New Internationalist

Why I gatecrashed David Hartnett’s dinner party

Last week, some friends and I burst in on a speech from the retired HMRC boss Dave Hartnett at a tax dodgers conference. The video of our action has since gone viral. Here’s why I did it:

I stood as a Green candidate in local elections last year. If I had bought dinner and drinks for a potential voter, I would have been breaking the law and I would have been disqualified. If you buy someone who has power over you nice things in the hope they will do you a favour, then this is bribery. It’s pretty simple. When people do it in developing countries, the British establishment rolls its eyes.

Dave Hartnett was, until the end of July, Britain’s senior tax collector. He was also the civil servant who was most wined and dined. You can choose to believe one of two things: either the senior tax man has the most scintillating, entertaining dinner table chat of everyone at Whitehall; or there’s something more sinister going on.

Next, take look at the deals that Mr Hartnett has signed off on over the years: the £10 million ($16.2 million) he let Goldman Sachs off may seem a lot, but it is piffling next to the £6 billion ($9.7 billion) that Vodafone is said to have been allowed to scratch from their accounts. In total, the amount of tax owed by the extremely rich whom Mr Hartnett has let slip through the net over his years in post, must run to many billions of pounds.

I think it is fair to assume that his numerous invitations to these dinners are not the product of Mr Hartnett’s mastery of small talk. Or think about it from Mr Hartnett’s point of view. When we burst into the dining room, the people there were drinking port. I imagine it was pretty nice port. And if he is the most wined and dined civil servant, then I imagine this isn’t the first time he has accepted what is in effect a valuable gift from someone he is supposed to regulate. I imagine he has become quite used to the life of the mega-rich.

There are various words for this process. One term sometimes used is ‘regulatory capture’: the regulator ends up too close to those they are regulating. But I like simple words. So I’ll go for ‘corruption’.

The impact cannot be underestimated. There are the lives ruined by government cuts, the gross inequality. We all know the stories – or if you don’t, then you need to start looking around you. It is important to remember that there are many, many reasons that made austerity just one course of action, a choice. None of these cuts are necessary. And the easiest way to understand this is that the tax dodged through Dave Hartnett’s dodgy deals would have easily covered the cost of these cuts.

But there is something else that it is important to understand too. The fact that this was just one choice means that these choices are made by real people. And those people aren’t on a different planet, or even in a different country. But they get away with thinking that they are. They surround themselves with smokescreens to block out the poverty, and they congratulate themselves on their mutual genius. They flit from conference centre to hotel to air-conditioned office, and they insulate themselves from the society they are wrecking.

But they share an island with us. They are not too far away. And once in a while, we get a chance to puncture their bubble: ideally, with mockery. Of course, social change is a complex process. It’s not enough to point and laugh at the élite. But it is necessary.

That’s why I showed up in a bow tie last week in Oxford: to make fun of a man destroying lives with his corruption – not because what he is doing isn’t serious, but because it is, because laughing is the best way there is to undermine. What we couldn’t predict was the reaction. Robert Venables QC, host of the tax dodging conference we were disturbing, threatened to ‘set the dogs on us’, and called us ‘trespassing scum’. It was camera gold: his boiling rage showed how unused he is to being challenged, how unaccountable his life-destroying industry is.

But while we may laugh, we must remember the serious point here. My friend recently had her Tourette medicine cut. She now has regular involuntary sudden movements – ticks. She finds social interaction much more difficult: one of the richest countries on earth says it can no longer afford the drugs she needs. The people responsible for this are drinking fine port at a dinner near you, concocting their next assault on your friends. 

Adam Ramsay blogs at brightgreenscotland.org.

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  1. #1 Richard Dingle 25 Sep 12

    Utterly brilliant stunt and superbly executed.
    Well done.
    Unfortunately the clique of people in this country (and abroad) who believe resources are for the benefit of themselves and themselves alone until they are sated will not be put off by ridicule and humor.
    The only way forward is for civil disobedience on a scale not yet seen; how civil it stays will depend on the re-action of 'our rulers'.

  2. #2 Paul Cochrane 25 Sep 12

    Superb gate crash mate. Did they release the hounds or did they have to wait until the men went for a cigar?

  3. #3 Stuart Jones 25 Sep 12

    Despite being a chartered accountant I added the video to my blog because I despise what Hartnett did when he was at HMRC. He left a few months ago but the damage has been done.

    http://www.3caonline.com/black-tie-activists-crash-hmrc-boss-retirement-do/

  4. #4 Jack Cooper 25 Sep 12

    The author has unfortunately grossly misunderstood the nature of the activities that evening. As someone who has attended such conferences in his own industry, I can say that they are usually very spartan affairs where the intricacies of the law are considered in a fairly academic manner. Clearly, law practitioners have an obligation to their clients to be able to offer them the best possible advise and these events are supposed to facilitate that.

    What these conferences are not is an occasion for 'rich people to back-slap themselves'. It is not clear on what basis the narrator reaches this conclusion - though I gather the author assumes that the port being drunk was very good! Trust me, if the rich wanted to indulge themselves, then, believe you me, this would not be the time - or place - or manner - for doing so!

  5. #6 Richard A 26 Sep 12

    Well said......Well done.

  6. #7 Richard A 26 Sep 12

    ’ The author has unfortunately grossly misunderstood the nature of the activities that evening. As someone who has attended such conferences in his own industry, I can say that they are usually very spartan affairs where the intricacies of the law are considered in a fairly academic manner. Clearly, law practitioners have an obligation to their clients to be able to offer them the best possible advise and these events are supposed to facilitate that ’

    The evening was part of a seminar that involved discussions about how to mitigate tax. The ex Head of HMRC should not be involved in this. It looks bad to say the very least. Gamekeeper turned Poacher.

  7. #8 Adam Ramsay 26 Sep 12

    @Jack Cooper - a) this was a black tie dinner, and the participants were clearly pretty drunk. One of our friends was sitting outside the whole time - it was certainly not a spartan affair.

    b) I saw the agenda for the conference. This was not just an academic discussion of tax law. It was training in how to dodge tax.

  8. #9 Robin Tudge 28 Sep 12

    Well done all of you, totally stuck it to him, and it took balls.
    SHAME!

  9. #10 Malcolm Gunn 03 Oct 12

    I was at this dinner sitting opposite Dave Hartnett. I won't comment on your filming at a private function without authorisation. But what you do need to know is that Andrew Park QC, who I know well and who was before he retired a highly respected judge, and before that one of the greatest tax experts ever at the London Bar, has independently reviewed the deals you are so critical about and concluded that they were entirely acceptable on all sides and not favourable to the companies. You of course no nothing about the deals and I guess you don't want to know really because it would spoil your campaign, but I do think you are working under a serious misapprehension.

  10. #11 James Cope 03 Oct 12

    Mr. Gunn,
    As you were there we would hardly expect from you an unbiased view of the matter, if you no (sic) what I mean. Things are no doubt different for your clients but those of us who don't dine with Dave Hartnett don't have the luxury of doing deals with the Revenue - we just pay our taxes.
    Many of us know enough from the Private Eye reports of Dave's dodgy dealings with his pals to feel it would be right for further investigations to take place. The fact that your mate Andrew says it was OK doesn't fill me with confidence. I think we know what ’one of the greatest tax experts ever’ means.

  11. #12 James Cope 03 Oct 12

    Mr. Gunn,
    As you were there we would hardly expect from you an unbiased view of the matter, if you no (sic) what I mean. Things are no doubt different for your clients but those of us who don't dine with Dave Hartnett don't have the luxury of doing deals with the Revenue - we just pay our taxes.
    Many of us know enough from the Private Eye reports of Dave's dodgy dealings with his pals to feel it would be right for further investigations to take place. The fact that your mate Andrew says it was OK doesn't fill me with confidence. I think we know what ’one of the greatest tax experts ever’ means.

  12. #13 Jane Brander 04 Oct 12

    I was so thrilled to see this - there is hope for us yet. I completely agree that these smug and amoral people need to be confronted and I applaud your courage and your actions. I wish and hope that you get lots of young supporters and much more publicity for your point of view, which is, after all, that of us all. Thank-you so much.
    I have just read the other comments - I prefer ridicule to any more violent protest. Was also struck by the hilarious self-justifying note of the whinging 'fat cats'. Who do they think they are fooling? Not me, and not most other people either.

  13. #14 Margaret Bradshaw 06 Oct 12

    When are we going to get a Government that stops this outrage of the rich robbing the poor?

  14. #15 ewan hayes 06 Oct 12

    Excellently done. The unfortunate Dave Hartnett looked totally lost - poor man!! You were of couse totally out of order doing this
    and you comitted the ultimate sin of gatecrashing a private dinner in an Oxford College !!!

    No doubt he will soon be getting offers from various banks and FTSE companies to sit on their boards even after this. You can't expect him to exist on his Civil service pension can we?

    While none of us know what the negotiations with Vodafone or Goldman Sachs were in their respective tax cases, one has to point out that if you or I defrauded the Social Security or Housing Benefits system or HMRC for Income Tax or VAT . We would be treated as uif guilty from day one ,prosecuted and be likely to be fined and to go to jail with confiscation of assets. Also we would just be in the system with no account of ’circumstances’ taken into account.

    On the other hand a large company uses its money to buy legal advice(as is prefectly legal and it is entitled to do)and advisors such as the gentleman in the video(who is a noted tax avoidance barrister with much success to his name in the field) to its own advantage and to find ways not to have to pay any more tax than they want to in the UK or elsewhere. After many years of haggling for example Vodafone have started to pay its debts to HMRC with five years to pay and at a reduced amount without interest because Dabve Hartnett did a deal. We should be so lucky that they saved us the cost of endless hearings - I think that is why the deals get the nod.

    The HMRC people apparently never thought they could lose the case but Vodafone still runs its VAT saving schemes in Luxembourg and Switzerland. The argument being if these cases run they will go on and on as in Dickens ’Bleak House’.

    In my humble view the only thing to do is to statrt a campaign to reduce their profits. Get a boycoott where people promise not to use them until they abandon using Swss and Luxembourg structures to save VAT or other UK taxes.

    Start this yourself by stop using Vodafone as your mobile supplier - chose not to use a tax avoider like them or Barclays Tesco News International and Amazon.

  15. #16 Stuart Jones 09 Oct 12

    Robert Venables, according to Private Eye, is a ’nice guy’. So much so that I've made him Tax Rat of the Month http://www.3caonline.com/tax-rat-of-the-month-robert-venables-qc/

  16. #17 veryan weston 13 Nov 12

    That was a very good action.....I hope Mr Hartnett has a few sleepless nights as a result of your polite and gentle nudge just thinking about what he has done and why he has done it.

    I hope you do more and and keep me informed

    best wishes

    Veryan

  17. #18 Outraged of Middle England 14 Jul 13

    The best part about the video is that David Hartnett appears to maintain a mildly contrite expression throughout. A a glimmer of conscience, or just plain embarrassment?

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