Tax protestors interrupted a conference dinner at New College, Oxford last week to present HMRC’s former head of tax with a ‘lifetime achievement award for services to corporate tax avoidance’ before being ushered out by the conference’s angry chairman.
The three-day residential conference – advertised at £854 a head – was hardly a typical tax conference, but publicity surrounding the incident will embarrass many tax professionals.
While the protest was peaceful, the angry response prompted Paul Lewis, presenter of the BBC’s Money Box, to link to a protestor’s account on theGuardian website and ask on Twitter: ‘So which of the top tax lawyers … threatened to “set the dogs” on “trespassing scum”?’
However, a recent National Audit Office report indicated that allegations of ‘dodgy deals’ with major companies were unfounded. Taxation Editor Mike Truman told Tax Journal today that those who continued to pursue such allegations were ‘flying in the face of the facts’.
The group ‘We are the intruders’ posted a video of the incident on YouTube.
The video showed the activists interrupting a speech by Dave Hartnett, HMRC’s former Permanent Secretary for Tax, whom they described as ‘a great friend to the industry’.
Several guests at the event, hosted by Key Haven Publications, applauded when the ‘award’ was first announced.
A protestor pretending to be from Vodafone declared that a tax settlement had ‘saved us billions off our tax bill’.
The protest was virtually identical to the one staged by UK Uncut at the Tax Journal conference last year. However, a National Audit Office report concluded in June that five HMRC tax settlements examined by Sir Andrew Park, a former High Court judge, were ‘reasonable’.
A diner at the Oxford event, understood to be the conference chairman Robert Venables QC, intervened to say: ‘these people are trespassers and intruders’. ‘You will go sir, before we set the dogs on you,’ he told one protestor.
As the group left, the chairman appeared to tell them: ‘You’re trespassing scum, go.’
A colleague turned to him and said: ‘Robert, cool it.’
Neither Key Haven Publications, nor Venables, could be reached for comment today.
Tax Chambers, which co-hosted the event, declined to comment.
The incident has been described at length in a ‘Comment is free’ item on the Guardian website.
The group ‘crashed the gala dinner of a tax avoidance conference … run by the aptly named Key Haven Publications’, said Stephen Reid, a member of the group.
A report on the Telegraph website noted that the NAO report ‘cleared’ HMRC but the department was ‘told to clean up its processes to remove the suspicion of unhealthy relationships with companies’.
As Tax Journal reported in June, the settlements examined by the NAO included those reached with Vodafone and Goldman Sachs, which were the subject of media scrutiny and a series of protests by UK Uncut.
The NAO did not name the companies but said the overall outcome of the five settlements for the exchequer was ‘good’.
The NAO’s concerns about the processes by which the settlements were reached were confirmed, however.
‘There is a strong case for improving the processes for reaching these settlements, particularly separation of roles in negotiating and authorising settlements,’ it said, adding that HMRC had accepted this and was changing its governance arrangements.