PricewaterhouseCoopers has become embroiled in a Commons row over the Finance Bill after Tory MPs serving on the Bill committee took the unprecedented step of naming the tax adviser they had hired to pick holes in the government’s budget.
Informal advice to Tory MPs from the professional bodies and major accountancy firms has always featured in these annual debates – but this is the first time the hiring of a particular firm has been formally declared by the front bench.
In a debate last week, accountant MP and Shadow Chief Secretary David Heathcoat-Amory said the Tories had ‘retained the services of a tax expert supplied by a firm of City accountants, PwC.
‘That has been registered in the Register of Members’ Interests, but I also wish to inform the committee of the fact orally, to avoid any misunderstanding.’
The declaration prevents Labour criticism of underhand approaches from accountants by making it transparent. But it also affords the Tories the status of speaking as briefed by experts, instead of looking like amateurs against ministers briefed by the Treasury.
The move, however, was attacked by Labour MPs on the committee. Geraint Davies warned: ‘Is there not a danger that advice given by PwC might be given in the interests of their clients, and might therefore bias the contributions you make?’
Heathcoat-Amory played down concerns. ‘All committee members rely on the advice of outside professional and trade bodies,’ he said. ‘Their activities are sometimes described as lobbying, but that description diminishes their contribution.’
In an attempt to dampen the controversy, committee chairman John Butterfill issued a warning about the nature of advice. ‘I also warn committee members that they must not breach the rules on advocacy,’ he said.
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