Hartnett's retirement: here's to a duller taxman

by Jaimie Kaffash

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12 Dec 2011

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Times up Hartnett UK Uncut protest

THE ANNOUNCEMENT that Dave Hartnett is to step down as permanent secretary for tax seems obvious in hindsight. The weight of the further damaging revelations about the Goldman Sachs deal has become too much and his retirement is best for all parties.

Of course, this is being spun in a different way by HMRC. Incoming HMRC chief executive Lin Homer said she was pleased that he agreed to stay on for another year. True, he will be 61 next summer, and past the retirement age for civil servants. But Hartnett still has hunger for the job. In Public Accounts Committee meetings, he has been vocal in announcing his achievements in bringing revenue in through targeted campaigns and he recently told the MPs that he was not going to quit any time soon. 

Hartnett's retirement date was unlikely to be of his choosing. Rightly or wrongly, his reputation was becoming awkward for ministers. The chancellor's Autumn Statement was derided by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for adversely affecting the poorest in society more than any other group. With the very real allegation that the policy-making arm of the Treasury favours the rich, the continuing headlines of an investment bank being let off interest payments by HMRC are a headache that ministers do not need.

It also seems that UK Uncut's protests against the Goldman Sachs and Vodafone deals have hit a nerve with the public. A general protest against capitalism - even confined to excessive capitalism - is vague and is unlikely to garner support, but the group is most successful when targeting specific injustices. Its threat of a judicial review to explore the legality of the Vodafone deal was a smart ploy and put extra pressure on Hartnett that was more real than invading a conference.

The problem with Hartnett leaving is that it does create a vacuum at the top. Transport insiders say that Lin Homer, HMRC's new CEO, was quiet when in charge of the DfT and she has no experience of tax. Stephen Banyard, the only HMRC commissioner with tax experience outside of Hartnett, is not a major personality. The sheer force of Hartnett's personality has made him synonymous with the department.

Would this lack of force at the top be a bad thing? Arguably not. Hartnett has been acting like a minister in a non-ministerial department. But it is not necessary to have this kind of figure at the top. The taxman should be a sober, dull figure. Maximising revenue is essential, but this does not require a figurehead.

This is not to denigrate Hartnett's achievements. The move to compliance, and the revenues received through his various initiatives - not to mention the Swiss deal - should be congratulated. But an HMRC without the colour he provides might be a good thing in these austere times.

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