Goldman Sachs have £20m of our money, but we're on the road to getting it back

HMRC's sweetheart tax deal with Goldman Sachs must be declared unlawful

Last Wednesday we were delighted when a High Court judge declared that we will be allowed to take forward our case against HMRC over its decision to let banking giant Goldman Sachs off of up to £20m in interest on an unpaid tax bill. The banking giant has owed this sum since December 2010 and we want HMRC to correct their error and make Goldman Sachs pay their debt as soon as possible so that it can be invested in our vital public services at this time of unprecedented spending cuts.

Our aim now is to have the High Court declare that the agreement reached by HMRC with Goldman Sachs was unlawful. We also want the court to order HMRC to take steps to reopen the agreement it reached with Goldman Sachs about the interest owed and seek to recover that money.

Importantly, the day after we secured our review of HMRC's "sweetheart" deal with Goldman Sachs, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on how HMRC settled five large tax disputes with big business, each of these being examined by retired tax judge Sir Andrew Park. We believe that, while the report acknowledges some failures of decision-making and governance in the department, it raises far more questions than it answers.

For example, the five companies in question remain unnamed, so that the truth about these huge tax deals continues to be veiled behind HMRC’s claims of taxpayer secrecy for the powerful businesses in question.

Park also judges the merits of each of the five tax deals on grounds of "reasonableness", finding that each settlement was "reasonable". Crucially, however, Park does not – and cannot – make a judgment on whether the settlements were legal.

The report does appear to cover the Goldman Sachs dispute (understood to be "Company E") and gives some indication of why HMRC chose not to collect the unpaid tax owed to it.

Previously, HMRC's outgoing tax chief, Dave Hartnett – who is understood to have shaken hands with Goldman Sachs on the deal – admitted that he "made a mistake" for which he was "entirely responsible." However, Park finds that HMRC’s decision not to charge interest on Company E’s unpaid tax bill wasn't a mistake but a "deliberate decision" and "made sense in the context of reaching a settlement on all the issues under consideration" with the company. The problem with package deals like this is that they mainly benefit the interests of corporations, which want to minimise their tax bills, and enfeeble HMRC's ability to enforce its own rules and raise the necessary revenue.

Park outlines how the department's own "High Risk Corporates Programme Board" rejected the decision waiving Goldman Sachs interest on their tax bill, but that HMRC commissioners (which included Hartnett) decided to approve the settlement anyway. No explanation was given as to why the commissioners took this course of action at the time and no reasons were recorded until three months later. Even now those reasons remain secret.

Yet somehow Park still concludes that HMRC’s settlement with "Company E" was "reasonable". This is despite Park himself affirming that there was "no legal barrier to charging interest" on the company’s outstanding tax bill and the fact that HMRC's own rules prohibit it from making package deals with businesses.

Given the clear gaps and omissions in the NAO report, it remains vital that our case against HMRC goes ahead, to judge whether the deal with Goldman Sachs was legal, and to expose the truth behind this and other deals as far as possible. It is also important that the Public Accounts Committee follows up its December 2011 report concerning tax disputes in order to challenge and ultimately end the "cosy" relationship between HMRC and big business that it identified.

The public interest in these matters is clear – people have a right to know why a multi-billion pound investment bank and other corporations appear to have been let off the tax they owe while vital public services are being cut. The government now has a choice to make. It can clamp down on the billions of pounds worth of tax avoided by big business or continue making ordinary people pay for the economic crisis with their jobs and pensions.

The entrance to Goldman Sach's office in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Street is the director of UK Uncut Legal Action

Photo: Getty
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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left