Did the former Cabinet Secretary unwittingly sanction “tax avoidance”?

Gus O'Donnell: Tax avoiders friend in Whitehall? Pic Courtesy: Daily Telegraph

The huge  row following the disclosure  of the tax  ” avoidance” arrangements for Ed Lester, chief executive of the Students Loans Company, has concentrated on how government ministers approved the arrangement.

Not highlighted was the role of the then Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, recently retired on an index linked pension and getting £300 a day for every day he turns up as a newly ennobled peer.

Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Gus O’Donnell when he heard Lester was not going to be on the pay roll of the Student Loans Company rightly demanded an ” urgent clarification “. He also insisted on an explanation about the ” costs to the Exchequer” of the arrangement. He was then sent a detailed document which showed that if he was paid through an agency it would cost less than if he was on the staff. Details of  the document are published tonight on the Exaronews website (www.exaronews.com)  and also detailed in a story by Rajeev Syal on the Guardian website(http://bit.ly/yWOy7H ).

Basically it is a scam explanation – revealing huge fees (£83,000) to be paid to Penna Consulting, the management firm, who acted as middlemen to pass money on to  his private company – if he was taken on the pay roll. It also suggested that his expenses of £550 a week for a flat and fare would have to be grossed up to cover his personal tax bill if he was on the staff.

Meanwhile the savings side if he was not on the pay roll included a whopping £17,000 to the SLC for avoiding paying the employers national insurance contribution.

 Any cursory glance at these figures by anybody reasonably intelligent would suggest that these were sham calculations and could have been knocked down, particularly the big fee to the agency. Yet the e-mails show Gus was ” content”.

Frankly this is as bad as Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, not realising the tax implications of the deal. Here one of the most highly paid people in Whitehall and head of the civil service appears to be oblivious of what he is sanctioning. What does this say of the ability of people at the top or are they so used to paying out such big fees (taxpayers money) that they don’t notice?

I have tried to contact Lord O’Donnell for an explanation but he has not returned my calls. And the Cabinet Office is now sheltering around the fact that Danny Alexander has ordered a review to stop answering questions – even though some of the points I have raised have nothing to do with the review. Senior civil servants seem rather good at covering their tracks – it is probably a key part of their training.

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