Profile: Stephen Williams, Lib Dem MP and tax expert

Stephen Williams, the Lib Dem MP for Bristol West, says that he has never
worked so hard as he does now. Discussing his workload for the weekend ahead (we
met up on a Thursday in Portcullis House, Williams complete with suitcase for
the trip home that evening) reels off the engagements.

Apart from a Make Poverty History event, he says: ‘I’m going to the launch of
the council’s anti-bullying strategy, then I’m presenting awards at a local
school, then I’ve got my afternoon surgery. On Saturday it’s fairly empty – but
normally there are several events as well.’

Sometimes he works on a Sunday. This, he says, is a ‘personally exhausting
and draining job. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.’

Fearing that he may sound a little too self-pitying, he adds: ‘Some of my
former colleagues may not have thought I worked that hard anyway.’

Previously a Coopers & Lybrand trainee and employee of Grant Thornton,
Williams is, according to the Chartered Institute of Taxation, ‘the only
chartered tax adviser in parliament.’

If that sounds a bit forlorn, look at him as the tax equivalent of Dafydd
from Little Britain. Williams seems to have no problem with it. ‘It’s the job
I’ve always wanted. Despite the many hassles, I know I’m one of the lucky people
who have had the job they’ve wanted since they were teenagers . Not many people
can say that,’ he declares.

Williams became the Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West in May of this year.
In a tight three-way marginal, he secured a massive swing of almost 10% to take
the seat. Every major party has held the seat in the last three elections, and
every party has placed in all three top positions, which makes it something of
an election anomaly.

The move followed a 17-year career in tax advice: ‘I joined Coopers &
Lybrand in 1988 in the Bristol Office as the first tax trainee they had taken

He started off doing audit work as training. ‘I had to do my fair share of
rooting around freezing cold warehouses looking for receipts, and using
colour-coded pens for different parts of the books.’

Williams left Coopers at the end of 1994, and spent a short time working in
industry for Kraft Jacobs Suchard, maker of Dairylea and Maxwell House amongst
other consumer goods.

He went on to Grant Thornton, where he worked first in Cheltenham and
subsequently with the Bristol office.

Williams departed in 2001 to fight the election, a decision that left him
financially ruined. Not only was the election delayed, leaving him without an
income, events in the accounting world took a well-known turn for the worse. ‘In
that summer Enron collapsed. It was not the best time to get back into work.
People were having recruitment freezes, so I signed up with an agency. I did
contract work for Orange, Hanson, RAC, and that’s where I was until January of
this year.’

His tax background has come in handy in Parliament, particularly as he was
assigned to the standing committee after the election analysing the second
finance bill.

‘I’m probably the only person here who can claim to understand bits of the
Finance Act. A lot of them are concerned with anti-avoidance and international
tax schemes. But if I don’t know everything, I at least know what the principles
are you are starting from.’

The standing committee analysed the bill in ‘ball-breaking detail,’ as he
puts it. ‘A lot of outside bodies supply amendments. MPs are often acting as
proxies for outsiders.’Some on the Conservative side, he says, ‘didn’t entirely
understand what they were reading out’.

‘Ministers have got a phalanx of civil servants constantly passing notes. We
were just living on our wits.’

The experience has convinced him, in line with the views of many others, that
the finance bills do not really get the scrutiny they deserve.

‘MPs do get lobbied by outside organisations – but it’s only MPs who can put
forward points in the committee. Ministers get back up advice whilst the me
eting is taking place. Because we can’t, the effective scrutineers are at a
disadvantage. Even if all of us were CTAs, we couldn’t be expected to understand
every single part of it.’

That is not helped by the intransigence of certain ministers, he adds,
dubbing Dawn Primarolo ‘Madame Non’.

‘Alternatives were always refused.’ There is, he says, ‘a kind of arrogance
that the bill you are putting forward is perfect.

‘Alternatives were being resisted as if they were political point scoring. On
the finance bill it’s just getting the law right and not introducing law that
has unforeseen consequences,’ he argues.

One thing he intends to push in particular was an amendment supporting a tax
law commission.

‘We proposed there should be a standing body, like the Law Commission,’ which
proposes changes to the law.

‘We have got too much tax law and some of it is not very good. But the
government again resisted that and said we’ve got the rewrite project. That’s
not rewriting law though, it’s clarifying existing law.’

He does not necessarily want to spend his time talking about tax, however. ‘I
worked in tax for 17 years. If I had gone straight into the Treasury team I
would have been stuck probably for the rest of this parliament. My political
career wouldn’t have developed. I wouldn’t have taken on new areas. That doesn’t
mean to say I wouldn’t go back,’ he says.

He has other more formal roles. He is on both the education select committee
and the Public Accounts Committee, and is a Lib Dem health spokesman,
responsible in his words for ‘booze, fags, sex and drugs’.

So what are MPs interested in in relation to the accountancy world? He sits
less interested in the financial issues many MPs express an interest in, namely
pensions, PFI and tax credits. PFI, he says, is only really an accounting issue
insofar as it means getting ‘debt off the balance sheet and onto somebody
else’s. Do MPs need to understand anything more than that? It’s still in the
accounts but a very small part of capital expenditure.’

One thing that surprised him at the Treasury was the need to get qualified
accountants into finance director roles at government departments. Trying to
find out how many are already qualified is on his ‘to do’ list, he says,
expressing surprise that they are not qualified already.

He argues it would be better if there were more business people in parliament
too. ‘It would be better if there were more tax specialists at Westminster. I
think it’s important that parliament be representative of society and it isn’t.
There are too many men from particular backgrounds.’

Some of the blame lies with business itself, however. ‘Employers themselves
have a responsibility. Business can’t complain there aren’t enough people if
they then don’t support employees who are trying to get in.’

Is that a criticism of his former employers, Grant Thornton, the job he left
before the 2001 election?

‘Certainly in the past I’ve run into difficulty about attending council
meetings and had to give up paid work to fight elections. There isn’t much
support from business to help people get into political life,’ he says. They
might support charitable work if they can get press coverage but there doesn’t
seem to be the same ethos for getting into public life.’


Politics is decidely an uncertain business to be in. One minute everything is
going swimmingly, the next it is in crisis.

When we spoke, it was the Tories in the midst of a leadership election, not
the LibDems, and the Tories were still looking somewhat ropey.

‘If you look at my seat. After 112 years,the Conservatives lost it to Labour.
The Tories have shrunk back to a redoubt of rural seats and smart country towns.
It doesn’t have a viable base in urban Britain. That’s where elections are won
and lost and we are now the challengers to those seats.’

It is, he adds, ‘almost too late for them to have an exciting leader.’  Was
he speaking too soon?

Asked about his own ambitions and whether he would like to be Prime Minister
one day, his views were somewhat more prescient perhaps: ‘I think Charles
Kennedy’s job is quite an awful job to have in some ways,’ he says.

After his Christmas troubles, one might describe that as something of an
understatement. ‘The leader of the second opposition is the worst job. I feel
for Charles Kennedy on that level. He did lead us to the highest election
achievement in years, however.’

Williams was reportedly one of those who threatened to stand down if Kennedy
not (certainly his position on the alcohol and health brief might have been
particularly sensitive if he hadn’t).

Does he have ambitions himself?

‘At the moment my ambition is to rise within the LibDem ranks. I have to be
ambitious with my party. We can do much better at the next election. If in 2009
the electorate are looking for change we have to hope they look to us rather
than a possible David Cameron-led Tory party. We’ll have to see what the
situation is.’

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