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
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power