by Rebecca Hilsenrath
Published: 11 Aug 2014
When I was ten, my parents bought a semi-derelict cottage in a remote area of the Brecon Beacons, and from then on I spent my childhood weekends and holidays carrying out a succession of chores less than familiar to many of my contemporaries: filling up paraffin lamps and stoves (no electricity), scavenging for logs for the kitchen stove (no gas) and, on occasion, watching my father mend the pipeline from the spring to the house (no mains water and no mains drainage). If you had to make a phone call, you walked a mile and a half to the nearest phone box. The subsequent invention of the mobile phone made little difference (no signal). And we regularly received threatening notices from the BBC for not paying our TV licence (no signal for that, either).
This may seem like child abuse but it wasn’t – particularly because, if you made the mile and a half walk to the phone box, you had the opportunity to buy an ice lolly or packet of sweets at Mrs Brent’s shop. A local legend with seven children, Mrs Brent also ran the adjacent petrol station, opposite the chapel and kept chickens and (more incongruously) peacocks, to the mild surprise of visiting hikers.
Last week, HM Revenue and Customs announced that they were scrapping rules which came into force in 2010 requiring VAT returns to be filed on line. This relatively low key announcement was made in a response to a tribunal judgement last year holding that the new rules were in breach of the Human Rights Act. This case was brought by Rob, one of Mrs Brent's seven children, who inherited the shop and who (with a couple of other sole traders, supported by the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group) claimed breaches of Article 8, Article 14 and Article 1 Protocol 1, and won on all counts. The rules were found to be discriminatory against those with disabilities which would hinder their ability to use a computer, against those who were elderly and therefore likely to require computer training and likely to need to borrow or purchase a computer and also against those living in areas with no internet connection.
When I started taking my sons to visit my parents, Rob was a huge hit, and I could invariably persuade them to go for a walk by giving them pocket money to spend on sweets at Rob's on the way home. I am personally indebted to Rob for many hours spent by my children not watching DVDs but exploring the countryside, appreciating its splendour and learning independence, and I am glad to say that their teeth are none the worse for being Rob's devoted customers. It seems to me, though, that the benefits of this case and the subsequent change of heart by the government go wider than Rob, and wider even than the rights of small businesses and of elderly and disabled people. It specifically protects those who live in remote rural areas, and that means those whose life choices are less about broadband width and more about the importance of ice cream on the way back from climbing down a waterfall. I see Rob's case as a victory against the one-size-fits all culture. Human rights mean that you get support if you have different needs or if you choose to follow a different path. It means that it's ok to bring up children to fill up paraffin lamps and go for walks on their own. It is important that we harness the efficiency of the internet to make government simple and cost-effective, but in these transition years while humankind adapts to the new digital era, Rob's case says that there is a balancing act to be struck and HMRC have conceded this.
I've been out and about since joining the Commission in March. Based in London, I have become well acquainted with the Virgin Pendolino service to Manchester, which houses the largest number of Commission staff. Last week I was in Glasgow, visiting the team but also getting a whiff of the excitement of the Commonwealth Games (travelling back to London with some of the Australian athletes). This week I will be in Cardiff, catching up with the Welsh directorate. It's a great bonus to be part of an organisation where there is focused engagement with all parts of the country and I get a huge amount out of seeing how the different offices work, all under the same umbrella with the same strategies and direction. This approach helps the Commission to ensure that its work is tailored to different stakeholder groups, rather than being one-size-fits-all. We are starting to work on a couple of major pieces of work affecting strategic delivery of the Commission’s legal business. We will be taking these forward in the autumn and doing so in conjunction with the teams in Wales and Scotland, which will ensure that we tailor engagement all over the UK and also help me to get to know everyone better. I look forward to updating you after the summer, but in the meantime I am off for my holidays to Wales, where we now have our own derelict cottage, in Snowdonia. I hope you have a relaxing August, wherever you are.