Tax Avoidance:Treasury ” We screwed Up”,BBC ” Nothing is wrong.”

Treasury mandarin Sir Nick Macpherson- admitting catalogue of errors Pic Courtesy: BBC

Yesterday Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee had the Treasury, the BBC, Revenue and Customs and local government before them. Subject: How have so many publicly paid figures got away with tax avoidance.

You could not draw more of a distinction between the evidence given by Whitehall and the BBC on the  same issue. There are are detailed reports by me and Mark Conrad on the Exaro news website ( http://www.exaronews.com) about the hearing.

Suffice to say Sir Nick Macpherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury, put his hands up. He admitted ” a catalogue of errors” had led Student Loans Company chief, Ed Lester, to get a £182,000 a year  job with the government and avoid having tax and national insurance deducted at source. Indeed Howard Orme, the financial director of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, admitted he originally wanted £260,000 a year to do the job.

The disclosure that 2400 Whitehall staff have personal contracts shocked Sir Nick. He was forthright: “The Treasury had been asking the wrong questions. We were concentrating on value for money and not on the tax implications. We should have looked have looked at the figures more carefully.”

Contrast this with the BBC’s chief financial officer,Zarin Patel, who despite disclosing that the BBC employs a third of staff – some 25,000 – as freelances and admitting that 148 of the 467 journalist talent are paid through personal service companies, thought there was no tax avoidance at all.

Patel said: “There is no difference to the HMRC whatever way this is done.” In other words it doesn’t matter.

Not a view shared by the committee, Margaret Hodge, the chair, pointing out there was nothing worse than ” a person paid by the taxpayer avoiding tax.”

Patel’s complacency was also shattered later when HM Revenue and Customs chief, Lin Homer, revealed the paucity of checks on these people who have personal service companies. She disclosed that over three years the number of checks had been 25,12 and 23 respectively. One MP  even wondered whether this should be made public because it would only encourage more tax avoidance and evasion. This is now going up to 230 – but with 3,000 non journalists at the BBC on personal service contracts alone – how much difference will this make. More grist to the case presented by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, that the Revenue is indeed well understaffed to do its job.

More interest for Freedom of Information freaks – it emerged that the information I got through  the freedom of information request  which blew the whole story – is now to be used as a case study by Whitehall of how something can go wrong ( or at last I hope so!).

The London borough of Barnet also emerged in its true colours . Evidently it had not replied to a request from the Local Government Association to disclose how many senior staff were on personal service contracts – the number according to the redoubtable Mrs Angry @brokenbarnet is 13. But Mps appear to be on the case – they will need to be vigilant, Barnet has a habit of not co-operating with anyone who wants information.

The hearing was a success. The next stage will be to ensure there is proper action to get these wheezes stamped out, the sooner, the better. And of course end the BBC’s complacency over this issue.

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