Give us relief

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Why don't teachers get tax rebates for the work they do at home, asks Susannah Kirkman

Jean Johnson and Chris Chelu are two of many teachers who have nothing but a pile of dusty paperwork to show for their efforts to wring tax concessions from the Inland Revenue.

In January 2002 Clare Vowles, a primary teacher in Milton Keynes, won a pound;360 tax rebate for the costs she had incurred working from home. The sum took into account the cost of her computer and her heating and lighting bills. Many other teachers followed her example, but have discovered that the Inland Revenue has closed the door to further claims. According to the National Union of Teachers, Mrs Johnson's union, it is likely that Clare Vowles's victory was a one-off, and publicity about her case has put local tax offices on guard to ensure that no further claims slip through the net.

But Mr Chelu, who lives near Salisbury, is heartened by the news that his MP, Robert Key, is asking the Conservative shadow Treasury team to table an amendment to the new Finance Bill, allowing teachers to claim for tax refunds for working from home. "It does make me feel that there has been some point to the many letters I have written," says Mr Chelu. "I would only be eligible for a rebate of about pound;50 each year, but I am fighting for a principle. The injustice of it really annoys me."

Local councillors, insurance agents, domiciliary midwives, examiners and university lecturers are all entitled to claim tax relief for expenses linked to home working - but teachers are not. Mr Key, a former teacher whose mother, wife and daughter have all taught, says it is illogical for the Inland Revenue to apply different criteria to school teachers and university lecturers. "It's no longer an option for teachers to get all their work done at school. Buildings are usually locked after hours and at weekends," says Mr Key.

Although the 1987 Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act states that teachers'

work is not confined to school, the Inland Revenue says it must be a requirement that these teaching duties can be carried out "at home and nowhere else" before they qualify for tax relief. Tax officials argue that teachers do not have to work at home and do so only "as a matter of convenience".

"I would agree that if teachers only worked occasionally at home , then no tax relief should be allowed," says Mr Chelu, who has just taken early retirement from his job as a secondary physics teacher. "But people who think this are hopelessly out of touch with the life of today's teacher.

Over the past six years, for which I am claiming relief, I have habitually worked five evenings a week at home."

Andrew Flint, a tax expert with legal publishers CCH Information, thinks it unlikely that the Government will accept an amendment on tax concessions.

"This would be opening the floodgates to claims as teachers aren't the only ones who think they're a special case," says Mr Flint. He points out that most of the regulations surrounding working expenses date from the 19th century, and the Inland Revenue has been slow to introduce changes in line with modern practice.

"References to the upkeep of a horse as a deductible working expense were only deleted six or seven years ago," he says.

The letters that Jean Johnson, a Leicester primary teacher, has received from her local tax office would seem to support Mr Flint's criticism. One stated: "A teacher is deemed to carry out his or her substantive duties in the classroom at the school at which he or she holds the position of a teacher. It is not an objective requirement of the job that these duties have to be carried out at home, in fact, this would be impractical."

This was news to Mrs Johnson, who replied: "There is no way I can carry out my job as a teacher in the way the Government now insists upon without working at home. It is impractical and impossible to do all one's work at school since it does not stay open long enough into the night. I need to plan, work, mark, complete far more records than ever beforeI as well as reading the copious leaflets, letters and policies the Government produces most weeks."

Mrs Johnson sees the Government subsidy of computers for teachers as a tacit acknowledgment that teachers do have to work at home. She is also mystified by tax officials' frequent reference to two court cases, Pook v Owen, and Taylor v Provan, to justify the Revenue's tough line on teachers; both deal with claims for travel expenses.

Meanwhile, Mr Key is not giving up the fight; he is urging the teaching unions to mount a joint case for tax concessions to the Inland Revenue. The professional organisations for midwives, university lecturers, local councillors and insurance agents have all successfully challenged the Revenue on this issue.

Mr Flint believes the most effective route would be for the unions to ask the Inland Revenue to grant tax relief on computers used at home. This could be justified, he says, because computers are now essential tools of the trade, in the same way that a bricklayer can claim tax relief on his hod. But the current priority for the unions is cutting workload so that their members do not have to work from home.

Yet even with more administrative support and extra non-contact time, Mrs Johnson cannot foresee a time when she will not have to take work home.

"It's always going to be an issue," she says. "We'll never be able to cut it back sufficiently so that we don't have to work at home."

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