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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Theresa May's fight against burning injustice can start with the UN's anti-austerity treaty

The UK urgently needs to make sure social rights are protected. 

Fifty years ago this month the United Nations presciently adopted a treaty creating legal safety nets for vulnerable communities facing the effects of austerity in wealthier democracies. 

Although this treaty applies to all countries, rich and poor, in prosperity or austerity, this anniversary provides a timely reminder that the treaty has much to offer both those who are just managing and those who are unable to manage.

Admittedly the treaty's title does not trip easily off the tongue - it is called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, with protests against globalization expressed in the UK with Brexit, in America with Donald Trump and most recently in Italy and France, the Covenant, although international, places limits on globalisation, because it places vulnerability and community at its centre. 

The rights protected by the Covenant include the right to payment for work at a level which provides a "decent living for themselves and their families", the right of everyone to adequate food and housing and the right to the "continuous improvement of living conditions". There are also provisions, which oblige the government to make higher education progressively free, and a right to the highest attainment of health. 

The International Covenant is legally binding on the United Kingdom but the Covenant has been deprioritised by successive governments of all political persuasions. This is for a number of reasons, including a lack of knowledge about courts around the world which have dealt with these rights. 

Successive British governments have assumed that social justice rights are incapable of being protected by courts. In fact, this stems from a failure to look at how an increasing number of modern democracies, including most of Latin America, South Africa and some European states, effectively protect rights such as the highest standard of health and adequate housing. 

Many modern democracies regard social justice rights as reinforcing democracy and an essential component of the rule of law. It is no coincidence that this failure to keep up with social justice developments overseas has left those vulnerable and socially immobile without a legal remedy. 

Many of the rights in a sister Covenant, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are now reflected in UK law, such as the right to freedom of expression and belief. But there is, despite the NHS, no right to the highest attainable standard of health. This prompts the question: Why have the Prime Minister, the Labour and Liberal parties not called for the Covenant’s rights to be brought back home? This question is particularly pertinent now as the Prime Minister in her inaugural speech stated that her goal was to fight "against the burning injustice that if you are born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others".

The only attention paid by governments has been to report as required by the Covenant on how the UK has implemented the treaty, and then to consider the recommendations of the United Nations Committee overseeing the Covenant. This, however, does not provide a remedy for those receiving the half a million emergency food parcels that the Trussell Trust said that it distributed between April and September. 

Strategically, the UK needs to adopt a two-pronged policy. The first step is a simple and free international remedy, which 22 countries allow their citizens to use. The UK ought to ratify the International Protocol to the Covenant, which allows people to petition the UN Committee. As the system does not involve costs, there is no need for the government to provide legal aid. The advantage of this first step is that it would allow a decision to be reached as to whether for example, the UK government is fulfilling its duty to provide adequate nutrition to specific individuals by relying to such an extent on food banks.

Secondly, as Brexit means removing those in the UK from the protection of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which enshrines some social justice rights, the UK urgently needs to ensure that social rights are protected. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights expressly protects human dignity, which it states is inviolable and which, as a specific right, is not found in the Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Charter also protects European dimensions of the rights of older people to live a life of dignity and independence, and a right of access to preventive health care, both of which are essential. It is not clear from the government’s Brexit plans so far that these rights will be continued.  A Bill of Rights, which is Human Rights Act Plus, however, would provide such an opportunity.

It may be tempting to argue that this is not the time to consider additional rights, and that rather than seek to expand human rights protection, all energies should be harnessed to defend the Human Rights Act. However, although the rights in the Human Rights Act are constitutionally essential, it was never designed to guard against social immobility or the wealth gap. The raison d’etre of human rights is that all rights are indivisible and equal and the truth is despite the despite the Act being called ‘human rights’, many essential human rights are missing. After fifty years it is time for the UK to reassess the potential of the International Covenant.

Professor Geraldine Van Bueren QC is Professor of International Human Rights Law, Queen Mary, London and Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford.