David Prosser: The taxman is never going to be popular but he must at least appear even-handed

 

Outlook In carving out a career in taxation, Dave Hartnett, the permanent secretary for tax at HM Revenue & Customs, can't have expected to make himself a popular man. Still, while everyone complains about what the taxman takes each month, Mr Hartnett is increasingly also getting it in the neck for what he doesn't take. Yesterday's hearing at the Public Accounts Committee, in which HMRC found itself accused of letting Goldman Sachs of all people off a £10m tax bill, is just the latest controversy involving Mr Hartnett. Most famously, he is the man accused of letting Vodafone escape a tax bill totalling billions of pounds, a row that was the initial trigger for the UK Uncut campaign against big business.

It should be said, of course, that HMRC vehemently rejects any suggestion it has caved in to large companies that have challenged its tax bills. The companies involved also deny any wrongdoing. For outsiders, moreover, it is difficult to get to the bottom of these arguments, because companies, like individuals, are entitled to have their intimate tax affairs kept private.

What is clear, however, is that Britain's tax codes are in urgent need of rationalisation. The endless rewrites of disparate parts of tax law have left the system riddled with loopholes that wealthy individuals and corporates have only been too happy to exploit, often running rings around HMRC'sattempts to stop them doing so.

In the end, a system of taxation falls apart if those it applies to do not believe it to be even-handed. Though Mr Hartnett would no doubt argue that it is misinformed, there is a growing perception in Britain that on matters of tax, there is one rule for the rich andanother for everyone else.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of cases such as Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, HMRC must share the blame for the way that perception has come about. The tax deal Mr Hartnett signed with Switzerland last month, for example, did nothing to dispel the notion that his agency is not inclined to show the same zeal in chasing wealthy tax avoiders as it does in charging 1.5 million people £100 for failing to file their tax return on time.

Although the deal will see Swiss banks deduct some tax charges from British account holders who haven't declared themselves to the UK authorities – it does allow citizens of this country to go on hiding their assets abroad with little fear of ever being identified.

Unfortunately, Mr Hartnett has form when it comes to failing to think the dangers of reputational damage to HMRC. Only a year ago, he had to make a rapid U-turn after refusing, on national radio, to apologise for a cock-up that saw millions of taxpayers charged the wrong amount, often with disastrous consequences. This is a taxman who rarely seems to help his own cause.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas