasons” box, and waited.

I got an unexpected response:

Thank you for your form SA1 Registering for Self Assessment and getting a tax return.

We can’t register you for Self Assessment because the information you’ve given on the form shows that you don’t meet the conditions for Self Assessment. For full details of these conditions, go to

This was something of a surprise. I knew that I didn’t meet the conditions normally, but I wanted to file as a special case so I could claim relief. There seemed no way I could convince them otherwise. I had to get in touch directly.

I used the self-assessment online Chat. The page has been redone since I used it, but while I was using it it had a few interesting quirks:

  • most of the time it displayed a screen telling you there were no advisors available, but not to refresh because the page would automatically update. This was not quite true, because it would stop checking after five minutes.
  • if advisors were available, you got a chat pop-up asking for basic details: a description of your problem. After entering this information, you could get a message saying that advisors weren’t available. The game became getting the message, then entering the details as quickly as possible and submitting.

I managed to get through to a chap called Craig. Craig was helpful, and we mostly talked about how he couldn’t help me. He told me that I might not need to file a tax return because I was claiming less than £10k for my VCTs, and that charitable donations also weren’t a reason to file. For the donations, he could take them over chat – except he couldn’t because it’s my first claim and it was for more than £5k. He told me I had to send a letter to Pay As You Earn & Self Assessment, HM Revenue & Customs, BX9 1AS, United Kingdom or file self-assessment. For VCTs, I would need to ring up and talk to a technical advisor, and then they could tell me what I needed to do. Forseeing an endless chain of being sent to different people, I tried to cut the knot:

M: well.. is it possible to register for self assessment, even if I don’t /need/ to register? I know a few people who just do it through their personal tax accounts and it seems really convenient.
C: Yes, you can request to complete a tax return even if you don’t need to.
C: You would complete the SA1 form at to do this.
M: I did fill that out, but the letter I got back said that I don’t meet the conditions for self-assessment
C: You would need to put in the reason for completing one box that you want to regardless of any criteria and request that we issue a tax return to be completed starting with 2020 to 2021.
M: awesome, thanks

I had received my first breakthrough. I filled in form SA1 again, and received a letter confirming my registration and giving me a UTR (Unique Taxpayer Reference). This told me to log in to my personal tax account, or sign up for a new one if I didn’t already have one. I did, I logged in, and I didn’t see anything relating to self-assessment. I decided to wait a bit just in case it took some time.

I already had a personal tax account because of some contracting I did briefly. I don’t think I ever filed self-assessment or had a UTR – I keep all mail from HMRC, and looking through it I couldn’t find anything about self-assessment. Sometimes they tell you that you just don’t need to file. Their documentation also tells you that any UTR should be displayed on your personal tax account, and mine wasn’t displaying anything, so I was relatively confident in this.

I tried signing up for a second personal tax account, just in case something had gone wrong with the first one. This went fine, but didn’t improve the situation.

I called up. The chap I talked to this time said that everything should just work, and as it didn’t, I should file a technical support request: report a page as not working, and then somebody else would look at it. I did get a response: use the business tax account screen, instead of the personal tax account screen to log in, add a tax, enter the UTR, claim I didn’t know my National Insurance number, enter my postcode and continue. This inventive workaround didn’t work (I assume the screens had been redesigned since), but did reveal something interesting: a personal account and a business account are the same thing, and which one you get depends on which screen you use to log in.

At this point I talked to my mother, who mentioned that when she’d had tax problems, she’d complained to our MP Alec Shelbrooke, who sent her details on to HMRC, and she was assigned a contact in the complaints department (formally “Operational Excellence”) named Julia. She called Julia, who got in touch with me and started sorting everything out. Had I not already had the contact, I would have had to complain to Alec myself, and then I hope it would have gone as it did.

Julia mentioned she could file my problem as a ‘further inquiry’ to look into internally. Looking at my records, she confirmed the UTR was assigned to me, mentioned I might have another UTR assigned (as despite having ‘unique’ in the name, they aren’t actually one per taxpayer), and said she’d look into it and get in touch with some people from other teams. She called back the same day having found the problem: when entering my details into the self assessment system, somebody had omitted the final character. This was an understandable mistake, as the final character is not required for many systems, and the NIN without the suffix was accepted by the SA system (but didn’t work). She said it would take about a month to fix and clean up my records, and we arranged a date to check back in and do the final part of the registration.

Julia got back in touch as expected, and the final registration went fine this time: I was able to do it all online using numbers from my payslip and passport, instead of having to be sent a letter as it used to be done in the past.

Then I filled in my self-assessment (with some help from my mother explaining things I was confused by) and got my tax relief. We sent a letter of compliments to Julia’s manager as thanks for her excellent work getting it all sorted.