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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.