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BDO tax partner condemns conference protest

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A partner at a leading firm of accountants has condemned the action of protestors who disrupted a tax barristers’ conference dinner and presented a mock lifetime achievement award to HMRC’s former head of tax, Dave Hartnett. Stephen Herring, senior tax partner at BDO, told the ICAEW journal economia: ‘There must always be a place for reasoned argument and the broadest range of lobbying but a stunt is never more than that and, indeed, ought to be viewed as no more than a baseless allegation which should be treated and dismissed as such.’

The protest at New College, Oxford was filmed and has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube. Several newspapers and other media, including CNN, embedded the video on their websites.

As Tax Journal reported last week, a small group of protestors presented Hartnett with a ‘lifetime achievement award for services to corporate tax avoidance’. The protestors purported to speak on behalf of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs and alleged that Hartnett had saved them substantial amounts of tax – despite a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report having indicated that allegations of ‘sweetheart deals’ with the companies and three others were unfounded.

HMRC said in response to the protest: ‘Dave Hartnett left the department at the end of July after 36 years of service. HMRC have always been clear that we do not do deals. We collect the amount of tax that is due.’

The Independent reported that the protest was ‘the opening move of what could become a new direct action anti-corporate campaign’.

CNN’s reporter said the group, which has called itself ‘The Intruders’, had set its sights on ‘their next target – bankers’. Stephen Reid, a member of the group, told CNN: ‘Not much has changed since 2008 when the crash occurred and we had to nationalise the banks … so if there’s an opportunity to make some points around the City – and things are still going wrong there – that would be interesting’.

The angry response of the tax barrister who chaired the conference – understood to be Robert Venables QC, who has not responded to Tax Journal’s invitation to comment – has been the focus of many of the thousands of online comments, and has helped to draw attention to the vexed issues of tax avoidance and fairness in the tax system.

‘The protesters said their treatment showed there was one rule for ordinary taxpayers and another for big business,’ the Financial Times reported.


But economia quoted Stephen Herring as saying that the complex issues arising from the need to maintain a competitive tax system, while preventing abusive tax avoidance that undermines the tax base, could ‘never be resolved by way of the outrageous public displays and unfounded allegations which, sadly, senior HMRC officials have suffered from over recent months’.

Calum Fuller, tax correspondent at Accountancy Age, said the protest amounted to ‘little more than the juvenile, schoolyard goading of a man celebrating a milestone’. The group was not saying anything new or interesting, he said. Engaging in such tactics was ‘far from conducive to reasoned, intelligent debate’ and was more likely to ‘drain [the protestors’] potentially worthy cause of any credibility’.

Paul Stainforth, editor of Tax Journal, said he found news of the protest ‘depressing’. It was not right, he said in an editorial note in last week’s issue, that ‘a retired public servant should be hounded in this way’. Noting that the NAO had found that the HMRC settlements delivered ‘a good outcome’ for the exchequer, he added: ‘It seems the facts won't alter the public perception, sadly.’

Mike Truman, editor of Taxation, had told Tax Journal that those who continued to pursue allegations of ‘sweetheart deals’ despite the NAO’s findings were ‘flying in the face of the facts’.


David Walker, contributing editor to the Public Leaders Network at The Guardian, observed that as protests go ‘it was stylish, even elegant’. But its rationale was that ‘a civil servant is personally culpable, despite the multiple investigations of his conduct by the [Public Accounts Committee] and the National Audit Office, let alone the political accountability for HMRC work borne by Treasury ministers and, ultimately the chancellor and the prime minister'.

Walker wrote: ‘What Hartnett did, or did not do, was contained within a system of governance. That system, the PAC found, was inadequate but that does not translate into personal culpability for an official who dedicated his career to the fair and effective administration of tax law and who during it won many friends and admirers for his energy, determination and (counter cultural in Whitehall) willingness to explain and justify his actions in public hearing.’


Accountancy Age reported today that 92% of respondents to an opinion poll conducted on its website said the protestors’ action was ‘completely reasonable’. There were only 112 responses to the poll and only 7% thought the action was either unfair or ‘entirely unwarranted’. However, the poll was open to anyone, and tweets promoting the poll were re-tweeted by the protest group UK Uncut, which has more than 47,000 followers.