Tax avoidance: HMRC stands accused

Vindication for UK Uncut as MPs attack HMRC's "cosy" relationship with big business.

In these straitened times, £25bn could go a long way. It's the amount that MPs on the Public Accounts Committee claim that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has failed to collect in "unresolved tax bills". The nation's tax collecters stand accused of treating large companies "more favourably" than ordinary taxpayers, of maintaining a "cosy" relationship with the likes of Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, and of providing "no accountability" about whether their deals provide good value for money.

In a bravura performance on the Today programme, Margaret Hodge, the chair of the committee, denounced HMRC officials for their lack of transparency, revealing that the committee relied on "whistleblowers and Private Eye" to expose alleged tax avoidance. "We found that the head of tax had a cosy relationship with many of the businesses with which he had to negotiate," she said in a quietly damning statement. Indeed, Dave Hartnett, the permanent secretary for tax, has enjoyed 107 dinners and lunches with companies, tax lawyers and advisers over the last two years. When called into parliament to answer questions he gave "imprecise, inconsistent, and potentially misleading" information. Vindication for UK Uncut, it seems, is at hand.

The report makes the front pages of both the Daily Telegraph ("Why double standards by taxman mean you pay more") and the Daily Mail ("Big firms let off £25bn in taxes"), a sign that even the right realises it cannot be seen to favour the undeserving rich, to apologise for the overclass.

For the record, HMRC claims that the report is based on "partial information, inaccurate opinion and some misunderstanding of fact". It added: "Senior HMRC officials sought to be co-operative by providing as much information as possible within the legal constraints of taxpayer confidentiality." But the onus is now on it to provide answers, rather than obfuscation.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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