We gave former HMRC boss Dave Hartnett an award for services to tax avoidance – but his activities represent a far deeper problem
Last Thursday night, a few friends and I crashed the gala dinner of a tax avoidance conference in Oxford. Run by the aptly named Key Haven Publications, the “tax planning” conference brings together accountants for the mega rich and multinational corporations to discuss, very explicitly, how to get away with paying as little tax as possible.
Sessions at the conference promise advice on offshore tax planning and dealing with the “threat” of anti-avoidance legislation. But the really outrageous event on the conference itinerary was the black-tie dinner in the great hall of New College, Oxford, where the after-dinner speaker was Dave Hartnett, former head of HMRC, who has just retired after revelations that his organisation made deals with Vodafone, Goldman Sachs and many other companies, resulting in billions off their tax bills. We decided to crash the party.
As Britain’s top taxman, Hartnett’s job was to make people pay their fair share. But he personally signed off on sweetheart deals with big corporations. Private Eye magazine has been doggedly reporting the tawdry details of his notorious £6bn deal with Vodafone for more than two years now. Earlier this year, Osita Mba, a whistleblower from HMRC, spilt the beans on Hartnett’s deal with Goldman Sachs, which let the bank off £10m in tax on bankers’ bonuses. UK Uncut has spent the last year or two occupying shops, crashing conferences and suing the government in protest at the deals. And the public accounts committee made front-page news when it slammed Hartnett for his lack of “candour” over the controversial deals. It’s no surprise he eventually decided to resign.
But, despite being criticised by parliamentary committees, anti-cuts activists, investigative journalists and his own staff, among the tax avoidance professionals at last week’s conference, Hartnett is a popular man. When he stood to make his speech, just after the port was served, the reception was rapturous: he was without doubt among friends. He cracked a few bad jokes and the audience guffawed heartily.
Hartnett has a history of dining out with the people he’s supposed to be regulating. In 2010, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that he was Whitehall’s most wined and dined civil servant, accepting hospitality from firms including Goldman Sachs, PWC and KPMG. It’s a classic case of regulatory capture: the person supposedly in charge of regulating an industry instead ends up chummy with them, sometimes even working on their behalf.
Unfortunately, his nice evening quickly took a turn for the worst. Just a few minutes into his speech, the grand door to the hall opened and we walked in. We were dolled up in black tie, and had knocked up some Vodafone and Goldman Sachs name badges. We interrupted Hartnett’s speech and presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to Corporate Tax Avoidance, also known as the Golden Handshake. Hilariously, the audience applauded enthusiastically. The video we shot shows Hartnett looking as if he wants the ground to swallow him up. We were soon dragged from the room by a tax barrister who called us “trespassing scum” and “intruders”.
Hartnett is just one man; but he represents a problem that runs far deeper. Cosy meetings between the super rich, politicians and Whitehall mandarins are all too common. Whether it’s in the restaurants near Whitehall, the lobby of parliament or the great halls of Oxford, the rich peddle far too much influence over those in positions of power. And, over port or handshakes, deals are made that can end up costing ordinary people dear. It’s time for servants of the state to remember whose side they’re on.
Need a Loan? Visit Secured Loans Broker.
View full post on Free Secured Loans Advice