Expat outcry over Tax-on-Web

14th June 2006, Comments 0 comments

Unlike Belgian nationals, expats in Belgium cannot apply online for an access code to the government's electronic tax return programme. Martin Banks investigates why.

The authorities in Belgium this saiweek angrily denied that foreigners living in the country were being discriminated against when it comes to lodging their tax returns.

The Tax-on-Web system has been in operation for four years

The denial comes after it emerged that foreign residents will not automatically have the same rights as Belgian nationals to file their 2005 tax forms online.

Belgian taxpayers can lodge their tax returns online via the government's website, www.taxonweb.be.

Applicants receive a user name, password and a personal access code within 10 days of registering at the website.

However, all foreign residents, both EU and non-EU, will have to report in person to the federal government's information and communications technology department, Fedict, to obtain an access code.

Finance Ministry spokeswoman Birgit Peters says this is because foreigners have a national number and a social security card number, but no identity card number, making it impossible to complete the current forms online.

"We are not trying to make life difficult for anyone, but simply want to be safe. After all, we are dealing with personal financial details here," she says.

"The online service is a relatively new project. It is evolving all the time and we may look at ways of making things a bit easier in the future."

Changes in the wind

Ministry spokeswoman Peters indicated that the system might be changed next year so that foreign residents might be able to apply online for a code, the same as a Belgian national. But she was unable to say when any such chance might be implemented.

Peters pointed out that the tax arrangements will not apply to a large section of the expat community in Brussels: the estimated 25,000 civil servants working for the EU institutions, such as the European Parliament and Commission, most of whom do not pay tax to the Belgian state.

"The only obstacle for foreign people in Belgium is that he or she has to call personally at one of the Fedict offices to collect their access code. But I do not think that is such a disadvantage and certainly does not amount to discrimination," she says.

Her comments were echoed by Fedict spokeswoman Mila Druwe, who also denied the arrangements were discriminatory.

Making your life easier?

"It is not a question of discrimination at all. We are doing this purely for practical reasons. We need to physically see a foreign resident personally to verify that they are the person they claim to be on their tax form," she says.

"It would not be safe or secure to apply for an access code by post because that method could be open to potential fraud. Someone could apply for an access code for another person and end up having access to an individual's sensitive financial details."

This is the fourth year in which Tax-on-Web will be used. Some 570,000 people lodged their taxes online last year, representing 10 percent of all taxpayers in Belgium.

In its first year of operation, 57,000 people used the online scheme, rising to 169,000 in 2004.

Druwe says it is not known how many foreign residents have used the system so far.

Expats disgruntled

Some expatriates, such as Briton Peter Newman, a 27-year-old engineer, who lives close to the Belgian-Dutch border, are not happy that they are being asked to personally call at Fedict offices for an access code.

"I do not see why we should have to do this when the same does not apply to Belgian nationals. I do not have the time, or inclination come to that, to trek to Brussels to do something which could easily be done online," he says.

"After all, we are supposed to be living in an age of easy communications."

Sharon O'Leary, a 32-year-old bar worker from Ireland, who has lived in Brussels for just over a year, says she got little joy when she contacted Fedict to find out how she goes about obtaining an access code.

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