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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder