Overview: Dave Hartnett – a man for all seasons

Whatever else you could say about Dave Hartnett, former policy chief of HM
Revenue & Customs, he doesn’t lack a sense of humour. As one of Whitehall’s
more colourful characters, he will need all the cheer that he can muster to find
his way through the department’s biggest crisis in years.

What’s happened?

Not since the Mapeley affair, when HMRC sold properties to a company based
offshore, has the department suffered such ignominious press coverage. Perhaps
not even then.

Every serious national newspaper in the country led last week with the news
the department had lost computer discs containing all the bank details of every
child benefit claimant in the country, relating to 25 million people.

The data loss is one of the largest ever, by any organisation across the
It caused Paul Gray, the chairman of HMRC, to quit after only eight months in
the job, and Hartnett has stepped in to take his place on an acting basis.

What’s going to happen?

Hartnett has long been well known in the tax profession as someone whose
mastery of detail has made him the most important person to know on tax issues.
A former tax inspector, the question will now be: is he chairman material?

The problem he faces is that his department is desperately demoralised. Staff
do not know how long they will be in their jobs, budgets are being slashed by 5%
in real terms year on year, and they are subjected to patronising edicts about
where they should leave their packed lunch. A lecture on how capital gains tax
works isn’t going to cut it. He must, in the first instance, accept some dull
but worthy advice about IT security, a subject that is uninteresting until
things go terribly wrong.

Hartnett will have to manage the investigation of how the discs went missing
without demonising staff further, but also without appearing to go soft in

He may also, if he gets the permanent post (and there can be few better
candidates), need to restructure the department. The whispering about Sir David
Varney’s McKinsey structure and confused accountabilities must be laid to rest.

Above all, Hartnett has to step up a level. The world of tax is, despite its
impact, small and clubby. The new acting chairman of HMRC now has parliament to
satisfy, and 25 million members of the British public who want to know what on
earth has gone wrong.

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