More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times very harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture.

I TOLD a tale a couple of issues ago of my experiences with Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes, a sad story which ended badly for me, not that there was any likely alternative outcome.

At the end of all this someone said: “The Inland Revenue are pussy cats compared to the VAT man.”

My Inland Revenue inspector hadn’t been so much of a pussy cat as a Scottish wildcat, an angry, bad-tempered one at that. It did leave me wondering what sort of feline was in store for me when the VAT inspector decided to visit. Being a dog man, I wasn’t holding out much hope for any sort of long-term friendship.

It’s all rather relevant for me at the moment, the David vs Goliath (literally in my case) topic of small businesses fighting the authorities, seeing as I am currently being scrutinised by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). 

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: The son is out!

Someone – a mechanic, I think – once said to me that running a small business was not dissimilar to being a boxer. You get knocked down, you get up, then you get knocked down again, and so you get up, again. In the end it’s all worth it, but the continual assault from all sides can sometimes get a bit overwhelming. I’ve been nine seconds into the count many times, metaphorically of course.

Actually, not; one time I really was out for the count, but that’s for another day …

Anyway, the HSE are onto my case in 2021 because my son fell out of a tree and that, unsurprisingly, has attracted their attention.

I don’t know what alerted the VAT inspector to the extraordinary fraud that I was involved with in 2001. I have my suspicions that the Inland Revenue lady might have squealed to her friends at HM Customs and Excise. Whether it was her or not, the outcome was the same: investigation time for Dave.

I looked at an old diary, to see where we were working at the time and if it might jog my memory about a funny tree-related incident that I could relate to you, but came up short this time. I remembered what happened cutting a hedge in a local village, prompted by the customer’s name which I will never forget, but the story isn’t suitable for publication. 

I noted a large pollarding job in Marlborough, remembered it well (rain, roadside working, power lines), but can’t remember anything funny happening.

So, you’ll have to manage with the VAT man incident.

Unlike the Inland Revenue, who’d concluded I was a villain a few months before following months of anticipation, the VAT people seemed ruthlessly efficient in their schedules.

“We need to visit your premises ASAP,” said someone, I’ll call him Peterson, not because that was his name, but it just seems to fit. Peterson, Customs and Excise, his card would say, though I still don’t know why my business was being investigated by the same government body that looks into smuggling.

I looked at my business premises – or kitchen – and decided that they might as well get it over with. 

“Come when you like,” I sighed, and so they did, arranging an appointment a few days later.

In the winter of 2001, I had a number of employees and alarmingly, according to the records, we were turning over more money in that period than we are twenty years later, for this month at least. Because of this I was running a number of seriously decrepit vehicles and I’d just sold a Ford Cortina pickup and bought a Freight Rover to add to the Land Rovers.

I didn’t know at the time, but the disposal of the red, rusting and scrap Cortina was about to be a problem …

As well as tree surgery and related work, I also had a new son, two young daughters and was in the process of extending and modernising a farm labourer’s cottage we had bought. Life was busy and the government fellow arrived to catch me at home, trying to secure a tarpaulin that was the only thing between our home and the sky.

I’d completely forgotten our appointment, was unprepared and assumed that he was the building inspector on a surprise visit.

“Hello!” I said cheerily, clinging to a flapping piece of fabric and balancing precariously on the roof rafters. 

“Come through and have a look around.”

Peterson was probably rather surprised at my upbeat and jolly nature, I’m sure it wasn’t what he was used to in his chosen line of work, but he let himself in and did exactly what I’d suggested. I clambered down and couldn’t find the visitor, I’d assumed he might lurk around in the shell of our new kitchen, sheltering in one of the bits that wasn’t currently dripping water.

Instead, I found him in the living room, staring intently at our stereo system, a battered old CD player and radio combo.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” I asked, noting that he wasn’t the normal fellow, but keen to ingratiate myself lest he found fault with my DIY improvements.

“No, I can’t, for obvious reasons,” said Peterson, puzzlingly.

I surmised that he had a bladder problem, so didn’t press the refreshments.

“Where did you get the stereo?” 

I still hadn’t caught on, but found it peculiar to say the least, perhaps he was thinking of getting a similar one, so I told him my brother had given it to me as a goodbye gift when he’d moved north.

“Hmmm …” he said, and made a note in a small book he was carrying in his briefcase, which was open and stuffed full of documents, mostly I was to discover, about me.

It must have been a combination of all the clues – no tea (risk of tampering), notebook (for valuation of stereos) and briefcase – that made me finally realise who he was: the VAT man. 

I decided not to tell him about the mix up, in my head, but it was too late now to adopt the correct surly and defensive demeanour the occasion required, so I stuck with upbeat and cheerful. I do wonder if my attitude might have helped more than I understood at the time, because the dreaded day was off to a much friendlier start than the occasion deserved.

We sat in the office-cum-kitchen, finding a spot of dry table among the puddles, children’s toys and leftover breakfast things and the questions started.

What’s your annual cash turnover? Who does your VAT returns? How was I paying for the home improvements? And so on, same as the Inland Revenue, but somehow nicer, thanks, as I say, to my happy and now too-late-to-change mood.

It was actually very easy to show receipts for the building works, paid from my personal account, mainly because most of the tea-stained receipts were still scattered haphazardly around the kitchen. We moved on to personal expenses and spending, particularly on the children.

“Can I have a look around?” asked the man, almost apologetically.

Such an intrusion should have left me aghast, but I was all set wrong for indignation, so I agreed. The tour of our home proved pretty fruitless for the government man. Where there should have been luxurious three-piece suites and expensive electronics, there was secondhand mismatched chairs and a giant 1990’s ugly TV, along with the aforementioned CD player.

Back in the war-torn, multi-purpose kitchen we resumed our positions at the table to begin a new line of questioning about work-related items, specifically a beaten to death Ford Cortina pickup and its missing entry in the VAT figures after sale.

“How much did you sell it for?” 

“I’m not certain, but I think it was about £17.”

Peterson seemed aghast.

“Is that all?” 

I wrinkled my brow a bit, terrified I was about to fall into the chicken feed trap.

“It might have been £15, I can’t remember, the bloke haggled a bit.”

“What bloke?”

“The scrap man, I went to school with him, his name is Michael.”

I could see the inspector was disarmed and flummoxed by what was actually such a homely and honest story, told with such chirpy integrity that it probably was the truth, which it was.

“Well … you should have declared the VAT on the sale.” 

“Sorry, it was cash and I think I just forgot. How much do I owe?” 

Again, the poor fellow was knocked sideways by my easy admission of a cash cover-up, but he produced a calculator and typed in some figures.

“Based on what you’ve told me, at a current rate of 17 per cent [which I think was the rate then], you have a deficit of £2.89 ...” 

His voice tailed off and I tried very, very hard not to laugh. “Gosh, I am sorry,” I said, feeling a bit sorry for the chap.

He muttered something about writing it off, I honestly think he quite liked me by now, it would have been hard not to given the evidence around him and my straightforward and friendly assistance. He moved onto the next topic, clothing.

“I see that in November you bought a jacket for £85 and declared that it was for work, claiming back the VAT in that quarter?”

“Yes. It was a jolly good one too, nearly waterproof!” 

I joked, though I’m sure the inspector hadn’t had such a struggle trying to find a winter coat that can perform this task without costing as much as a small second-hand car.

“Do you ever wear it out, to the pub for instance?” 

I did laugh properly this time.

“I don’t think so, it isn’t really that type of coat.”

“Can I see it?” 

The poor chap sounded like he was going through the motions now, it even felt cruel as I showed him out into the pouring rain and opened the back door to my Land Rover.

I scrabbled about a bit, moving aside ropes, fuel cans, a chainsaw and various other work stuff, before finally locating the coat stuffed behind the front seat.

“Aha!” I said triumphantly, and shook the jacket out, dislodging a handful of wood chip and a crisp packet. I held it up.

The coat was bright orange, had luminous strips on the sleeves, a large burn hole in the front and assorted rips and tears in the back.

“It’s got ballistic nylon padding in the sleeves, so you can’t accidentally cut your arm off.”

This was the final straw for Peterson. I still think he was tipped off by the ferocious Inland Revenue lady, it was too soon after her assault on my business and I was still reeling from it. However, far from finding a fraudulent, cheating company run by a crook, the VAT fellow had stumbled across an innocent, cheerful tree surgeon, who was as honest as he actually appeared. 

Presuming that he was a building inspector might have helped, setting the tone for the whole morning, but ultimately – other than the £2.89 outstanding – there was nothing to find.

I still express concern that I paid three times the amount of tax in 2020 as Donald Trump – perhaps he was having a bad year – but it isn’t my job to advise the government where to concentrate its investigations into fiscal misdemeanour.

As stated at the beginning of this story, I’m being investigated by the HSE at the moment, for something that I can prove beyond any doubt wasn’t my fault, but when I tried to point this out was told that my input wasn’t required until such time as I can be ‘interviewed under caution’.

I can’t wait!