Five questions answered on the call to ban "insider" tax accountants

What are "insider" tax accountants?

A report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee released today has called for a ban on ‘insider’ tax accountants. We answer five questions on the latest issue surrounding tax avoidance in the UK.

What are so-called ‘insider’ tax accountants?

According to the report, they are external accountants that also work inside government. The accountants are seconded to work in government to advise on changes to tax law.

What are MPs’ main problem with this working practice?

They believe that the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) can not win the battle against tax avoidance with these ‘insider’ accountants working in the system as they can gleam insider knowledge of the tax system and advise their clients of loopholes.

They also called for a ban on firms being used by the public sector if they had been selling tax avoidance schemes.

It has been called a ‘ridiculous conflict of interest’.

What else did the report say?

It also suggested that tax officiald were outnumbered by well-resourced accountancy firms, and that the big four accountancy firms employed about 9,000 staff a year and earned £2bn a year from their tax work in the UK.

The report said: "We have seen what look like cases of poacher turned gamekeeper, turned poacher again, whereby individuals who advise government go back to their firms and advise their clients on how they can use those laws to reduce the amount of tax they pay.”

What are those in the know saying?

Jim Harra, director-general of business tax at HMRC, told the BBC: "Clearly they [tax accountants seconded to the government] do go back out with some expertise and they do advise on how to use the legislation. We watch very carefully what advice accountants are giving to their clients.

"Provided that advice is how to use the legislation in accordance with the way Parliament intended it to be used, then we have no problems with that."

What else are the government doing to combat tax avoidance?

Last year the HMRC announced that it would invest a further £77m to expand its anti-avoidance and evasion work.

In recent months the government has come under pressure to do something about the tax avoidance, which has regularly hit the headlines with companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google being criticised for the amount of tax they pay in the UK.

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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The Brexit outlook for Theresa May isn't good

Getting from today's headlines to a successful deal will require an impressive feat of statecraft.

Good morning. Give me what I want or I shoot myself: that's the gambit that worked for the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, but it may not fly in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May has invoked Article 50 and Britain is heading out of the European Union. She attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone yesterday than she has hitherto, but the message that has drawn the headlines is the government's "threat" on security: that no Brexit deal means no British co-operation in Europol and in EU-wide counter-terror measures.

Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist bloc in the European Parliament says it was "not a smart move" and "feels like blackmail", and Guy Verhofstadt, parliament's representative in the negotiations, is also using the B word, after a fashion: "I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn't even use or think about the use of the word blackmail."

"Trading Blows" is the Mirror's splash, while "May threat to EU terror pact" is the Times' does-what-it-says-on-the-tin frontpage. "EU warns: don't blackmail us" is the Guardian's. The Sun has turned the jingometer all the way up to 11 this morning: "Your money or your lives" is their splash.

David Davis hit the airwaves this morning to reassure people that the government's intention was not to invoke security as a threat in the Brexit talks. My understanding is that the intention was to show co-operation and highlight the importance of Britain's continuing relationship with the EU. In Brussels, not everyone read the letter as a threat. The European Parliament is more "highly strung" as one Brussels official puts it, but don't forget: they get a vote on the deal too.

That the mood music from Downing Street and much of the British press has been so relentlessly anti-Europe means that feelings are running high. While most of the British political class doesn't have German or French, most of the political class does have English. The frontpages of the Sun, the Express and the Mail travel a lot further than their equivalents elsewhere in Europe, which will increase the pressure domestically on May's opposite numbers to sign a bad deal.

All of which can be navigated by an astute diplomat. As to the question of whether that diplomat is May, however, it's worth taking a look at that "100 per cent commitment to Nato" that she secured from Donald Trump, which even a generous marker would struggle to get to 60 per cent. Trump has yet to appoint a Nato ambassador and his Secretary of State is still sounding equivocal about standing by Nato members who don't pay up.

Getting from today's papers to a good Brexit deal is going to require an impressive feat of statecraft. Past performance isn't necessarily an indicator of future returns. But the outlook for May so far isn't good.

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