While judge agreed the deal was ‘not a glorious episode in the history of the Revenue’, he ruled it was not unlawful
Campaign group UK Uncut Legal Action has lost its high court challenge over the legality of the “sweetheart” tax deal between HM Revenue and Customs and Goldman Sachs.
The judge agreed the deal was “not a glorious episode in the history of the Revenue” but ruled that it was not unlawful.
The court was told the 2010 deal, worth up to £20m, was allowed to proceed to avoid “major embarrassment” to the chancellor, George Osborne, and the tax authorities after the bank became “aggressive” and allegedly made threats.
UK Uncut asked Mr Justice Nicol, sitting in London, to declare that HMRC’s decision to let the deal go through was legally flawed and involved a breach of statutory duty.
Tax authority lawyers defended the settlement, saying it was among five big business deals declared “reasonable” by a 2012 report of the National Audit Office.
UK Uncut says it is wrong to allow rich companies to avoid paying millions in tax while the government imposes tough austerity measures on the poor, and ordinary taxpayers are pursued for every penny.
Martin Worthy, a director of UK Uncut Legal Action, said after the hearing that he was disappointed with the ruling. But he added: “This case has shown that the government’s tough talk on tax is just that – talk not substance.”
Dave Hartnett, then permanent secretary for tax, initially shook hands on the Goldman Sachs deal on 19 November 2010 following a long-running dispute over National Insurance contribution payments dating back to the 1990s.
Lawyers for UK Uncut put before the high court in London an email and a witness statement showing that Hartnett overruled legal advice, the HMRC’s own guidelines and its internal review board to ensure the deal went ahead.
Just over a week after the handshake, the Revenue’s high-risk corporate management board attempted to block the deal, just as the chancellor announced that the top 15 banks in the country had signed up to a new code of conduct related to tax.
An email from Hartnett on 7 December 2010 described how Goldman Sachs allegedly “went off the deep end” after the board decision and threatened to withdraw from the government’s code of practice, first published in December 2009.
The email warned: “The risks here are major embarrassment to the ChX [Chancellor of the Exchequer], HMRC, the LBS [the large business service of the HMRC], you and me, not least if GS withdraw from the code.”
The witness statement from Hartnett, who retired as head of tax last summer following strong criticism of the Goldman Sachs deal from the public accounts committee, said the bank withdrawing from the code “would have embarrassed the chancellor”.
Ingrid Simler QC, appearing for UK Uncut, argued that the deal breached HMRC’s statutory duties, and said an “aggressive” bank had been rewarded for several years of failing to pay tax it owed, causing “real disquiet among the taxpaying public”.
She said the exact amount lost to the Revenue was not known but was at least £5m to £10m, and the Commons public accounts committee had received evidence that it could be up to £20m.
James Eadie QC, appearing for HMRC, accused UK Uncut of taking legal action “to pursue politics by other means”.
HMRC said in a press statement: “Large business tax settlements are a vital part of how HMRC secures tax revenues for the country and without them Britain’s public finances would be seriously damaged.”
Anna Walker, campaigns director of UK Uncut Legal Action, said: “Obviously, while we are deeply disappointed that this deal has not been declared unlawful, the judge’s ruling that top HMRC officials played politics with major tax deals to protect Osborne’s reputation is a major victory in exposing the truth behind these secret deals.
“Despite not having won the case today, we still feel that this judgment has demonstrated that the government is making a political choice to cut legal aid, public services and the welfare system, rather than take action to make corporate giants … pay their fair share of tax.
“This case has exposed the lengths the government will go to to look tough on tax avoidance and has been vital in holding the government to account for its shameful actions.”
Chancellor George Osborne tells business leaders at the CBI that he will not deviate from the government’s economic road to reducing the deficit.
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Former Chancellor Alistair Darling urges Labour not to commit to future spending plans until it knows the government’s own position.
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Osborne was seen to be shedding a tear at Thatcher’s funeral, which prompted unkind remarks from some of his own party
In the space of a few minutes, the world was given a rare glimpse of a more complex side to George Osborne when the chancellor shed a tear during Lady Thatcher’s funeral.
Tory MPs, who regard Osborne as aloof and little too grand for their tastes, privately joked that the chancellor was showing his pain after it was announced yesterday that unemployment increased by 70,000 in the three months to the end of February.
But the chancellor suggested he cried for the simple reason that he found the service at St Paul’s Cathedral immensely touching. “A moving, almost overwhelming day,” the chancellor tweeted shortly after leaving the cathedral.
Osborne appeared emotional at Thatcher’s funeral after the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, had said “our hearts go out” to Thatcher’s children, Mark and Carol, and the rest of their family.
He then blinked repeatedly, apparently fighting tears, as Chartres related a story about how a young boy wrote to Thatcher asking if she had ever done wrong. Osborne managed a brief smile before shedding a tear, prompting a mini-Twitter storm.
His tears contrasted with David Cameron, who smiled for a longer period during the bishop’s story and showed no other emotions at that stage. The prime minister has a better public image than the chancellor but lacks his humour and warmth in private.
The chancellor, whose father-in-law, Lord Howell of Guildford, was in Thatcher’s first cabinet, admitted last week in a Times article that he had little personal connection with the late prime minister. But he did recall taking his young son to meet Thatcher for tea. Howell, a Foreign Office minister for two years of Cameron’s government, also attended the funeral.
But Conservatives lined up to mock the chancellor. One said: “Perhaps George had just read what Oscar Wilde said of Little Nell.” Wilde reputedly said of Nell’s death in Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.”
Osborne has been under huge immense political pressure after admitting that he will fail to meet his two main fiscal targets – eliminating the fiscal deficit by the next election and ensuring that debt is falling as a share of GDP by 2016.
As the Tories’ main political strategist, Osborne knows he risks becoming a major liability for the party before the general election in 2015. He gave another display of unease this month in front of a group of workers at the main Morrisons distribution centre for the south of England in Sittingbourne, Kent.
But some argue that the tears may soften Osborne’s image. Andrew Lilico, former chief economist of the centre-right Policy Exchange thinktank, tweeted: “Shame on all of you that are mocking Osborne for crying at a funeral. Do you never cry yourselves?”
Forecasters Item Club say chancellor’s Help to Buy scheme will get people moving but broader economic outlook still gloomy
The housing market will finally return to life this year with more than a million people expected to move home – the highest number since the financial crisis struck.
The Ernst & Young Item Club, which uses the Treasury’s economic models, predicted that housing transactions this year will rise by 7.5% to 1m. In its spring forecast the respected economic forecaster said the chancellor’s plan to use £12bn of taxpayer funds to underwrite up to £130bn of mortgages will push home moves up a further 7.8% next year to 1.08m.
House moves are also expected to be encouraged by falling mortgage costs due to the Bank of England’s Funding for Lending scheme.
Property prices are not expected to rise this year, but are predicted to increase 2.1% in 2014 and 5% in 2015.
Peter Spencer, chief economic adviser to the Item Club, said: “With export markets continuing to disappoint, the chancellor has focused his firepower on the home front. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Real incomes are already starting to recover, mortgages are becoming more readily available, and homes are more affordable as the house price to earnings ratio continues to fall.
“Although it’s not a long-term strategy, stimulating the housing market and the high street will keep GDP growth positive. Unbalanced growth is better than no growth.”
Spencer said the chancellor’s Help to Buy scheme had the potential to get people moving again, and dismissed claims that it would just put up prices rather than increase supply and make it even more difficult for first-time buyers to get on the ladder.
“We expect [the scheme] to boost the number of housing transactions, particularly at the lower end of the market where the deposit and low equity have been a major constraint,” he said.
However, the Item Club had a gloomier view of the prospects for the economy as a whole, predicting that the UK will have to wait until 2015 before exports start contributing to growth.
It expects GDP to expand by just 0.6% this year and said that with the rebalancing of the economy on hold, the UK will again have to rely on the consumer.
“We should start to feel slightly better off this year, which will help to loosen the purse strings. Consumer spending added 0.7 percentage points to GDP in 2012 and the chancellor’s budget will help ensure the tills continue to ring for some time yet,” Spencer said.
Consumer spending is set to increase by 1.2% this year and 1.9% in 2014, but the 2.2% growth predicted in the following two years is still well down on the 3.7% a year it averaged in the decade prior to the financial crisis.
Spencer added: “Consumers have been burnt by the experience of the recession and are much more cautious with their finances. Households are likely to continue paying down debt rather than racking up huge credit card bills.”
The bitter March weather dragged high-street footfall down 5.2% last month, according to the British Retail Consortium. It was the weakest month since April 2012.
Helen Dickinson, the consortium’s director general, said: “The prolonged cold was the main culprit for deterring shoppers, especially compared against the far milder March of 2012. Although footfall did pick up around the Easter weekend, it couldn’t fully compensate for a weak showing across the month as a whole.”
The two leaders also discussed EU trade during talks in Berlin
The coalition’s plans to crack down on Britain’s tax havens were discussed at a meeting between David Cameron and chancellor Angela Merkel, amid growing concerns in Germany. Merkel is understood to have