A UK Uncut demonstration in Brighton in December, 2010. Photo by Dominic under a CC License.
On 9 November, thousands of students marched to defend free education. But the one per cent won't have noticed. They were gathered safely underground in a City of London conference centre for a far more discreet meeting.
The Tax Journal Conference describes itself as ‘The definitive event for the corporate tax community’. Top financiers from the likes of Barclays, HSBC and BP get the chance to ‘receive practical guidance on key tax technical areas’ directly from the chief accountants of the largest companies, as well as getting direct access to ‘the UK's most senior tax policy makers from HM Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs.’
Tickets were £749 ($1,200), plus VAT. But, dear boy, I'm sure you know how to claim the tax back.
Tax avoidance is one of the defining topics of our time. While schools, hospitals and libraries close under the pretence of national debt, Goldman Sachs were pardoned for £10 million ($16 million) interest on an unpaid tax bill. Even more astonishingly, Vodafone are alleged to have dodged £6 billion ($9.7 billion) in tax. Yes that's billion, not million. Vodafone alone could have almost paid for the entire cuts to welfare this year.
At the centre of the scandal is Dave Hartnett, the Permanent Secretary for Tax at HM Revenue and Customs, who is alleged to have personally sealed the agreement with a Goldman executive last November, as well as personally agreeing a generous deal for Vodafone.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that Mr Hartnett has also been named as ‘Whitehall's most wined and dined civil servant’. The Telegraph says that he received corporate hospitality from companies including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. But I'm sure this has had no effect on his sense of judgement.
It won't surprise you to learn that Dave Hartnett was a keynote speaker at the Tax Journal Conference. My friends and I found this interesting, because we are activists with UK Uncut, a direct action group with a keen focus on tax avoiders. We teamed up with students from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and decided to pay him a visit, in our finest business attire, as representatives of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs.
The plan was audacious: armed with wine, flowers, confetti and presents, we would march into the 250-seater conference room, jump onto the stage during his speech, and say a public thank you to Dave Hartnett for letting us off our tax.
I didn't expect to even get into the building, but for some ludicrous reason we were able to march past the reception, down the stairs, and right into the conference without being questioned. He had just begun his speech, and looked genuinely delighted to see a bunch of young, suited, wide-eyed fans carrying flowers and gifts. I have never seen a man's face turn from joy to despair so quickly as when our Vodafone banner dropped.
We were there for about a minute. I announced to the audience that we had come to say thank you for letting us off our tax. My friend Amy read out the numbers, and told him not to worry if he is forced to quit, he'll always have a job for life with us. We let off party poppers to a rousing chorus of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow, and security gently but firmly moved us out.
Video by UK Uncut
Yesterday was a rare opportunity to grab the attention of the most important HMRC and corporate tax officers in the country. Our message was clear: get your tax in line, because if you don't, we will come for you. Some very powerful accountants are now acutely aware of how damaging tax avoidance can be to their brand.
A year ago, HMRC claimed that our numbers on Vodafone were ‘absurd’, that the figure was an ‘urban myth’. One year later, and Dave Hartnett is on the ropes. The Commons Public Accounts Committee demolished him. MPs had so little trust in his lawyer that they actually made him pledge an oath to tell the truth.
This is an inspiring reminder that direct action genuinely works. Tax avoidance is at the front of everyone's minds when they argue against austerity. Our leaders are wrong when they say there is no alternative to austerity cuts. Simply make the rich pay their share. It's one of the least controversial demands imaginable, and we are getting closer to it every single day.
We UK Uncutters have no leaders. Get some friends together, stage a protest, and join us.